Like most of our leading companies, universities and research organisations are homogeneous at the leadership level. There are some great initiatives in Australian higher education and elsewhere to help promote equity and diversity in important target areas like science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM), for example the Athena Swan Charter in the UK and Australia’s SAGE pilot. There are still things you can do to increase the chances of success in developing your own career, and to help others.
Making sure that people from all backgrounds have a strong chance of being chosen by selection committees is not just about fairness, it’s about getting the best to the top. This has benefits for all of us.
The major, systemic equity initiatives target women. Of course, campus leaders need to be better represent all the diversity found on campus. Members of the executive, as well as the professors leading the disciplines, should be much more diverse than they are today. Starting with targets for gender diversity gives us something to aim for, and if we make progress, then those strategies to increase access and retention for women can open up the system and make it more welcoming to all. If we can’t get it right with expanding the representation of women, who are half the population, then we will know we have a serious problem.
So, if you are a woman, what can you do? Should you even do anything? Some women I know are irked by gender equity initiatives putting the spotlight on them as they think this suggests they are somehow the problem. And I do know exactly how they feel, because when I hear that an organisation has stipulated that its search partners must present a minimum number of women applicants, that tries to make the search responsible for solving a complex issue, one that goes beyond a selection process itself. A selection process cannot change all the perceptions and the operating culture of everyone on campus. However, AESC member firms can be part of the solution and we are happy to work with candidates and selection committees to enrich the diversity of our campuses, one appointment at a time.
Here are some tactics to help you get to the top.
1. Be Visible
I hear candidates say that it’s easier to just keep their head down, in their laboratory or at their desk. But you are not going to get noticed that way, and you also won’t develop leadership skills. Putting yourself forward, or out there, involves a number of different types of activities, from ‘leaning in’, or getting involved in management activities, to ’not hiding your light under a bushel’, that is, sharing and promoting your achievements and aspirations.
Get involved, get connected, have a voice. Silent bystanders become part of the wallpaper. Get stuck in; if the culture seems unattractive, by being in it you can help change it. Getting involved in management activities, or promoting yourself, may be outside of your comfort zone. Don’t worry, you can learn and adapt. There is training and formal support available. Build your informal network of mentors and sponsors, too. Many people will want to help, if you would only ask them.
2. Be Uncompromising in Your Pursuit of Excellence
Keep a plan to develop your career trajectory through building your skills, achievements and profile. There are now support mechanisms to help be productive over any career breaks you may take for family care reasons. Call out career breaks in your CV so that a reader can see your achievements relative to opportunity.
3. Be Deliberate in Your Career Planning
Want to get to full professor? Want to become a leader of others outside of your immediate team, and join the executive? Study the pathways taken by others in the roles you aspire to. Most leaders will have biographies available that you can find not only on their organisation’s website, but on other public websites such as conference websites where they have been a speaker, and online communities like LinkedIn and ResearchGate. Many leaders on campus will even have their CVs online in the public domain. Look at their leadership style, as becoming a leader is as much about moving beyond leading your own work, to leading others unconnected to your area of expertise.
4. Promote Yourself
Build your networks, in your professional or academic community, on campus and online. Connect to interesting people via Twitter, LinkedIn and other online networks relevant to your field. Put yourself forward for service to your community such as getting involved in a campus change project, organising an interest group for your own industry association or peak body. Let those who might promote you, know that you are up for being considered. They will also see you in a different way, which is a good thing. Let search consultants know as well. Men do it all the time.
5. Apply for New Opportunities
You might be regularly on selection committees. It is a different thing to be an applicant yourself.
If you have defined your desired career path and been deliberate in planning the skills and experience you need, then you will have built the evidence to support your application for a position higher up than where you are now. Evidence and a case well-presented will help get you to short list. Success in reaching an offer does require navigating the selection process. Get feedback early and during the process, from your career sponsors who have been down a similar path, and build a relationship with the search consultant to help them advise and advocate for you.
Don’t forget to nominate referees from under represented groups in support of your application. This also helps build visibility for under represented groups in the selection process.
6. And When You Get to the Top, Put Down a Ladder to the Next Person
Be generous. It will make you a better person, too. The higher education sector is a great place to be and work, and it carries forward the kernel of civilisation; our values, our knowledge and the potential for anyone with talent and perseverance to build their own future through education. We can all make it even better by giving everyone their chance to make their contribution.
With its aging demographic, higher education needs more good leaders. You can be part of shaping the future for others to follow, so why not get started now?