Gender equality is more than a box-ticking exercise – let’s champion it

The higher education sector is ideally placed to inspire talented women and improve the gender balance in the workplace. Kate Allum advocates for the power of self-belief

Kate Allum's avatar
13 Feb 2024
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In the early 1990s, I left my career in banking to become a shift manager at a pet food manufacturer. I was a young woman in charge of an all-male team, who were older than me. Back then, it was common to find many workplaces where women had never worked  much more so than now. But it was a rich learning experience that I enjoyed and benefited from hugely.

When I embarked on my portfolio career 30 years later, I did not expect to find myself in a similar situation. I was the first female on the board of the company I joined. It highlighted to me that for all the progress made in diversity, there is still a long way to go. It’s why the higher education sector is so important – we help fuel that diversity and help talented women break through glass ceilings.

To mark International Women’s Day, I wanted to share my reflections: why it matters, why we should not take progress for granted and the vital role we play in championing talented women in the higher education sector and beyond.

Gender balance is not a box-ticking exercise

The push for gender balance exists because extremely talented women exist, but we’re not seeing that talent represented. Take cybersecurity as an example. It’s a sector that is typically associated with men. But this can be addressed, in part, by encouraging more women to consider this as a viable career path.

There are examples in other sectors too: just 3 per cent of music producers in the UK are female. I find this staggering given the prominence and visibility of female artists. Why is that not reflected on the production side? At the University of the West of Scotland, our commercial music courses have seen an upswing in female students looking to pursue behind-the-scenes roles, thanks largely to the work undertaken by our academics to encourage change and ensure that female students feel it’s a role for them. There is a natural human tendency to recruit in your own image, but in my experience, the most effective teams are diverse in culture, gender, personality and thought. If you can lead a diverse team to believe anything is possible, they will make it happen.

This brings me back to higher education and the important role the sector plays inspiring and encouraging talented women, helping them diversify and enhance workplaces, while also addressing skills gaps and acting as positive role models for other women.

Create a culture of belonging

Throughout my career, I’ve seen examples of women trying to adapt who they are as they try to integrate into a male-dominated workplace. While I completely understand why someone might want to do this – we all want to fit in – we need to be true to ourselves and see others doing the same. When someone looks at a work environment, it’s important they feel they belong and can succeed. Do not underestimate the power of “to be it, you’ve got to feel it.”

As a sector, we are a driving force behind change in this area. We provide the workforce but also the research that demonstrates the benefits a diverse workforce brings to an organisation – and it is important that we continue to pursue this mission.

Find a way to generate self-belief

There is a distinct difference between self-belief and self-confidence. If you believe something is possible, you are much more likely to make it happen. You can feel confident in your ability, but if you don’t believe that something can be achieved, you are far less likely to achieve it.

In higher education, the attributes we instil in students can be every bit as important as the knowledge they leave with. It is important that we develop graduates who not only have the skills to succeed, but the belief that they can. If a talented female graduate aspires to be a leader in an industry currently dominated by men, we must ensure the culture we create leaves them in no doubt that they can achieve that goal.

Ensure female role models are aspirational, as well as inspirational

Female role models are a source of inspiration for students – but we must ensure that they are also a source of aspiration. We must generate a belief of “one day, that could be me”, and nurture that feeling.

Don’t underestimate the impact higher education has made

I came into the world of higher education from the world of business – I was an outsider, looking in. I admired the work being done to ensure gender diversity and now, as the chair of a university court, I feel proud of it. I think it’s important to acknowledge how far as a sector we’ve travelled on this road, as well as being open to how far we’ve got to go. There is still room for further progress – but work done by universities and colleges means there is also room for significant optimism. 

Kate Allum is chair of court for the University of the West of Scotland.

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