by Klara Wanelik
In March this year I embarked on a leadership training course for women in higher education, called the Aurora Leadership Programme. You might be thinking, why would I go on a course like this? Well, as an early career researcher (ECR) in this sector, I am very concerned by statistics like this:
“The proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) in the EU exceeds that of male students, but women represent only 18% of grade A (professorial) academic staff”1
The aim of Aurora is to take positive action to address this under-representation of women in leadership positions in the higher education sector.
I attended four development days at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (quite appropriate really!) and met hundreds of women from the higher education sector. It has taken me a while to digest all of this but I think I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I include some of my thoughts in this blog post with the hope of inspiring other female ECRs, and more generally inspiring others, to start questioning what it means to be a good a leader. I focus on two aspects of the programme that I found particularly useful. This choice is personal, and I’m sure that other women attending the programme would choose differently. But here goes…
Exploring core values
In one of the sessions, we were given a list of universal human values and asked to circle those that were most important to us: our ‘core values’. At the end of the session, each group pooled their results together on a kind of ‘value map’, where values were grouped under terms like universalism, benevolence and power. What I found particularly striking was that our table had circled lots of values in the former two groups (like equality, honesty and loyalty) but the power section of the map (with words like social recognition, public image and authority) was completely empty. And it wasn’t just our table, a colleague of mine who attended the programme in London, told me the same happened there.
How could this be? How could these women who had come together for the sole purpose of developing their leadership skills (some of them already in senior leadership positions) not feel that they identified with any of these values? There are two possible answers: 1) they didn’t feel comfortable sharing these values, or 2) they genuinely didn’t prioritise them. Given the spirit of openness that Aurora encourages, I assume that the second answer is the most likely. This isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon – we heard that men in leadership positions who completed this activity also highlighted the non-power-related values. This, I think, calls into question what we think a leader should be. Many of us still hang on to a traditional view of a leader being a dominating individual, with full authority, who is driven to do what he/she does for the recognition, wealth and/or the power they receive in return. This is a view we really need to shift. By doing this activity, we were being encouraged to consider the individuality of leadership and the importance of authenticity; staying true to your values, while leading. As one of the facilitators suggested, the best leaders are those that create the next generation of leaders. I think this is perhaps a more useful (and interesting) view of leadership than the traditional one.
Importance of storytelling and leading with “why”
In another session we learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership. This sounded a bit odd to me at first, I’d never really put the two together but then I got talking to a woman on my table who proceeded to tell me about some charity work she was doing, somewhat connected to her work as a lawyer. The way she created a narrative about the people she was helping and what she was doing to help them captured my attention. I wanted to sign up straight away, even though I would have been of very little help (I’m a biologist not a lawyer!) It was at this moment though, when she was masterfully telling her story, that I realised how powerful storytelling could be in getting people to do what you want them to do.
The tables were turned on another occasion, after I watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek, which was recommended as part of the pre-work for an Aurora session. In his talk, Simon Sinek talks about inspiring action by leading with why we’re doing something, rather than how or what exactly we’re doing: “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it”. Soon after watching this talk I had the opportunity to re-formulate my ‘elevator pitch’ about the research that I do. There is a real diversity of women on the Aurora programme, from professional services to academics, and from all different fields. On this occasion, I happened to be sat next to (another) lawyer, and to be honest, I was pretty sceptical about being able to really (genuinely) get her on board. To my surprise, my pitch did get her genuinely excited about my research and asking multiple questions. I still remember the look on her face! I’ll be trying my best to lead with “why” from now on.
I would like to thank IIB for funding my place on the Aurora programme, all the inspirational women I met during my time on Aurora and my colleagues in IIB for supporting me along the way. Special thanks to Zen Lewis, who provided much needed encouragement and support and pushed me to re-apply for Aurora after I was initially unsuccessful in securing a place.
If you are a female ECR like me, I hope this post will encourage you to give the Aurora programme a go and to start thinking of yourself as a leader!
- Morley, L (2013) Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspiration