North West Women – inspired to lead

UCU Learning Development Organiser Janet Newsham reports from Liverpool

On Friday 6 December women members of UCU from across the north west gathered at the The Women’s Organisation in Liverpool for a networking and professional development event – ‘Women – inspired to lead?’. This was one of those occasions you wish you had filmed and bottled all the enthusiasm and positivity to share with more women. It was a real privilege to be in the company of such great speakers and participants.

On our first panel of speakers were Yana Williams and Julie Ward. Yana is the principal of Hugh Baird College and a participant in the Women’s Leadership Network. She spoke about her own inspirations and journey from playing hockey for England to becoming Principal. She said that good leaders are fair, transparent, good communicators, always available and treat everyone equally. They are understanding and don’t measure people by how long they stay at work, professional, tough when they need to be and humble. Yana said a leader needs to look at what others need by looking out of the window and not in the mirror; they should be able to ask audacious questions; they should have compassion for individuals and a clear vision; and they should have high standards and listen to as many people as possible before making a decision.

Julie Ward is a newly elected Labour Member of European Parliament for North West England and has been at the forefront of the campaign to protect workers’ rights public services in TTIP. She talked about her unusual journey to becoming an MEP. She said the reason she got involved in politics was because of the austerity agenda and the damage this has had to society and the arts. She read us one of her poems about women breaking through the glass ceiling and challenging the male-dominated culture in leadership:

Orders Please

If I was starting out now
I would not wait for permission
To join the human race
On an equal footing
Nor look for that elusive invitation
Asking me to take my rightful place
At the table where everyone can eat their fill
I would enter the men’s room
Through the glass ceiling
Abseiling from above
In an aerial display of breath-taking beauty
Wearing my favourite high-heeled shoes and
Dressed to kill with compassion
I would not mind my manners
Or pick at my food with ladylike grace
I would upset the apple-cart
With my bruised fruitfulness
I would speak out of turn
Precisely because I have a voice
I would laugh and make jokes
At men’s foibles and folly
Chastise them like children
For their war-mongering chants
I would make them clear the table
Of their devastating debris
Wash their dirty dishes
And hang out their own laundry
For all the world to see
That underneath the suits and boots
They wear soiled underwear
And socks with holes
I would teach them to mend and darn
To knit comfort blankets
And sew seams of solidarity
To learn embroidery
And other gentle arts
So that they might set the table
For us, with a cloth of flowers
And wait as patiently as we have waited
Orders please?

In the discussion that followed both Yana and Julie volunteered to support individuals with mentoring and shadowing. They talked about good leadership styles and that not every woman is supportive and the need to challenge anyone who is bad leader. They also both agreed that good employers will value the transferable skills of carers and in particular women.

Next on the agenda was a coaching session run by Alison Hollinrake from the University of Central Lancashire. Alison took us through the principles and practicalities of how coaching can support and develop women. She explained that coaching is a dynamic process and that it is a conversation or a series of conversations where the coach acts as a facilitator. Mentors on the other hand give advice and expert recommendations. Participants were given the opportunity to have a practice at a coaching session. The session was very well received, with one participant telling us ‘I feel coaching and being coached is very beneficial for so many people and we should all be able to take advantage of it’.

For our final session of the day we were joined by Lynn Collins, North West TUC Regional Secretary. Lynn spoke about her influences and leadership skills. Lynn had recently attended a leadership course at Harvard University and showed us some YouTube clips by Marshall Ganz, who explained the traits of a good leader and that leadership skills are developed and not necessarily innate.

Lynn also introduced us to an article by Leena Sudano ‘Women Union Leaders: Mongrels, Martyrs, Misfits, or Models for the Future?’ (from ‘Strife: Sex and Politics in Labour Unions’), which argues that ‘women conceptualise their role as union leaders differently from men, and significant cultural change in unions is necessary to create space for this different conceptualisation and practice of leadership’. It also makes the point that structural changes alone (such as quotas) are insufficient to encourage more women to become active in their trade unions and become leaders – cultural change is crucial.

Finally, Lynn also posed some questions for debate – is an ‘inclusive’ leadership style is seen as a sign of a weak leader, and are power and positions necessary in order to be seen as leader? A lively and thought-provoking debate about leadership styles, feminism and much more besides followed.

All in all it was a great day, with the members in attendance giving some excellent feedback and feeling ready to lead!

Further Reading

Gender & Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom
Paper by Alice H. Eagly, Harvard Business School
For more information about Julie and TTIP
For more information about the women’s leadership network that Yana is involved with

‘Orders Please’ is published by kind permission of Julie Ward MEP