Career advice: how to be a female leader in higher education

To mark International Women’s Day, academics and administrators reflect on leadership challenges

March 8, 2017
female conductor
Source: Alamy
Front and centre: ‘seek to bring others with you’, female leaders are urged

Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and president-elect of Universities UK

The first thing to say is that there is a myth that needs to be busted that asserts that women don’t like or want leadership roles. 

The evidence shows that once women get a taste of leadership they see that it puts them more, not less, in control of their own working lives and those of others and that realisation can create positive outcomes for everyone.

So take every opportunity to develop your career in positions of responsibility, inside the institution and outside. In the workplace: sign up for leadership development, sit on committees, network with other aspiring leaders. Externally: participate in national programmes such as Aurora, take on a role in your professional or subject association, speak at local and national events.

Workplace support is vital, so seek out an employer with transparent practices around workload management and promotion processes, and who offers mentoring schemes designed to listen as well as advise.

Take control of your own career; prepare for performance and development reviews with a clear sense of what the opportunities for development might be and the gaps in experience you need to fill. But also look at good practice elsewhere, engage with the evidence and the agenda for change, and seek to bring others with you to improve not only your own organisation but the sector as a whole.

Sandra Heidinger, director of human resources, University of Strathclyde

As a senior leader within higher education, I’m often struck by the fact that one of my key skills is “plate-spinning” and that, no matter how fantastic a leader, a communicator, a problem solver or a strategist I am, without my ability to rapidly multitask, my success levels would be low.

I do occasionally wonder if senior men in the sector have quite such a reliance on this ability to balance everything.

I’m a wife, a mother of two, a director of human resources on my organisation’s executive team, current chair of Universities Human Resources and vice-chair of a further education college board. I’m also the daughter of two ageing parents. I cut corners where I can – my children have never won a prize in a fancy dress competition based on a creative, homemade costume and have turned up in school uniform on a “dress as you please” day.

However, they have a mum who is content, has done well in her career and who has always known how to have fun with them when those moments of free time do arrive.

I still occasionally speak to highly capable women who feel the need to make a choice between career and family, believing that trying to be all things to both leads to being great at neither. I suspect that a number of my male counterparts haven’t been as directly faced with this quandary.

I’ve gone for both, but perhaps I sit down and relax of an evening much less than most and that’s part of the price for being a woman in leadership. I think it’s been a price worth paying.

Yusra Mouzughi, deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs), Muscat University, Oman

While many measures have been introduced to support women trying to climb the slippery academic pole, international women face even more challenges.

Even in today’s global world, where universities have clearly articulated internationalisation agendas, women of different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds to the “norm” in the institution still find themselves having to work harder to fit in with the organisation. 

Not only do these women have to contend with the accepted challenges of career breaks, childcare issues, and parity and credibility with male colleagues, they must negotiate the added challenges of learning a new culture, a political ecosystem, language nuances and discipline-specific dos and don’ts.  

Those who do succeed tend to do so by understanding the value of their difference and carving a niche out of it – positioning themselves so that they offer a unique value proposition to the institution. Attempting to integrate and fit in may perhaps not be the best way to fully realise the richness that international women are able to bring.

Wendy Ayres-Bennett, professor of French philology and linguistics, University of Cambridge

I think women still need to plan their careers more carefully than men, particularly if they are planning to have children.

If your research involves fieldwork or extensive periods in libraries and archives away from home, you need ideally to store up data and material in advance, so that you can draw on these when it is difficult to have sustained periods away from home.

It is also important to be strategic in the administrative roles you choose. Women still tend to get offered the more “pastoral” roles or menial tasks rather than membership of high-profile committees where key decisions are made and where you come into contact with academic and administrative leaders.

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