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Women in Academia – Achieving our Potential – AWLSIG workshop

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The latest Advancing Women’s Leadership Special Interest Group took place on Thursday 23rd May where Clare Trembleau, AWLSIG Chair, and delegates were joined by Professor Margaret (Mags) C. Watson, Independent Consultant from Watson Research & Training Limited. Mags shared insights from the research findings which informed her newly published book “Women in Academia: Achieving Our Potential”, emphasising the importance of social capital, networking, and self-promotion. The group discussion addressed the challenges faced by women in academic and professional settings, strategies for asserting strengths, and the concept of the “good citizen” in academia.

 ‘Women in Academia – Achieving Our Potential’ Overview 

Mags shared the motivation and objective of her newly published book entitled “Women in Academia: Achieving Our Potential”, which tackles gender inequalities in academia based on her 30 years of experience. She highlighted the importance of her book not to fix women but to shed light on behaviours that can improve gender dynamics in academia. Mags described her research process, which involved interviews with successful scholars worldwide and perspectives from female and male colleagues. She discussed the findings of her book, including the underrepresentation of women in higher positions and the significance of social capital in academic success. She also emphasised the need to acknowledge and address societal and organisational barriers to promote diversity and inclusion in academia.

Social Capital, Networks, and Mobility Mindset

Mags spoke about  the concept of social capital, emphasising the significance of relationships and networks in achieving success. She highlighted the various types of networks, their importance in academic careers, and how gender also influences networking. Mags was also keen to mention that networks aren’t just about the traditional ways through meetings and forums but framed these as those who are part of a  ‘support crew’ and the crucial role of role models in providing guidance and inspiration. Furthermore, she stressed the relevance of intellectual density, the need for diverse networks, and the importance of being proactive and considering mobility as a mindset. She concluded by encouraging reflection on individual barriers to reaching potential and the significance of investing in human and social capital.

Addressing systemic challenges in Higher Education 

The group discussed the challenges faced by women in academic and professional settings, highlighting issues such as funding deadlines, organisational activities, and the lack of budgets and decision-making power for women in senior management teams. She emphasised the need for greater awareness and consideration of these issues to create more equitable and inclusive environments. 

Navigating Modesty in Professional Networking

The group explored the challenges women face in asserting their strengths and capabilities in professional settings, particularly in interviews and networking situations. A participant highlighted the cultural value of modesty in the UK, which can undermine women’s efforts to showcase their skills and achievements. Mags emphasised the need to practise self-promotion and to seek out support from mentors and sponsors who can advocate on their behalf. The group agreed on the importance of creating a supportive network to help women navigate these challenges.

Preparation, Authenticity, and Assertiveness in Academia

The group talked about the importance of preparation and authenticity in interviews and academic life. Mags emphasised the need to rehearse interview answers with a support network and to gradually adopt a more assertive approach. A participant suggested removing minimising words in emails to assert oneself more. Another highlighted the importance of saying ‘no’ more often, particularly in situations where an unfair burden is being placed on female academics. The group also recommended the book “The No Club” (of which one of the Authors was a speaker in a  previous AWLSIG workshop) as a resource for identifying what the authors call  “Non Promotable Tasks” and for raising awareness about disproportionate distribution of these ‘tasks’ among female colleagues. 

Strategic Value and Good Citizenship

The discussion moved to undertaking activities of strategic value. Mags then spoke about the concept of the “good citizen” in academia. Being a ‘good citizen’ can often mean several things. It sometimes covers engaging in additional activities and being generous with your time helping and supporting others (students and colleagues). Those contributions can be small or large. Mags suggested that women often fulfil this role. She encouraged the group to consider whether such activities are beneficial to their career goals before committing to them.

About the author: Rossana Espinoza is a Senior Learning Experience Designer with a large multi-national organisation. Rossana is also SDF Chair, leading the SDF to fulfil its promise: to continue supporting staff developers in the HE sector. She led the organisation of the first virtual SDF’s Festival of Learning and Development during the pandemic and converted a hierarchical structure to an agile matrix structure with an invigorated Exec team.