The QMS Gender Equality Blog was developed to share information on our research, teaching, and engagement activities related to promoting gender equality in a fast, informative, and accessible way.
In addition, the blog allows us to provide updates in relation to our progress towards attaining an Athena Swan Bronze Charter Mark.
On International Women's Day 2022, Dr Sajia Ferdous facilitated a workshop called 'Leaning in in academia: why it is good for everyone and not only for women’ for the QUB School of Law postgraduate students. The workshop's main objective was to close the confidence gap and encourage postgraduate and early career researchers to identify and consider opportunities to 'lean in' effectively to progress in their career in (or outside) academia.
The event kicked off with Sheryl Sandberg’s 's classic definition of leaning in: "to press ahead, to project confidence, to 'sit at the table' and physically lean in to make yourself heard". In the past decade, leaning in has been a huge corporate phenomenon, conceptualised as a feminist tool for achieving women's equal places in workplaces and at home.
Leaning in is an art of negotiation, a self-confidence tool, and a lifestyle choice. The topics discussed in the workshop included who should lean in and why, ways of leaning in as early career academics and PGRs, and stages of your career when leaning in may not be a good idea. There were opportunities for self-reflections, group discussion and a Q&A session.
So, is leaning in only a feminist manifesto? Almost a decade has passed and some people in the corporate world argue that the enthusiasm around the philosophy has died down. There are also critiques arguing that you cannot always afford to lean in. Some say that in an increasingly globalised world where there is a race to the bottom mindsets amongst employers and organisations alike, following this philosophy only makes you subject to exploitation.
Who should lean in?
Everyone, but some groups may need to lean in more than others: for example, women, ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities and other less visible / underrepresented groups. In academia: early career academics, female academics, women in STEM subjects.
According to HESA data published in 2021, almost half of the academics in the UK are female, but only one-third of them are in professorial roles. Only six Russell group universities have female Presidents / Vice Chancellors. There is underrepresentation of ethnic minority staff in academic roles. There is also evidence of racialised experiences in terms of professional progression, recognition and award (Gabriel and Tate, 2017) which shows us why some groups may need to lean in more than others and push harder to win seats at the table.
I am not claiming that underrepresentation issues will be solved purely by 'leaning in' – that would only mean putting the onus on the disadvantaged / marginalised groups and we all know that problems are much more complex. What I am saying is that by leaning in you create one avenue for the road to equality; you set the process in motion which can then gain momentum from other forces. Whether we like it or not, often we hold ourselves back the most by internalising the negative messages we receive throughout life.
Why lean in?
In academia there are blurred boundaries between work and life, no clocking in or clocking off. To succeed and make yourself visible, lean in. You can be that role model you probably did not have. Fight stereotypes, and as you engage, you stay relevant.
'Leaning in' in academia
In academia, there can be mainly three ways of leaning in: first, you undertake academic leadership roles (though many will lose their popularity in the process); second, you may want to become a leader / expert in your field, so you 'lean in' in research collaborations / knowledge network groups, or in your subject group's journal activities. A third way can be through championing your cause - the social issue you are passionate about. You can do so through organising platforms supporting research and teaching in the area or establishing peer network with similar interests.
Leaning in as a postgraduate researcher (PGR)
There may be some limitations as to how far you are allowed to stretch as PhD students, but a PhD student can still lean in within an academic environment:
- Help to organise academic events such as conferences, seminars, workshops and training – ask for opportunities
- Committee membership – look to join different committees working on HEI issues and where they encourage PGR participation, e.g. Athena Swan / equality and diversity committees.
- Lead group discussions at conferences, ask questions, use social media to stay engaged / lead conversations
- Grow your confidence through disseminating your research findings in the form of guest lectures – ask your supervisors / other academics to give you the platform
- Peer-review for good journals – show citizenship within your subject area and make your presence known to the field experts
- Identify your own strengths and weaknesses
- Tune into your own style
- Master negotiating: jobs, salaries, research collaborations, co-authorship
- Ask uncomfortable questions relentlessly: at seminars, workshops, conferences; mentors, supervisors - experts will appreciate different perspectives
- Don't think that oratory skill is the only way to get there
- Move on if you've made a wrong choice and lean in again
When not to lean in
Experts say we may not be able to have it all, not at least at the same time.
We need a peer support group and a safe space to share, without that you could be exploited. We shouldn't feel guilty if we can't lean in due to circumstances outside our control, for example having caring responsibilities. For early career academics, there should be a balance between leaning in to academic tasks and developing core competencies of research and teaching, or, in the case of PGRs, meeting the targets of their research degrees. Set your priorities in line with your career ambitions.
The workshop ended with a reminder that while leaning in indeed can be an effective tool to succeed in this endlessly competitive world, we should always put our mental health first and when leaning in, we should not have to make moral compromises.
Established in 2011, the William J Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen's Management School has become a focal point for world class leadership development and executive education. Through a range of high-end open and bespoke programmes over 500 organisations, from the private, public and third sectors, have entrusted the Leadership Institute with the development of their senior teams. In order to learn more about how the Leadership Institute promotes gender equality we posed some questions to Dr Joanne Murphy, Academic Director and Senior Lecturer at Queen’s Management School.
Joanne, how would you define ‘leadership’?
As we know, there are so many definitions of leadership out there. Some from those regarded as leaders themselves and others whose definitions attempt to encapsulate the nature of leadership for those of us who want to understand it better. For me, leadership is an influencing process and a set of practices which are fundamentally about change. Often that brings with it activities which relate closely to communication, visioning and creating coalitions for forward momentum.
What do you think sets great leaders apart?
I think we have to be very careful about concepts of ‘great leadership’. Very often ‘great’ leaders are blessed with a degree of luck that fitted with the ‘zeitgeist’ of the time and a significant level of resources which protect them from the consequences of bad decisions. Of course, traditional perceptions of leadership have often focused on individuals who share a number of key characteristics – they are usually white and male. I do think we are beginning slowly to widen perceptions of what leaders are, and who they are, and that has to be a positive thing.
There are now significantly more women in leadership positions in the private, public, and third sectors, but what, if any, barriers do you think remain in terms of equality?
Those barriers still exist and remain significant. There are still structural blocks in terms of caring responsibilities including access to appropriate and affordable childcare, which falls on and impacts women disproportionately. There are also cultural barriers. How women dress, how they talk, how they are perceived and what is sometimes referred to as their ‘leadership presence’ are difficult and intractable obstacles to overcome. For example, the Hamilton-Alexander Review of 2019 reported that in the FTSE 350, only 25 women are in Chair roles, with even fewer in Chief Executive positions. Undoubtedly there are successes, but while the benefits of diverse boards are well known, progress remains incredibly slow.
Is there any evidence of a difference in regard to how men and women approach leadership?
We know from research that men who describe themselves as leaders tend to have a preference for a transactional style which includes a tendency to default to formal power structures and an inclination to guard and protect information. In contrast, women who self-define as leaders tended to veer towards what are considered ‘transformational’ behaviours including a greater propensity to share power and information, and to bring others into decision making. It’s very interesting especially at the moment in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those of us who study extreme environments do so because they highlight and make visible ongoing organisational processes which are always present but much more obvious in dangerous, disrupted or emergency contexts. The pandemic has highlighted variances in leadership styles which has created considerable debate on precisely this issue with comparisons drawn between male and female political leaders, in particular. No doubt this will develop into further research on the subject.
Does the Leadership Institute offer any specific programmes for women?
The Clinton Leadership Institute as part of the Management School is committed to fair and equitable organisational development, and as such we have a range of programmes which specifically look at the development of women as leaders. Our flagship programme – which we run in partnership with Women in Business, is called ‘Grit and Grace’ and seeks to provide women with the knowledge and confidence to take the next step on the career ladder. The programme is led by our colleague Joanne Kelly and focuses on the need to lead with courage, compassion, authenticity, and accountability. We are now on Cohort 13 and its wonderful to hear positive stories form those who have passed through the programme and gone on to great things.
You have taken on a number of leadership roles yourself, what advice would you offer to new leaders?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Fundamentally, I think you just have to be true to yourself and try to be as positive as possible. I always tend to come back to words of Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
On 20th February 2020 Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas, Head of Queen’s Management School, welcomed Lean In Belfast to Riddel Hall for their interactive session delivered by world leading training experts Own The Room. Lean in Belfast is a vibrant, supportive network full of inspiring women determined to make a difference in the world, with almost 1,000 members.
This was a highly interactive learning session on Communication Essentials for Women, with more than 130 women from across the business community in Northern Ireland in attendance. Dr Lisa Bradley, a Senior Lecturer in Finance within the Management School, who attended and joined the panel discussion remarked, “It was inspiring to meet with such strong, independent and, motivated women. The solutions focused activities demonstrated the real value of asking questions. There is a wealth of knowledge in our networks and community groups such as Lean In, that facilitate discussion in a supportive and engaging environment. This has become increasingly important as we adjust to how life has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Personally, my key takeaway from the evening was to develop the habit of reviewing my inner voice. Negative self-talk limits our ability to reach our potential in all aspects of our lives. Offering support, listening non-judgementally and helping others be more kind to themselves will help us all flourish.”
For more information about our efforts to promote gender equality, diversity, and inclusion within Queen’s Management School and society more broadly, please visit the Gender Equality section of our website.
In September 2019, Queen’s Management School hosted a conference on ‘Zero Hours Contracts: Research, Measurement and Policy’. The event brought together leading researchers and policy makers to discuss issues such as the growth of zero hours contracts, their effect on labour markets, and the role of unions. We took the opportunity to talk to three female economists sharing their research at the event in order to learn more about what their work entails, why they find economics fascinating, the misconceptions some people may hold about the subject, and how we can make the discipline more diverse.
Giulia Giupponi, Institute for Fiscal Studies
Giulia, what does your work focus on?
My research interests are at the intersection of Labor and Public Economics. I study how social insurance programs affect employment choices and the welfare of individuals; the impact of minimum wages on firm behavior and on the distribution of wages; and the rise of atypical forms of work, such as zero hours contracts and independent workers, and their implications for income insecurity and inequality.
Your work sounds so interesting and varied! What first attracted you to studying economics?
The opportunity to understand how public policies can improve individual economic opportunities, make people’s lives better and lead to a more equal society.
Maja Gustafsson, Resolution Foundation
Maja, what does your work focus on?
My work is about improving the living standards of people that live in low to middle income households. I work with research in a think tank, which means that in my publications and commentaries I translate academic rigour and sometimes statistically complex research into a lay person’s language as well as the fast-paced world of policymakers and civil servants.
It sounds like your work has a strong social impact. What first attracted you to studying economics?
I thought that by understanding the way money flows in the world I would be able to better understand it. With that understanding, I thought, I would be able to open doors into a variety of different fields and careers paths that I did not necessarily know about when I started. I studied economics to broaden my perspectives.
Rachel Scarfe, University of Edinburgh
Rachel, what does your work focus on?
I’m a PhD student and my research is about labour economics. I research “non-standard” work, especially zero-hours contracts and part-time work. I’m interested in recent changes in the labour market, and how jobs in the future will look different to jobs today. I also have a side project at the moment about the economics of football!
Both your doctoral research and your side project sound fascinating! What first attracted you to studying economics?
I originally studied maths and then worked in the City doing consulting for a while. I found the little bit of economics that was part of my job really interesting, but it wasn’t very in depth and I wanted to find out more.
In May 2019, two students from Queen’s Management School, Qingyun Zhang (MSc Management) and Hongyi Chen (BSc Finance), were part of winning teams in the inaugural ‘Allstate University Challenge’.
The Allstate Challenge required students from Queen’s University, Ulster University, and the University of Wisconsin Madison to come together to form an international team and address one of two current conundrums within the world of finance, specifically: how to make a career in finance attractive to women and how to create an environment for women to succeed in finance. Teams were required to present the results of their research, as well as their proposed solutions, to senior leaders within Allstate.
Renee Prendergast, Athena Swan Champion at Queen's Management School, stated: ‘We were delighted to see not one but two of our students achieve first prize in the Allstate Challenge. The Challenge not only draws attention to the important issue of female under representation in finance, it also allows young people to work together to develop creative interventions that will hopefully help to bring about fairer and more inclusive workplaces for all’.
Hongyi and Qingyun offer first-hand insight into their experiences below:
Hongyi Chen (BSc Finance) stated:
I have been interested in the topic of gender diversity in the workplace since I was in high school. I recall reading a book called “Lean In”, written by the CFO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. I was shocked by the fact that women hold fewer than a quarter of senior executive titles, and the problem is particularly pronounced in the finance industry. Even today, when women occupy more than half of entry level positions in the industry as the result of efforts on the part of both companies and governments, they are still locked out of many top jobs. This really aroused my interest and, as a female finance student, I wanted to engage in deeper research and attempt to develop some useful solutions to the problem. The Allstate University Challenge provided me with an exciting opportunity to do just that!
During the Allstate Challenge, I worked with two other female students based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We undertook a large amount of research on the challenges women are currently facing when it comes to seeking and securing promotion. We gathered a wealth of data which indicated that both internal and external factors negatively impact career progression for many women. External factors include unconscious biases held by interviewers when making a promotion decision, networking events that potentially exclude females, and a lack of mentors. In addition, we identified several internal barriers, including the fact many women are accustomed to holding themselves back when it comes to promotion opportunities because of a lack of confidence. After identifying these barriers, we worked as a team to develop some potential solutions for finance companies to increase gender diversity. These included established approaches, as well as some new, creative ideas.
Overall, this was a great experience for me. I have become great friends with the two American students and have developed a much deeper understanding of gender diversity in the workplace. By realising the fact that women are often holding themselves back, I started to remind myself that I should always be confident and believe in myself. This is invaluable to my future studies and career.
Qingyun (Candice) Zhang (MSc Management) stated:
The first time I heard about the Allstate Challenge was in a graduate class. It was interesting to learn more about the difficulties faced by women within the financial industry. Prior to coming to Queen’s University, I gained two years' experience in management in insurance companies. It turned out that Allstate was an insurance-related company, which reinforced my desire to compete.
Allstate NI is located on a very beautiful riverfront in Belfast, and I was fascinated by its good working environment and relaxed atmosphere when I first visited it. My teammates are an Indian student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in America and a British student at Ulster University. We are from very different backgrounds but share a strong interest in this topic. We regularly discussed the project online, while also conducting our own independent research. Over a two-month period we refined our ideas through a series of meetings. The Challenge culminated with a 15-minute presentation and intensive 40-minute Q&A session. We were lucky enough to win the competition!
I think the Allstate Challenge is a great experience. As an international student, it not only provided me with the opportunity to experience the diversity of international teams, but also gave me a better understanding of UKs companies. In this competition, I reaped the benefits of friendship, knowledge, teamwork, and won a prize of Amazon vouchers. I always thought the best part of a competition was the process, not the result. Thank you very much for the information that the School has given me to participate in this competition.
While there has been significant progress in recent decades, gender equality remains an aspiration, rather than the reality, in many domains. Higher education is no exception. The UK is considered by many to be at the vanguard in terms of promoting equality within the sector, both as the result of the actions of individual institutions as well as sector wide initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter. Nevertheless, problems persist. While women now make up over half of undergraduates at UK universities, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that less than 50% of academic staff are female. Delving deeper, The Guardian suggests that one of the most significant concerns relates to career progression: ‘At senior levels, only a quarter of professors are women, and black women make up less than 2% of all female academic staff’.
At Queen’s Management School (QMS) we are committed to identifying and addressing barriers to equality that affect our staff and students. QMS has a longstanding and increasingly active Gender Equality Team (GET) who are tasked with evaluating our activities and, where required, developing effective strategies for improvement. Dr Renee Prendergast, who serves alongside Dr Silviu Tierean as Athena SWAN Champion, states: ‘During my time at Queen’s we have made quite a lot of progress on gender equality, but we have still a long way to go. It’s great that we have a female head of school, but we need more women at senior levels in the school’.
In addition, at QMS we are highly cognisant of our responsibility in terms of educating future leaders. In 2018, The Guardian reported that there were just 30 women in full-time executive roles in FTSE 250 companies. These include six female CEOs and 19 female CFOs. The picture is somewhat better at board level, with women now taking up almost a quarter (23.7%) of directors’ positions on FTSE 250 boards. However, global women’s workplace advocacy organisation Catalyst caution that the percentage of women in senior roles has in fact been declining worldwide. Lack of representation is a particular concern in industries such as software and IT, finance, corporate services, and manufacturing. Catalyst argue that, at least in part, this may be due to a stereotypical ‘think manager, think male’ mind-set. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that across an array of different fields there were more men named ‘John’ than women in senior positions, despite the latter making up over half of the population. As a result, we are taking steps to challenge outmoded ideas of leadership and management through our teaching and research, and reframing them as roles open to all.
Our work on gender equality is closely aligned with our broader Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability (ERS) agenda. Indeed, Dr Laura Steele, ERS Champion and GET member notes: ‘The School is a signatory to the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative and an increasingly active supporter of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Gender Equality represents a key pillar of the SDGs. This is in recognition of the fact that equal rights and opportunities for women and men, girls and boys are essential if we are to build peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable societies’. She continued, ‘Promoting gender equality is not just the duty of governments. Businesses and, indeed, business schools, have a pivotal role to play, and we are acutely aware of this at QMS’.
In 2019, the Gender Equality Team will work towards attaining an Athena Swan Bronze Charter Mark.
We look forward to sharing our work in relation to gender equality through this new blog. In the meantime, if you would like more information please contact the QMS Athena SWAN Champions, Dr Renee Prendergast or Dr Silviu Tierean.