Insights from women in senior HE management

Following this month's HR Management and PR Network Conference in Glasgow, many delegates expressed their delight at the caliber of the speakers, and were particularly impressed by the high ratio of women in senior roles within ACU member institutions who presented at the conference.

We asked a few of these women to comment on what it’s like to be a woman in senior higher education management. Andrea Farquhar from McMaster University (Canada) and Brooke Young from Victoria University (Australia) both contributed insights into their own careers and what they have learnt along the way.

Andrea FarquharAndrea Farquhar, Assistant Vice-President, Public & Government Relations, McMaster University, Canada

Here’s the question. How can women continue to make progress in achieving senior roles in higher education management? Ideally, it’s a question we wouldn’t need to ask. In a better world it would simply be the norm with no reason to be particularly introspective or even celebratory when a woman achieves a senior appointment. I suspect that globally we’re several generations away from that vision, which makes the question an important one to consider.

In Canada, we pride ourselves on our inclusivity and our deep and broad approach to equality within a culturally diverse nation. We will never win the prize for being the most exciting country but we rank highly when it comes to respect and opportunity. Yet even within that context, glass ceilings and sexist views still exist. The challenges are even greater in other parts of the world.

I don’t presume to have all the answers but, based on my personal experience, here are a few thoughts:

• If your dream is to move higher in your career go for it even if you have to battle against preconceptions and prejudices that exclude women. Any progress you make, no matter how small, is a victory and creates new opportunities for women who follow you.

• If you do have a leadership opportunity don’t be afraid to make changes that reflect your experience and your views. Even gradual changes make a difference.

• You believe in equal opportunity so ensure your decisions about others reinforce that philosophy.

• Be a mentor to women and men. Help both to be ambitious and successful.

• Being family friendly isn’t just a women’s issue. When properly managed for everyone in the workplace it improves productivity.

• Achieving work-life balance is largely a myth that can stop women from even trying to advance their careers. The idea that you can attain perfect harmony where the work-life scale isn’t tipping in one direction or another is unrealistic. Some days it will seem that you’ve achieved balance. Cherish those rare days. But it’s better not to consider the issue of balance day-to-day or even week-to-week. Take a longer term view. If over the course of six months you’ve managed to meet most of your work goals, had a significant number of meals with your family, helped with homework and as much as you can you have tucked children into bed, cared for aging parents, volunteered a few hours, read at least one book for pleasure and through it all are still able to laugh at yourself and life, then count yourself a success.

Institutions of higher education can take the lead in changing society’s norms. They can also be mired in traditions making it unattractive or in some cases impossible for women to advance. But history teaches us that individual actions by both men and women along with the unity provided by a common goal are powerful forces of change, even if those changes only occur in incremental steps.

Brooke YoungBrooke Young, Vice-President, Marketing & Advancement, Victoria University, Australia

Five suggestions for your career journey

During my career, I have worked with exceptional individuals who encouraged me and believed in my abilities. This helped me to gain confidence in my purpose and what I could contribute. I learned early on that to have a successful career you need to actively build your human and social capital. Not only will this create leadership opportunities, it also is the best insurance to secure your employability over many years:

1. Be aware of your career anchors

When it comes to making decisions about next steps, the right job or how to manage work/life balance, knowing your career anchors is critical. This helps you to understand your purpose, motivation and what will be most satisfying to you as an individual. Everyone defines success differently, make sure you know what success means to you.

My career anchors are social good, family and challenge. This means that I have pursued roles where I am able to help individuals and communities achieve their goals through education. Making a difference is what motivated me to take on leadership roles as well as the love of a challenge and finding solutions to problems. I have also made choices based on my desire to have a family. Since I married at 21 and had two children by the time I was 24, I took on part-time roles in the first part of my career and found my family as the source of energy, happiness and as a strength in life.

2. Own your unique skills and talents

Take time to reflect on your strengths and what you have achieved. I encourage everyone to keep a portfolio with examples of their work, projects they have been involved with, feedback received and certificates of achievement.

When you are clear and confident in yourself, you will be effective and generous with others. Everyone has unique talents and contributions to make. Believing in yourself will help you believe in others, making you more effective, resilient and willing to take an active and positive role in your work. 

3. Build your human capital

What you know is your human capital - your skills and competencies, the educational and training investments you have made and the developmental challenges you accept at work. Take on new projects, volunteer to find solutions to existing problems or initiate different ways of doing things. This will help you to add to your 'toolbox' of capabilities and you will be singled out as a high potential individual. In doing this you will also develop new contacts and gain access to role models. Lifelong learning is all about building human capital!

4. Build your social capital

Make it a priority to build your social capital. This means building relationships both at work and outside of work. This might include joining a professional association, alumni network, volunteering with a charity or mentoring a student or colleague. Make a goal to have lunch with someone outside of your immediate work team every week. This helps to build understanding of other work areas; expands your network and keeps you in touch with new ideas and different approaches. The old adage 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' is wrong - it is both 'what you know and who you know' that will be powerful in your career journey.

5. Share your ideas and expectations openly

Many people are reluctant to share their ideas, their hopes and aspirations. By sharing openly you will generate trust, provide leadership and shape the vision and culture of the organisation you work within. Sometimes it might feel risky, but if you are open in the early stages of a relationship most people will respond with similar openness.

Last modified on 05/01/2016