CYGNA: Female leadership in Higher Education

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings, followed by two virtual meetings in May and June on Coping with a Pandemic and MBTI & Stress. As both meetings were a big success, we decided to continue with our virtual meetings in the new academic year and maintain the monthly schedule, planning for no less than ten CYGNA meetings this year, organized by diferent teams. Watch this space!

As you can see above, we had a full house again. Out of the 67 CYGNA members who had registered, no less than 53 attended. Four were only able to make the second half of the seminar so are not shown above, but I did manage to photoshop our second speaker (Susan Lea, bottom row left) into the picture.

One third of the participants were from outside the UK, including Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan and the USA. As usual, the audience included PhD students, post-docs, and many junior academics. However, reflecting the topic of the session, half of the audience was composed of (Associate) Professors and professional staff members.

Linn Eleanor Zhang (third row, left) from Loughborough University's London campus had organized a truly amazing session in September to start off our CYGNA year. She had invited two senior leaders to talk about leadership during and after COVID-19: Kristiina Mäkelä, (top row in the middle), Provost at Aalto University in Finland, and Susan Lea (bottom row left), Vice-Chancellor, University of Hull, UK. Two of Linn's Loughborough colleagues - Jo Tacchi (third row, 2nd from left), Associate Dean for Research, and Jenny Fry (row 6 in the middle), Associate Dean for Teaching - provided a commentary to the presentations.

Kristiina Mäkelä

Kristiina, Provost at Aalto University in Finland, gave us an insightful and very practical presentation on how the balance the different roles in your life. Her modest and down-to-earth attitude was incredibly refreshing. The tools she provided certainly set me thinking and I will use them in my own life as well as in my mentoring of others. You can download the slides of her full presentation here.

I loved all of the thinking/framing tools she suggested, but the one that I would like to single out is reflected in the slide below. It argues that rather than focusing on competition and achievement - something that is often reinforced in academic cultures - we should focus on development and learning.

What is important is not whether you are "better" than a colleague, but whether you are incrementally getting better yourself at whatever you are doing. This really resonated with me as it is very much the research culture I try to foster at Middlesex. It is also reflected in this blogpost: by all means have role models, but realise every career is different: Be proactive, resilient & realistic!

Susan Lea

Susan, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hull, gave us a presentation was truly inspirational. If I wasn't so happy at Middlesex University I would seriously think of putting in a job application at the University of Hull. Not surprisingly, the two universities share a passion for Social Justice and Sustainability. Susan shared her insights about leading a university during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the audience, she focused on the impact on women in particular (see below)

There were a wealth of insights in her presentation. What really stuck with me though was her positive attitude and determination to harness what we have learned in the current crisis. This means that rather than "going back to normal", we need to build a more resilient and equitable future. 

Q&A and Discussion

Jo Tachi and Jenny Fry started us off with reflections on the speakers' presentation. After that we had a very animated Q&A and discussion. The chat was completely overflowing with dozens and dozens of questions and many references to useful resources (see Resource references below), as well as expressions of appreciation for the speakers and organisers.

I loved the question about role models; yes, senior leaders have role models too! My own role model is the amazing Nancy Adler, here's a blogpost about her: Nancy Adler: Daring to Care. If you'd like to hear more career stories, check out the four "Hidden Stories" panels at the Academy of International Business featuring all 24 female AIB Fellows [include link once available on the AIB website]. My own career story is below.

Kristiina Mäkelä mentioned Eleanor Westney for the following reasons.

  • As an academic, she is one of the best conceptual thinkers I have ever met.
  • As a supervisor and mentor, she has a wonderful way of giving insightful and accurate critique, yet deliver it in a way that the recipient feels both inspired and empowered. She has always been ready to help and mentor younger academics.
  • As a female trailblazer, she has provided an inspiring example of all of us female academics, both in terms of what is possible and in embracing a learning-orientation (e.g., by sharing her experiences in inspiring key notes and workshops).

The diehards

After the speakers and most of the participants had left, we stayed on with about ten academics and had a discussion about workload transparency and physical and mental resilience. Abundant research has shown that women do get asked far more often to do additional work - especially related to student care and administration - as they are typically more hesitant to say no. So we talked how to say no assertively and with clarity. The following blogposts might be particularly relevant in this context:

Finally, we had a debrief session with the organizing team. By the time we logged off, we had been online for nearly 3.5 hours. But time had flown. Looking forward to the next virtual CYGNA meeting!

Resource references & role models

Related videos

Related blogposts