Women Leaders in HE – do they/can they do leadership differently?

The EnPOWER online community of practice (CoP) group kicked off in June 2022 and has met bi-monthly since. The CoP brings together a group of researchers and HE teachers from the UK, Vietnam, Australia and the US to explore both the literature and our experiences of women and leadership. We have we spent a lot of time exploring our collective experiences of leading and ‘being led’ and have begun to think about gendered differences in leadership. Do they exist? Do they matter? If so, why?

A stack of stones

A lot of our CoP conversations have centred around how we feel as a group of women working in HE. We have a shared sense that an ethics of care and emotional intelligence are important qualities for leaders that might be easier for women to incorporate into an alternative, possible distinctively female style of leadership.

This would of course involve challenging (and valuing less) more traditional, masculinist ideas about leadership that often assume it requires a degree of ruthlessness as well as a certain emotional detachment on the part of the leader so that they can make difficult decisions and maintain control over their team.

We also asked members of the group to contribute to an EnPOWER Community of Practice Padlet board and through this they shared ‘Images of Women Leaders in HE’, some of which are included in this blog.

Do female leaders tend to embody different, more emotionally intelligent styles of leadership more readily than their male counterparts?

The Vietnamese members of the group discussed the influence of Confucian values in the Vietnamese HE context which they felt clearly helps to engender a working environment that values respect and care and which pays attention to good working relationships. There is also the cultural significance of reputation - in Vietnamese culture - not only in terms of one’s own profile as a leader, but in the care one might take as a leader to ensure the reputation of one’s team, as a team as well as the individuals who are part of it.
A collage of different flowers in winter

Is there a distinct Vietnamese model of leadership in HE and how does it play out for women leaders?

We all felt that there was a need for all workers in HE (as elsewhere) to balance work and the other spheres of their life such as family and leisure activities. The former are often very important for women workers and by implication might be a bigger concern for female leaders, as women so often take on the bulk of caring /familial responsibilities.

Working and leading in HE can be stressful, it is a very pressurised environment. However, happiness and pleasure in the workplace were linked by the group to the ability to stay strong and maintain resilience in one’s work and working relations. They can all be achieved through mindfulness and fleeting moments such as a coffee with a colleague or a student letting you know how much your feedback has helped them progress in their studies module has helped them.

How can leaders help create happy and fulfilling work environments? Is it their responsibility to do so? 

A more emotionally sensitive style of leadership recognises that social interactions and relationships in the workplace and the ability of leaders to create meaningful opportunities for connections and relationships is very important. Indeed, it suggest a leader who functions as the ultimate connector, between team members and between the leader and team members, rather than a leader who is there is manage, even police individuals and their relationships with other staff and students  

Our discussions also explored the idea that effective leaders should always strive to maintain a positive vision about their team’s potential rather than just seeing themselves as needing to judge and critique performance. This challenges the very predominant neoliberal focus in HE on staff outcomes and targets, which often results in leaders adopting a punitive regime of micro-management and surveillance.
Shadow of someone carrying something

How can these ideas about be embedded in leadership training for women?

Finally, we agreed that if we did want to acknowledge alternative values more in HE leadership then we needed to think about the different types of language used to describe leadership attributes in HE in, for example, job advertisements and staff evaluations. So often the strengths of women workers/leaders, such as the ability to foster good working relationships, support individuals to work flexibly thereby building a strong team in which members feel happy and fulfilled are not fully appreciated or recognised.

Should it include the following?

  • Recognising and valuing relations and social interactions between leaders and team members 
  • Building in collegial support for team members across roles
  • Creating flexibility/ability to work around other commitments in the workplace
  • Female mentoring which involves specifically valuing the experiences of experienced female staff e.g. caring roles, institutional sexism
  • Changing how workspaces are configured and used e.g. more social spaces, fewer formal demarcation across roles