Women given confidence to take on the old-boy network

A Queen's University Belfast project seeks to realise female leadership potential, writes Olga Wojtas

October 30, 2008

An academic centre that offers female potential leaders the "opportunity to believe in themselves" wants to see its work applied to universities across the UK.

The Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics at Queen's University Belfast runs a "Next generation" course to help female would-be managers achieve their ambitions. Since 2004, more than 120 women have completed the one-week course, which aims to redress the gender imbalance in senior management across Northern Ireland.

Academics from Queen's and the University of Ulster make up about about a quarter of participants on the course, which also attracts community workers, councillors, solicitors and police officers. But Yvonne Galligan, the centre's director, believes the scheme is especially needed in higher education.

"One of the glaring areas where the progress of women has been much less advanced is in higher education," she said.

"Our model is a very tried-and-tested one ... We would be very happy to talk to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education to see how together we could bring this into higher education."

A key aim of the course is to boost women's confidence, which is seen as an essential attribute for leaders. "The socialisation process brings boys up to be more confident and girls to be more questioning of themselves," Dr Galligan said.

Although some men may not feel confident, there is a culture that recognises their potential for leadership. Male networking means they are likely to be informally mentored and given, directly or subconsciously, the message that they are making a valuable contribution to the university, Dr Galligan said.

"Women are not necessarily given the same message. But we have consistently found that those on our programme blossom because they're given the opportunity to believe in themselves. This translates into having the courage and confidence to take the next step in their career," she said.

"We teach women to unlock their own potential in their own way. The face of leadership is male - the purpose of our programme is to give women a little space to find their face of leadership. It's not that easy when you're sitting in your office or lab."

The course also emphasises the importance of communication skills. "Women are very comfortable with communication at a certain level, within their own group or team or network, but less confident about communicating as leaders.

"They find it quite intimidating to communicate their views and perspectives in meetings dominated by men. It's one thing lecturing with confidence, but another being in the senate, engaging with policy decisions and getting your point across effectively," she said.

If women aspire to be leaders, they must be able to communicate their vision for their unit, school or university to the people they work with, Dr Galligan said.

Participants on the Queen's course get expert training on public speaking, conflict management, stress-busting techniques and achieving a healthy work-life balance.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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