Current Job Role: Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Previous roles/ background: Professor of Nutritional Physiology, Head of Chemistry, Food & Pharmacy, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation
Talk us through your approach to leadership:
I have always been the sort of person who finds it difficult to sit back and leaves things to others if something needs to be done- whether that’s baking a cake for a charity event, helping out with a school fair, or stepping up to a challenge at work.
I faced a turning point in my career about five years ago when I was being encouraged to apply for the position of Head of School. At first, I thought it wasn’t for me, but then I took part in a STEM event aimed at encouraging Year 9 girls to consider careers in science. They asked me to reflect on the visibility of women in my workplace and I said that there were very few women in senior leadership roles in the University and that I wanted to see that change. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realised that I couldn’t stand on the sidelines any longer and had to step up and apply. After all, if I wasn’t willing to do it, how could I expect others to do so? I don’t regret it at all- my experience as Head of School taught me to listen, to communicate clearly, to motivate people towards a goal and to work collaboratively. This gave me a really good grounding for my current roles as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, which I hold concurrently.
Do you feel that enough has been done to advance women in the workplace?
There are still some important inequalities; representation at senior level has improved and the proportion of female professors at Reading has increased from 30% to 40% since 2016. However, we still have some way to go and there is still a gender pay gap of about 9% at senior level.
What has been the most significant barrier in your career?
I’ve been very fortunate in having a number of mentors who have encouraged, pushed and challenged me throughout my career. The biggest challenge- I wouldn’t necessarily call it a barrier- is balancing motherhood and an academic career, particularly if you are the primary carer for your child. When I had my son, I had no choice but to cut right back on travelling and that meant that my international research profile was reduced. I compensated for this by taking on management roles within the University, and this has enabled me to progress in a different way. I also found 1:1 coaching incredibly useful in removing mental barriers and preparing myself for a leadership role.
What encourages or motivates you when you face a challenge as a leader?
Strangely, it’s my 13-year old son! He often asks me about what I’m doing at work and sometimes he will come out with a devastatingly simple solution to something that I’ve over-complicated. It reminds me that you sometimes have to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, take a deep breath and just get on with it.
Is there anyone who inspires you and why?
Barack and Michelle Obama for their sheer grace and dignity.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
If I was asked to name one characteristic that has got me where I am today, I would say it’s resilience. Having resilience gives you composure and allows you to develop reasoning, problem-solving and tenacity. My resilience comes from growing up in a culture where girls are not as valued as much as boys (and rebelling against that!), lived experience of racial prejudice, becoming intellectually self-reliant at a very early age due to poor schooling and balancing a career with family responsibility. So my advice would be to draw on those life experiences that build your resilience, recognise it and use it positively. You might one day find yourself drawing on experience you never realised would be so valuable.
I would also challenge the next generation of female leaders to reflect on whether they’re currently standing on the sidelines watching an opportunity pass by and to ask themselves what’s stopping them from stepping up and putting themselves forward? It’s not just about the big roles; as I’ve found out, the first steps are small ones.