Push ahead with winning attitude

June 29, 2007

Climbing the career ladder in a skirt is still a tricky business. To do so successfully, you need to be strategic, sell yourself, use the legislation, and get creative about flexible working. Harriet Swain reports

Clunk. There it is again. That invisible ceiling you hit every time you hitch up your skirts to climb those top rungs of the career ladder. How are you going to break through?

If women want to make it through the glass ceiling in higher education institutions, they have to be strategic, says Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit. "Women have to get better at thinking about where they want to go and how to get there," she says.

She advises thinking about the consequences of the decisions you make and learning to sell yourself, rather than simply relying on luck or other people recognising your value.

This means getting involved in committees, working groups and work with other organisations, making sure you undertake roles that are to do with strategy, rather than the kind of pastoral care roles women traditionally fulfil.

On the other hand, there is a delicate balance to be struck between getting where you want to be and complying with the way these vital pastoral roles are relegated to a lower status. "It's important that in encouraging women to behave in a way that should help their careers they don't reinforce existing structures," she says.

One way of being strategic, while often challenging traditional working practices, is to plan ahead for career breaks. And while you are away, Dandridge says you should make sure you stay in touch with your employer and keep a look out for opportunities that come up.

You have to remember that the main way to get to the top in academia is to publish, says Jean Harrison, former convenor of the Association of University Teachers Women's Committee and assistant human resources director at Westminster University. While you should monitor strategy documents from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and initiatives from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Academy, keeping your eye on what is happening in your subject area is key.

"When it comes down to it, you fight tooth and nail to be included in the research assessment exercise," she says. And if it turns out that you are not included, find out what the legislation says about your chances of challenging the decision, and talk to human resources and anyone else who may be able to help.

"Women often don't want to use legislation, but it can be very confidential," she says, although she adds that it must not be used flippantly because then it can have a negative effect on other women.

One solution, she suggests, is to look out for a research group that might accept a piece of work you have done for the research assessment exercise while on maternity leave. It is still the case that women in senior positions in higher education are often single and childless.

Jane Butcher, returners manager for the UK Resource Centre for Women, says you have to plan if you want to prepare for more flexible working on your return from maternity, seek new grant funding or work out different ways of organising work in your team. If you want to work flexibly or part-time, try to come up with creative solutions that will make it possible.

She recommends improving your CV and interview skills, taking advantage of career and personal development opportunities within your institution and demanding support, supervision and appraisal. You need to understand promotion procedures and challenge them if they are not transparent.

"The time is right for women to demand and expect more from their employers and be proactive in their career development," she says.

This involves putting yourself forward for promotion, even if you fail to meet 100 per cent of the job specification. Dandridge says there is good evidence that women are as likely as, if not more likely, than men to get a job if they apply for it, but that they don't apply as often. The same is true of research grants.

Often women also need to be more ambitious and make better use of opportunities to train as managers, she says. If at all possible, you need to be prepared to travel because that will boost your promotion and pay prospects.

Even if other commitments make travel impossible, you must network. Be proactive in developing and using your contacts, both within and outside the research and academic environment, says Butcher.

She also suggests getting a mentor. "Finding a role model and mentor who has relevant experience and is some steps ahead of you on the road can be hugely beneficial," she says. The UK Resource Centre for Women can help with this.

It is also worth joining the relevant professional body; many of these are getting better at helping women develop their careers.

Harrison suggests identifying other women in the kind of job you would like and finding out from them what their job entails and how they got there.

And if you want to end up as a pro vice-chancellor or dean, some kind of management experience is essential, she says. You have to be able to hold your own with other managers who question your qualifications for the job because of your academic background.

Even progressing to more junior roles in higher education as a woman will still involve engaging with the traditional culture of the institution, she says. But she argues that one of the most valuable things you can do is know what your ambitions are and be explicit about them. "At the end of the day you just have to say what you want."

Further information

Equality Challenge Unit, www.ecu.ac.uk

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, www.lfhe.ac.uk

Higher Education Academy, www.hea.ac.uk

UK Resource Centre for Women, www2.shu.ac.uk/nrc

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