Women are increasingly being appointed to more senior leadership roles: as of 2020, women represent 32% of corporate board members in the FTSE 250 companies.
But dig a little deeper and only five women (2%) hold CEO positions. Does this signal a shortage of talented women in the workforce? In June 2020, 73% of working age women compared to 80% of men were in employment. More women than men are pursuing Higher Education: in the UK 2018-2019, over half of all students were women. It seems there’s no shortage of well-educated women so why so few women in the top jobs? Quoting from research by Julia Gillard, Chair of Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and former Prime Minister of Australia:
‘…research into workplace culture highlights that toxic work environments are prevalent and stifling. Promoting leaders who role model inclusive behaviours and rewarding them for doing so, creates change.’
I left university in 1992 and quickly started to doubt if the world really was my oyster. I dealt with interview questions such as: ‘How will you cope at home?’, ‘How will you get here, do you have a car?’ and ‘I really was thinking of hiring a boy!’ Instead of dwelling on these negative experiences, I followed advice I was given early in my career - always try to work with managers you can learn from, people you want to emulate. This simple advice has meant that I may have, to a large extent, created a buffer by surrounding myself with people who operate based on mutual respect. I have identified role models who behave in ways I admire, they are true to themselves, their values are evident, and they are a force driving forward to deliver the organisation’s objectives while challenging negative behaviours.
I have worked in innovation roles across the pharmaceutical sector and within the university sector, at the interface between academics, industry and funders of research and innovation: working in dynamic, fast-paced environments with world experts in their fields and some of the most innovative companies in Scotland, the UK and internationally. Over my 30-year career I’ve moved around, seeking jobs which captivate and challenge me, and I have worked with some fantastic men and women, giving me opportunities to learn and develop.
Unfortunately, every so often I get a stark reminder, a reality check. I read an article that concluded the gender pay gap, and part of the reason fewer women get promoted, is because ‘women do not ask’. Soon afterwards, for the first time, I picked up the phone to ask a senior colleague about an internal job opportunity one grade above my own post. I was shocked when he said: ‘I didn't know you had that ambition’.
Universities are playing an increasingly crucial role in tackling challenges faced by key sectors of the economy enabling companies and their supply chains to innovate and support post COVID-19 recovery. As Knowledge Exchange, innovation and impact from university research has climbed higher on the agenda of Governments and policymakers, it is crucial for universities to attract the best talent, and equality and diversity are crucial drivers for productivity and innovation. PraxisAuril Directors forum has 42% women, and the sector has a range of initiatives addressing inequality of all types, although there’s more that can be done.
Working on projects which deliver real economic and social benefits, definitely gives me a reason to get up in the morning – as Head of Knowledge Exchange at Edinburgh Napier University, I lead a team of professionals working to create impact and commercialise University IP (patenting, licencing and supporting the development of spinout companies), training and mentoring staff & student entrepreneurs and developing strategic partnerships to tackle innovation challenges with large and small businesses – in areas from cyber security and the Internet of Things to treatments for the common cold through to new engineered timber solutions for the construction industry.
While no two days are the same, there is one constant in my role. I am determined to be part of the change, to demonstrate positive inclusive behaviours that will lead to a more gender equal society. Today on International Women's Day, I encourage you to #ChooseToChallenge because from challenge comes change.
Head of Knowledge Exchange, Edinburgh Napier University
Written in celebration of International Women's Day 2021 for the PraxisAuril blog series - Women in Innovation