Reflections on the Aurora Women’s Leadership Development Programme

Updated 13 July.

Guest blog from Katherine O’Sullivan (Marketing, Communication and Engagement & Henley Business School) and Helen Bilton (Institute of Education) with intro by Simon Chandler-Wilde (Dean for D&I)

Yesterday we had a reception, hosted by the Vice-Chancellor David Bell (and by Susan Thornton (Leadership and Talent Development Manager) who organises our engagement with this national programme, and by the UEB Gender Champion PVC Robert Van der Noort),  to celebrate the staff  that have been part of the Aurora Women’s Leadership Programme over the last year, and the line managers and mentors who have supported them.

This was a great celebratory and networking event. We finished with some words from David Bell, and also (for the second year running) with reflections on the programme from two of our staff who were part of the Aurora cohort from the year before, namely Katherine O’Sullivan (MCE & HBS) and Helen Bilton (Institute of Education). Below we share via this blog both of these reflections, kicking off with those from Katherine.

To give a little context to Katherine’s participation in the programme let me introduce Katherine briefly.  She is the Recruitment Manager for Europe and Americas at Henley Business School. Currently, Katherine is on a one-year secondment to the Global Recruitment Team in MCE as Country Manager for Central and South Asia. She’s from Boston, Massachusetts, and before moving to the UK nearly three years ago to work at the University she lived and worked for five years in Amsterdam as a lecturer in Cultural Studies.

Here are Katherine’s words from yesterday’s Aurora celebration:

“Hello everyone. Firstly, to the 2016/17 Aurora cohort, I hope that your experience has been challenging, eye-opening and profoundly rewarding as my experience was when I participated in Aurora in 2015/16. When Susan sent around an email asking if any of us would like to say a few words to this year’s group, I jumped at the chance, because it was yet another way I could thank Reading for its support and continued participation in this vital initiative.

When I participated in Aurora in 2015/16, I had only moved to the UK to start working at Reading in 2014; I was also in a non-teaching role. I was completely surprised to have been selected for Aurora because of this. However, I think it speaks volumes that Reading was willing to invest in someone new to the UK, new to the University, and someone in professional services (student recruitment), and sees all of these criteria as a vital part of the community here and worth developing. But being new to the UK, new to Reading, and a former academic who left a teaching role to take on a new career in student recruitment, I was extremely nervous about participating in Aurora. I feared I would be an outsider at the sessions, and that I would be seen as an imposter.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Aurora was an incredibly rewarding experience, and I was able to grow my professional network in the UK by leaps and bounds. I was able to gain insight into other women’s experiences (both British and non-British) in Higher Education in the UK. I was assured by other participants that I had unique and meaningful contributions to add to their conversations—to our conversations!—, and that I too had a place in the conversation about the direction of UK higher education, and that my voice, as both a woman and an immigrant, had an important place in shaping the future.

I found myself growing more confident at work because of this, willing to champion certain initiatives within my team, participate meaningfully in university-wide working groups, and it also gave me the self-assurance to take on a new challenge in a secondment role for a year in another department. Without the support from Reading, from Aurora and from the amazing women I met on the programme, I know I wouldn’t be in the position I am today or have a multitude of options in terms of career development and career progression that I do. The critical thinking skills I learned from the Action Learning Set still inform any professional problem I come across; and from time to time, you may catch me power posing in bathrooms around campus before I have an important meeting or presentation.

To this year’s cohort: although women still have a long way to go where we are equally represented at all levels in business, in academia and in society, you have become another ‘generation’ of Aurora leaders, and I truly hope we can become a critical mass, not only at Reading, but across higher education and beyond. Reading’s 2026 vision is to have ‘a vibrant, thriving, sustainable, global and broad-based institution, responsive to, stimulated by and informing changes in the world around us’. I can truly say that the University’s commitment to programmes like Aurora will certainly give many of us across the university the confidence and voice to help contribute to this vision.”

Our 2nd speaker from the cohort of 15/16 was Helen Bilton. Helen is currently Associate Professor in the Institute of Education – but one follow-on from her participation in the 15/16 Aurora programme was a successful application for promotion to Professor which comes into force over the summer! She holds various roles within the IoE, across the University and beyond, including as a National Teaching Fellow. Here is an extract from her words from yesterday’s event:

“The Aurora leadership programme that I was very lucky to attend, much like any learning did a number of things. It added lots of new light, affirmed things I knew and reminded me of things I had forgotten. It was good to find that the University believed in supporting someone who was at the time 59, and Aurora isn’t all about young things! It offered the most amazing strategies to analyse issues, and ask questions to help others find their own solutions. These strategies I use with staff and find they work every time. It taught me to give it a go and apply for things with no doubting Tom in my head. But also accepting that failure and mistakes are just part of the journey and are okay and to help others to see errors are a necessary part of the learning journey.

Einstein said you can’t make changes if you think in the same way you always have and Aurora has changed me as it has helped me to think differently. I would advise anyone with a desire to think differently to apply.”

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