Women’s History Month: Women in Leadership Positions

SASiety’s Note: We are delighted to have our Director of Operations, Elaine Walters, as the first voice of our Women’s History Month series. Elaine has steadfastly supported SASiety, which has been women-led since its inception. Elaine has supported us in building a community that first and foremost values inclusivity. We don’t think we would have been able to put together our International Women’s Day Symposium, had it not been for Elaine’s encouragement, support, and confidence in our abilities. We are extremely thankful that Elaine has shared with us her story as a woman in a leadership position.

Elaine Walters

Director of Operations

Er, Elaine could you just pop in to tidy up, please?  We’ve made a bit of a mess!”  This was a typical interaction with a senior manager (male) at the University.  I had been called in to clear up after a particularly messy sandwich lunch.  Heard on the way out – “She’s only an Administrator, but she’s an absolute treasure…

“Now you’re only 24, do you think you’ll have babies?  When do you think that would be?” – question from a senior academic during an interview panel I was part of.

These are some of my first experiences working in higher education over 15 years ago. At the time, I was a middle manager.  Even then it was a very different culture and not unusual to see an almost all-male senior management team.

I came to the University in 2001 from an NHS regulatory body.  I was used to an environment where there was division – doctors versus professional services – so a university which very clearly then had an academic vs. professional services divide was easy for me to handle – or so I thought.  I have to confess, I was shocked at how professional services were regarded as inferior to academic staff. Time after time I had to defer to an academic colleague on an operational matter even when I knew better.

But dear readers, we have made significant progress on bridging the chasm between academic and professional services. I believe having a greater number of women in leadership positions has played a positive role in this progress.  I am very pleased to say that we have worked hard at the School of Advanced Study to achieve a positive, collaborative working culture.  Having so many women in senior leadership positions provides great role modelling.  Our Vice-Chancellor is a woman for one (only 29% of VCs across UK university institutions are women), our PVCs are largely female and in the School of Advanced Study the professoriate is now 50% female, too.


Empowering Women in their Professional Ambitions

Programmes such as Aurora, of which I am proud to be champion, help to provide us time and space to self-reflect and to consider how we want to navigate these mostly male-dominated spaces. The programme is specifically designed to empower women in higher education and research, encouraging them to pursue leadership roles, and to help them develop leadership skills as well as advance their career. The ultimate point of Aurora is to create a more diverse and inclusive higher education sector by supporting the development of women leaders. Programmes such as Aurora, in other words, give us confidence to speak out. They teach us that there’s nothing wrong with having ambition, especially as researches have shown, women do score higher than men in most leadership skills.

However, it took me a while to realise that we, too, are entitled to time and space for self-reflection and we, too, have a voice that we can (and should) utilize in speaking up as well as speaking out. My early socialisation processes created a shy, introverted young woman with an incredibly controlling mother and a father who was duty driven. The very concept of duty, after all, is fraught with ideas rooted in patriarchal, culturally normative thinking, where women can never be lead actors, only supporting acts. For instance, I never went to pre-school; never made friends; never felt confident enough to make a contribution in school. I would never volunteer an answer even when I knew it. My parents created a work ethic which was always to give more than you receive.  My grammar school education pushed the same message – our school motto was “Loyally Serve.” As an article titled “Patriarchal Beliefs, Women’s Empowerment, and General Well-being” has shown from 2014, one of the concepts that patriarchy reinforces as “the highest duty of women” through laws, customs, and rituals is fidelity.  Even my first years at university proved to be similar: I started studying Law and Social Science at University of Sheffield without a view on anything, because to be loyal and to serve meant having to side-line my critical abilities, my thinking.  During my university years, I realised that it was ok to have opinions and that I can make my voice heard.

While realising your own worth and ambition is an important steppingstone, it is equally important that women are given the appropriate resources, tools, and encouragement that most of their male peers normally and unquestionably receive. For example, as the Harvard Business Review has highlighted, male leaders tend to receive more actionable developmental feedback than female leaders. While male leaders in a study were encouraged to “set the vision,” “leverage politics,” “claim their space,” and “display more confidence,” women were encourage to “focus on delivery,” “cope with politics,” “get along,” and “be confident.” In other words, women had to conform, to cope, to get along.

It is important to also know that besides the tools and resources, the people you meet and the allies you make can also have a substantial impact along the way. I would almost certainly be lounging about in middle management had I not been issued a wake-up call by the former Dean of the School of Advanced Study, Roger Kain, who persuaded me to apply for the chief operating officer role in the School. Because of my early societal conditioning, I was convinced I couldn’t do it. Growing up, I hadn’t seen many women in leadership positions. I was not sure I had been given a role model to emulate.  “Do something for you for once, Elaine,” the former Dean said. So, at a relatively late age – I was 52 – I began what has been to date, my most rewarding role.

Empathy: A Powerful Tool

Having a career hasn’t been easy; I raised three children largely as a single parent, worked full-time with more than one job at times so that I could keep paying the mortgage.  Cleaning rooms in a Travelodge makes you see another side to life. As a mother of three daughters, I can take no credit for the way in which they navigate the world, but I am proud that wherever they are able to speak up against to inappropriate behaviour, inequality and unfairness.  They are able to stand their ground. They have more confidence than I ever did at that age.  In their late 20s and early 30s they are the women I wish I had been.

I’m extraordinarily proud of the School, but particularly of my professional services colleagues without whom the organisation would not operate.  The greatest tool in my toolbox is empathy.  It’s a poorly labelled “soft skill” but it has stood me in good stead for 20 + years.  It’s important to understand why people behave as they do, and for us to provide the conditions to optimise each individual’s performance recognising that not everyone needs the same thing. This leads beautifully to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – embracing equity.

Ending on a positive note, let’s celebrate how far we’ve come – we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were but we still have a way to go.  Let’s celebrate strong women from all backgrounds in managerial and decision-making roles.  We’ve cleared some hurdles to allow women and girls to navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and maths and play football professionally, but gender and racial equality is an uphill battle. The 2022 U.S-focused Women in the Workplace report showed that if 41% of female workers in the workplace are promoted to manager, only 14% of that statistic is women of colour. The divides become more pronounced for more senior positions: only 6% of 29% of senior vice presidents are women of colour.  

As a society, we need to believe in our women as much as we have believed in our men: with fervour and passion. We need to give them the right resources so that they can advance their careers and reach their aims. I suppose, this is a case of do what I say, not what I did: Never think you are not capable; Never allow yourself to think you are inferior due to gender, sexuality, race, age, background,  and education etc. None of that matters; what matters is that you believe in yourself. 

I wish I’d had someone telling me that when I was a younger woman.


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