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.”

Lesbian Visibility Day

by Simon Chandler-Wilde

Today, April 26th, is internationally celebrated in the LGBT+ community and beyond as Lesbian Visibility Day. Stonewall, the UK’s leading representational, campaigning, and support organisation for LGBT+ people and their allies – the University is a Stonewall Diversity Champion – has used today to launch a new video with many lesbian voices advocating the importance of lesbian visibility – and visibility of a variety of lesbian voices and backgrounds and intersectionalities. Here are a couple of stills from the video. These show first Stonewall and mental health advocate Yvonne Stewart-Williams, and then Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s Chief Executive. We’re really excited that Ruth will give our inaugural Wolfenden Lecture next week 4 May at 7pm – booking is still open here.

The voices on this video advocate powerfully for the importance of visible role models across society – and this message is taken up in Stonewall’s publication ‘The Double-Glazed Glass Ceiling: Lesbians in the Workplace‘, with a key recommendation that: ‘Having visible, open lesbian and bisexual female leaders in the organisation reassures lesbian employees that they won’t be discriminated against and encourages them to be out at work.’ The report also advocates strong support for role models, which is why we are so keen to support our LGBT staff financially and otherwise on Stonewall’s LGBT Role Models Programme. Watch the Staff Portal and the LGBT Plus network’s Twitter feed next week for details of funding for 8 more places, or talk for more info to my favourite lesbian and gay role models Deb Heighes and Calvin Smith, the co-chairs of LGBT Plus, who are both graduates of this one-day programme.

Talking this over this evening, my teenage daughter has emphasised to me the importance of visibility of younger role models. She means here role models at School and University  – RUSU and its LGBT+ Society do a great job locally at Reading of providing many role models, not least Nikki Ray our RUSU LGBT+ Part-Time Officer – but, equally, visible role models in the media and in the programmes that teens watch – a great example is Emily in Pretty Little Liars – that make clear that lesbian identities are normal, everyday, and across our diverse society.

‘Using your Voice to Make a Difference’: Jess Phillips MP at the University of Reading on June 1st

Guest post by Madeleine Davies (English Literature): update 20th April 2017, due to the 8th June General Election this talk will be postponed until some time in October to be confirmed.

In Jess Phillips’ recently published book, Everywoman (Hutchinson, 2017), the Labour MP discusses the ways in which female voices are silenced. She declares that this problem has deep historical roots as she observes the male and female gargoyles decorating the central lobby and the committee rooms in the House of Commons: Phillips notes that the men are depicted open mouthed in speech while the women are gagged, their mouths literally covered with stone muzzles (p.56).

The silencing of women’s voices is by no means a recent phenomenon but it has assumed a disturbing new manifestation in the digital age. In a particularly compelling section of her book, Phillips discusses online trolling and abuse and she explains ‘dog-piling’ which is a technique used by online trolls to shut down someone (often a woman) who speaks out. ‘Dog-piling’ involves hundreds or even thousands of people bombarding a Twitter account with messages over a short space of time. It is designed to drown out other voices, to intimidate the tweeter, and to effectively ‘block’ the voice.

Phillips recalls a horrifying example of this being used against her when a men’s rights activist made a comment about how ‘he wouldn’t even rape me’. As a statement, this is shocking enough, but what followed is even worse. As soon as the initial comment had been made, Phillips recalls the ‘dog-piling’ attack it initiated:

‘A glance at my twitter feed that day was a bit like reading a sinister Dr Seuss:

I will not rape her on a plane

I will not rape her on a train

I will not rape her in the car

I will not rape her on a star

I will not rape her HERE or THERE

I will not rape her anywhere

I will not rape her on a tram

I will not rape her, MAN-I-AM (pp.215-6)

That sufficient numbers of people required for a ‘dog-pile’ can find this abuse either funny or acceptable in the C21st staggered me. I am not a regular user of Twitter or Facebook, and reading Phillips’ book seemed to confirm my instinct that it might be a good idea to retain this policy.

But as Phillips notes, ‘dog-piling’ and other tactics (including ‘isolating’) are designed to coerce women into silence and she forges a connection between witch-hunts and the contemporary digital world when she notes that the feeling of being the victim of dog-piling is ‘akin to being stood in front of an enormous angry mob waving burning torches and pitchforks’ (p.215).

When women give in to the bullying and absent themselves from social media, the bullies win, so Phillips is firm in her argument that such tactics must not deter women from asserting their voices online, painful though the consequences can be. For this reason, Phillips was involved in the launch of Recl@im, an Internet campaign looking at laws and regulations that could be better used to stop abuse.  She is also involved in #NotTheCost, a campaign led by Madeleine Albright to combat the violence inflicted against politically active women around the world. Phillips’ engagement with this issue is clear – Jo Cox was one of her closest friends.

Phillips does not whine – she takes action and she asks all of us to do the same. She is, I think, an inspiring woman and it does not matter whether you agree with her politics or not. That she is willing to become the voice for all people who have no access to platforms from which to speak, positions her as a woman to be admired.

Jess Phillips is giving a talk at the University of Reading on June 1st. The Vice-Chancellor will introduce her at 6pm, and there will be a Q & A session and a book signing (for Everywoman) following the session. The talk takes place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and the book signing will be in the First Floor Foyer (both are in the Edith Morley Building, entrance 1a).

I have invited Jess to the University because I believe that she has a voice that needs to be heard by us all. Our students need fearless role models like her (though Phillips says she feels anything but ‘fearless’).  I hope that colleagues and students from across the University will come and hear Jess and contribute to the debate afterwards. After all, as she states:

‘By demanding to be heard, by dealing with our

imposter syndrome, by being cheerleaders,

doers not sayers, creating our own networks

and by daring to believe that we can make a

difference, we can.’