Lean in! Take a seat at the table! Show the will to lead! Women are often told that this is the way to get ahead in the workplace and overcome inequality. So, what opportunities are available for women in academia to lean in? We know that, within academia, women are more likely to be asked, and to take on, so-called service roles. These roles might indeed lead to a seat at the table, but research shows that these roles are often under-valued when it comes to career progression. But if you’re asked to take on a leadership role – or if, like me, you actually like academic leadership – how can you ensure that ‘leaning in’ enhances your career?
Here are six ‘top tips’ gleaned from my experiences:
1. Be selective
In academia, women are more likely to be asked to take on more ‘nurturing’ roles. This often reflects commonly held stereotypes about what both women and men are ‘good at’. But I’ve found that academic leadership works best if you’re genuinely passionate about your role. When I took on the role of Director of Education in 2012, I truly believed that we could do things better in the department and wanted to focus my energies to improve the student experience. For other people (and I’m going to name drop some of my amazing colleagues here) their passion might be promoting increased access to higher education (Lisa Leaver – also speaking in Soapbox Science Exeter 2019) or promoting women in science (Safi Darden – one of the amazing Soapbox Science organisers).
If you’re asked to take on a leadership role, don’t be afraid to negotiate (especially if it’s clear that none of your colleagues want the role!). Many women don’t negotiate because they recognise, consciously or subconsciously, that negotiating is fraught for women in ways that it is not for men. Indeed, research suggests that women are equally likely to negotiate than men (e.g., asking for a raise), but are much less likely to be successful. Sadly, you are unlikely to get a pay raise for taking on an academic leadership role, but you might be able to negotiate for other benefits, such as a period of study leave at the end of your tenure or additional research support or access to training opportunities (e.g., the Aurora program).
Full disclosure here: I am very bad at delegating…but this was one of the key lessons I took from my first leadership role as Director of Education into my second role as Director of Research. There are many reasons why it’s important to delegate: if you don’t, and you try to do everything yourself, you will burn out! But delegation is also about communicating trust and confidence in the people around you – that you believe that they will do a good job (even if it’s not exactly the way you would do it!). Delegation is about empowering others. So, if people offer help – take it!
4. Say no
Full disclosure again: I find it very hard to say no…but we (women) need to do it more often. Throughout my career, I’ve often been rewarded for saying ‘yes’ – sometimes this has led to new collaborations or opportunities and people like you more if you do. But as you progress in your career, saying no to some things allows you to say yes to other things. In the last year, I’ve had a ‘no support group’ with some of my friends – each week we share the tasks we’ve said no to, and we congratulate each other on how we’ve protected our time or saved ourselves from a future obligation.
5. But it is OK to say yes
As I’ve said, I find it hard to say no, and often end up saying yes. I confessed this to my ‘support group’ and my very wise friend noted four considerations when deciding whether to say yes. First, could the person do it themselves, even if it’s inconvenient or difficult? Second, can you do it without neglecting your own responsibilities, relationships, or self-care? Third, are you happy to do it or will you resent it later? Finally, will it help them to be independent or will it make them more dependent in the future? By thinking about these questions, you might find yourself saying yes to optional tasks, but you will be more mindful about it.
6. Do it well
To return to the idea of ‘leaning in’, it’s not enough to take your seat and keep it warm. For academic leadership to enhance your career, you need to get stuff done and make a difference. When you take on a role, take time to think about how you can make your workplace a better place (however you define better) and how you can achieve it. Make sure that your achievements are visible (to help your career) and ensure that you’ve put structures in place that will make any impact sustainable after you leave the role (see #3).
Being an academic leader is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my job – every day I feel like I’m making an important contribution to my discipline and I get to support my colleagues, especially early career researchers, to achieve their goals.
- Guest post by Joanne Smith (Twitter: @jorosmith)
Joanne Smith is an Associate Professor and Director of Research in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter. She was also Director of Education from 2012-2014. Joanne studies how the groups that we belong to influence our behaviour and how we can harness insights from social psychology to promote behaviour change. She studies social influence and behaviour change across multiple domains, with a focus on health and sustainable behaviour. Joanne will take part in our Soapbox Science Exeter event, on Saturday 29th July 2019. There she will talk about “With friends like these: How groups influence our behaviour for better…or for worse”.
This blog post is previously published on Soapbox Science
Have you ever noticed that women are typically the ones spearheading gender equality movements? Think of the suffragettes, the #MeToo, and #TimesUp movements, the March for Women; All fronted by women – but at what cost? Research increasingly shows that relying solely on female leaders is not enough to achieve equality. Perhaps in response to this, there’s been a recent upsurge in male-led initiatives, such as the HeForShe movement, and the Male Champions of Change initiative. Both of these call on men to use their privilege and power to place gender equality on the agenda.
These types of initiatives aren’t just companies taking a stab at something new – they’re backed by social psychological research. For example, two recent studies looking at how leader gender affected individuals’ responses to calls for equality found that men and women were more likely to follow a male leader into action (Hardacre & Subasic, 2018; Subasic et al., 2018). Importantly, the only change between the study conditions was the leader’s name and pronouns (e.g., from “Margaret” to “Matthew”). Below, we talk about some of the reasons why female leaders struggle to mobilise people toward equality.
“Think manager, think male”: Leadership prototype embodies masculine attributes
In our heads, we hold a 'prototype' of particular categories and roles – a fuzzy set of characteristics, attitudes, and behaviours that define certain groups and occupations. For example, if you were to think of a leader, you might think confident, assertive, and even male. Turns out this “think manager, think male” mindset is pervasive. Numerous leadership theories emphasise the desirability of stereotypically masculine traits in leaders. In fact, female leaders are frequently seen as ineffective because individuals’ ideas of effective leadership overlap with agentic male stereotypes (assertive, dominant), rather than communal female stereotypes (warm, nurturing). Even when female leaders do adopt masculine behaviours (such as those seen as typical of leaders), they face backlash because they’re seen as “violating” their traditional caring stereotype. This signifies a Catch-22 situation whereby female leaders are “damned if they do and doomed if they don’t!”
Female leaders face accusations of self-interest, while male leaders are seen as having something to lose.
It’s also difficult for female leaders of gender equality movements not to appear self-interested and overly invested in their cause (with good reason, given that it IS in their group’s best interests to challenge the status quo!). Essentially, women’s efforts at reducing inequality can be seen as furthering the interests of themselves and their group, and the more women are viewed as trying to benefit their own group, the more cynicism and dismissal they encounter. This can undermine women’s efforts at social change because acts of self-interest are less convincing and influential than acts that seem to oppose one’s best interests. In contrast, because many view gender equality as a zero-sum game, when men challenge gender inequality they’re seen as having something to lose – namely the rights and privilege that accompany their membership of a high-status group. This ultimately affords men greater legitimacy and influence, and therefore greater ability to mobilise followers.
Male leaders possess a shared identity with men and women, while female leaders only share an identity with women.
Possessing a shared identity with those you are trying to mobilise is at the crux of effective leadership, because those considered “us” are considered more influential than “them”. Herein lies another problem for female leaders. In gender equality contexts, male and female leaders both share a cause with women engaged in gender equality movements whilst men benefit from an additional shared social identity with men.. Meanwhile, no such shared identity yet exists for female leaders looking to mobilise a male audience. Instead, they’re seen as outgroup members by men in terms of their gender group membership, but also in terms of shared cause because gender equality is often seen as a women’s issue and of no benefit to men.
Paradoxically, by virtue of their gender and the privileges it permits, male leaders seem to have the ability to undertake gender equality leadership roles and mobilise men and women more effectively than female leaders. Research suggests that, among other reasons, this is due to leadership prototypes typically comprising masculine attributes, female leaders’ inability to escape accusations of self-interest, and male leaders’ possession of a shared identity with both male and female followers. It will be interesting to see how long the male ally advantage persists: in the longer term, effective feminist leadership will presumably eliminate the ironic inequality.
- Guest post by Stephanie Hardacre (University of Newcastle).
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.