We must be the pioneers of change

UB asks Julie Stone, Director of University of Derby Online Learning, about HE’s crucial role in overcoming gender inequality

Q. Universities have been criticised for the lack of female academics in senior positions, why do you think there are so few female Vice-Chancellors?

A. There are a number of factors that link to this. I think there is a high proportion of females whose careers are interrupted, due to them taking time out to have families and this disrupts their pace of reaching the senior positions. Also there are unconscious and conscious prejudices that exist and this is difficult to define and therefore to overcome.

Q. Over the last few months, some leading names in UK HE have spoken out about the gender divide, saying that gender imbalance in the leadership of higher education is a serious issue worldwide. How do we go about tackling this? 

A. We promote females in leadership. We actively discuss it as a problem to overcome. This way it does put the issue on the table and people become more conscious about it and therefore hopefully prejudices are challenged. It is good therefore that there are strong voices now speaking up on this issue in the media. 

Q. What else could universities be doing to promote gender equality?

A. I think it is all about promoting positive images of women in leadership; having seminars for females to attend that promote leadership development and where inspirational female leaders come to talk to other aspiring female leaders. I have attended several of these types of events run by the Derbyshire and Nottingham Chamber and it is empowering.   

‘We promote females in leadership. We actively discuss it as a problem to overcome’

Q. What can women leaders offer UK HE? Do they bring anything new to the table in comparison to their male peers?

A. I think whether male or female it will be your leadership style and your skills and abilities that will matter. However, an appropriate balance of male and female will change the feel of an organisation and properly represent the staff base. Having said that I do think the male and the female brains do work differently and a combination of different approaches is very powerful in an organisation. 

Q. Gender equality needs to be embedded in society as a whole. How crucial is HE’s role in making that happen?

A.Universities are all about education of course and we know that any form of discrimination usually arises from a lack of education. In my view universities should lead the way in education and set examples for others to follow. We must be seen to be behaving in a manner that is consistent with our educational messaging. We must be the pioneers of change and therefore it is crucial that we lead by example. 

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Q. Was it always a goal of yours to achieve a high-ranking position? 

A. I never set out with a career plan. I do have a strong work ethic and I come from a family line of strong women so maybe this combination has helped me secure the role I am in today.  

Q. What’s it been like working in a male-dominated industry? 

A. I have been privileged to work in a sector with some very talented and generous-spirited individuals. I haven’t reflected too much on it being male-dominated but this has presented challenges along the way in terms of an unconscious bias. However, generally the education sector is a sector that has led the way in terms of its approach to females and has been more respectful of the role of women. We must ensure that this continues to be the case and develops to another level where unconscious bias is removed.

‘Whether male or female it will be your leadership style and your skills and abilities that will matter’ 

 Q. Do you think your fight to the top was more difficult to that of your male colleagues?

A. Securing a senior management role is never easy and is usually down to a lot of hard work, talent and sometimes both. However, I do believe it is more difficult for women to secure the leadership roles due to the unconscious bias that I do believe exists. 

Q. What advice would you give to women working towards a leadership role in HE?

A. Be confident; be yourself – don’t try to become the image of what someone else proposes a female leader should be; insist on being taken seriously.

Q. What do you plan to do over the coming months to promote gender equality in HE?

A. Promote the women in leadership seminars; discuss this as an issue in our sector and beyond at senior management meetings; keep networking, promoting and supporting our talented female staff. We have some strong female leaders in UDOL who inspire me every day… I hope they inspire others too. 

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