'We can work together to help women unleash their potential'


Date: 8th Mar 2017

‘Each of us can take action to accelerate gender parity, working together to help women around the world to unleash their potential’ writes Vice-chancellor Professor Rebecca Bunting.

Today is International Women’s Day and I support its theme of ‘be bold for change’. I think that all leaders have a responsibility to support the drive to address the ‘gender gap’, those differences between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes. The World Economic Forum predicts this gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186.

Universities are doing a great deal to promote gender equality more widely, through their teaching, research and outreach. For example, we work with young people to raise aspirations to come to university and to break down the assumptions they may have about certain subjects being more suited to male or female students.

As to the absence of women in senior leadership roles, it is important to recognise that there are stereotypes of leadership which present it as a typically male domain, such as being assertive, authoritative and heroic, and such stereotypes are very difficult to shift. In other words, implicit assumptions about masculinity are translated into the blueprint for a strong leader, and women tend to fall outside the model.

I am certain that many men in senior roles are themselves very uncomfortable with such a narrow and limiting definition, yet it prevails, much as young children think of engineers as men with oily rags and dirty overalls! So when organisations come to appoint their chief executives or other senior posts, to what extent is this implicit bias operating?

Is there unconscious [or worse, conscious] bias in the selection process? When I was first appointed to a post in a university, I was interviewed by a panel of seven men. I am certain that would not happen today.

But individuals bring their own values and world view to the selection process and this is what is so hard to unpick.

The responsibilities of leadership are wide reaching and wide ranging. For women there is often a challenge in managing the multiple responsibilities of family and career, and it is important that organisations recognise the actual and psychological barriers to career progression.

‘Juggling’ is the term often used, but of course jugglers drop things and it is not always possible for women to achieve a workable or acceptable balance and so they do not aspire to senior leadership.

But a note of caution here: women without these family responsibilities are also absent from senior roles, so this argument only goes so far.

In asking the question as to whether female leaders are different from male leaders we can drift quite easily into the stereotypes. There is a wealth of research literature on this topic and it is a complex matter.

We are all different and gender is only one of the factors that determines how we think and behave, though clearly an important one. I think both male and female leaders are capable of what might be defined as ‘strong and soft’ styles of leadership.

I think that a good leader has to be purposeful, trustworthy, strategic, determined and at the same time able to demonstrate emotional intelligence in the way they engage with their role, so, people-oriented, caring and supportive. These are not binary opposites, but essential attributes for successful leadership.

One bit of advice I would give to women working towards a leadership role in any sector or industry is to find a female mentor, someone who will guide, advise, challenge and encourage you, having been through similar experiences themselves. I think mentoring is invaluable.

I have a good strong circle of women colleagues in senior roles and enjoy the support this network gives me. I have got used to entering rooms full of men. I do sometimes enjoy the disruption we women can cause to the status quo, such as the difficulty some men have in knowing what to call us. Are we ‘women’ or ‘ladies’ or female Vice-Chancellors [as though anyone would ever say ‘male Vice-Chancellors…]?

The leadership in higher education is changing, albeit slowly. I am very pleased to be part of that process and to help women and girls achieve their ambitions in my role as Vice-Chancellor of Bucks New University.

Each of us, in all sectors, can take pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity, working together to help women around the world to unleash their potential. Today is a reminder of the challenge, as well as celebration of women’s achievements.