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For #IWD2019, let’s start with watching our words

by Rachel Killian | Mar 7, 2019 | Strategy & Transformation

The headline that “More FTSE 100 CEOs are called John than are women’ is certainly a striking one. A quick tally of UK university VCs tells us that it is not quite as bad in the higher education sector. (You’d need to include the Davids, Stephens, Stuarts, Nigels, Pauls, Peters AND Johns to beat the 25% of female leaders, which is still quite shocking but doesn’t quite have the same impact as the first headline).

Still. For most of us, if we were asked to close our eyes and picture a Vice-Chancellor, chances are we’d imagine a white, middle-aged man. If we were to repeat the process and conjure up a Professor in Physics, I expect it wouldn’t be too different.

What if we closed our eyes and pictured a Head of Human Resources? What does she look like? Yes, I say ‘she’, because most likely it’s a female. Universities have significant problems not just with horizontal segregation – with men outnumbering women in senior academic positions by 3:1 – but also with vertical segregation, where female leaders are most often to be found in the professional functions perceived as being ‘softer’ such as HR or marketing.

None of this is new. In fact, it’s been the same for decades. And that, in itself, is part of the problem. We are so accustomed to our leaders behaving in a certain way that we have been ‘trained’ by society to believe that this is the only way.

This is most obviously evidenced by the words that we reserve for just one gender. One example of this was highlighted in the #banbossy campaign of 2014. A schoolgirl who shows initiative and leadership in taking control of a playground game (i.e. managing resources, leading people) is quickly labelled ‘bossy’. But we’d rarely use this word to describe a boy’s behaviour, so children of both genders quickly learn that leadership qualities in a girl are not just inappropriate, but also so unusual that it’s worth talking about.

It seems to me that when we use different words to describe the behaviour of men and women, we show that we hold different expectations of each. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s only by challenging ourselves and those around us to think about the words we use to describe someone’s behaviour or character that we can ever hope to change some of the gender equality issues that the sector is facing.

We know that to increase the proportion of women on boards, in higher education leadership roles, in senior academic posts and in other spheres of influence such as politics, some big changes are needed and they are way overdue. The language we use might seem minor in comparison. But I also believe that no new policy or targets will be effective unless we also encourage girls and women to lead. And, on IWD 2019 – just over 50 years since women in the UK were first allowed to vote – it’s about time we accepted that the language we choose to use to describe good leadership is a helpful place to start.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant at Halpin Partnership. If you’re keen to better understand how your institution can work towards gender equality at all levels, drop us a line at info@halpinpartnership.com.