14 Jan What do women bring to leadership?

In October 2019, I got to go to two Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) regional network meetings, one in London hosted by Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES) and the other in Washington, hosted by Education Partnership North East at Sunderland College in Washington.

It is always a real pleasure to meet and hear from women working in FE, skills and lifelong learning, and of course, each network meeting is different because the agenda is set locally.

In London, we heard from Arinola Edeh about her leadership journey to become Head of Service for WAES how she had to pick herself up after experiencing setbacks and of the importance of making the most of all the opportunities that came her way. In Sunderland, we heard from Ellen Thinnesen, CEO of Education Partnership North East on the confidence gap that women experience, which manifests itself as self-doubt despite competence and achievement, and why we must take our inspiration from the women who are present in our lives. Then Joy Yates of JPI Media and Emma Barugh of Human Resource Consulting Ltd spoke. Two inspirational women who spoke of picking themselves up after setbacks, making the most of opportunities and just going for it. Listening to them, I was struck by the sheer amount of ‘crap careers advice’ they were given by family and professionals throughout their lives. Advice that urged them to narrow their choices and limit their horizons, told that their lofty ambitions weren’t for girls. Is it any wonder I thought, that despite our obvious ability women have thoughts of self-doubt and struggle with confidence? I accept that it is not the same today and thankfully (hopefully) young women nowadays aren’t being asked to dampen down their ambitions, but it seems that me that the legacy of crap careers advice has created a legion of women leaders who chose to ignore or defy that advice, who persisted and tried and tried again and are now in a place that they could never have imagined for themselves. We can take great inspiration from their tenacity and resolve.

But as if that wasn’t enough, two other things happened at the network meetings. Firstly, at Sunderland, the network meeting was used as a way to promote and support the work of SmartWorks, the charity set up to provide support to women going back to work by providing interview outfits, mentoring and a capsule wardrobe to last a month until their first paycheck arrives. As we all donated items of clothing, it struck me that while we might have struggled to get to where we are in the workforce, we also seek to support women who are currently battling to fulfil their own work ambitions. Being generous and giving back is important.

Secondly, in London, we heard from Sue Pember of Holex about the findings of their FETL research Supporting people and place into the characteristics of leadership of Adult and Community Learning, which is predominantly led by women. This research highlights the values-based nature of that leadership. As one male ACL leader asked, ‘Is this because it is predominantly female?’ This made me wonder if our struggle makes us better able to empathise with the struggles of others. And so finally to the last thought-provoking discussion based on a provocation paper WLN is writing for FETL about inclusive leadership and whether now that 52% of senior leaders across the sector are women, shouldn’t this be the time to shape leadership in the sector to be the kind of leaders we want to be and to lead the kind of change we want to see. Could that leadership style be borne from empathy with women leaders’ struggle, determination and generosity?

Kathryn James, October 2019

Women’s Leadership Network