St Paul's Institute

Women in Leadership: What Needs to Change? (Q&A;)

by National Union of Students

Posted: 11 Jul 2014

[As part of our July 2014 event on Women in Leadership: What Needs to Change? we asked five key organisations for their thoughts on where the focus should be and the actions we can all take.]

Q&A responses from the National Union of Students

What needs to change?

Men outnumber women four to one in Parliament and out of a cabinet of 23, only four are women. There are more millionaires in the cabinet than women and the Liberal Democrats have more knights of the realm than women ministers.50 per cent of career academics are women, and yet only 17 per cent of our Vice Chancellors are women. Over 60 per cent of students in further and higher education are women, and yet only around a third of our students' union presidents are women.

The plain fact is that there are too few women in leadership positions, whether in the student movement, education, workplaces or wider society - and those that are face intolerable barriers.

How can we begin to remove the institutional and cultural barriers preventing many women from reaching positions of leadership?

We should refuse to accept that the reason female leaders are few and far between is because there aren't talented women out there who could do all those jobs and more. The reality is, whatever the reason, far too often women simply don't run for those positions.

We need to root out the causes of those fears. We need to tackle lad culture and sexism head on in our campuses and in our communities that cuts women out whenever it rears its ugly head. The earlier women can see other women in positions of leadership, the better. It will start a chain reaction that will let other women know that they are capable and have every right to aim higher too.

What actions can we take to create lasting change?

Leadership should look different and diverse. We want to see more women leading and we need to do away with this "one size fits all" style of leading. All of our current leaders look, sound and behave the same. Truly representative leaders should look and act like real people. Women shouldn't have to change themselves to meet a polished masculine ideal of leadership.

How is your organisation helping to bring about change?

NUS has made women in leadership one of its key priorities so we can work together to inspire and mentor women to be leaders in the student movement, the trade union movement and wider society.

The student movement is one of the most progressive, challenging and diverse sections of our society. NUS and students' unions exist in order to protect students and remove the barriers to their success; to lead and facilitate students in informing and creating change in their institutions, and ultimately in having equal opportunity to succeed in their education.

Women are overrepresented in the student movement itself making up 56 per cent of further and higher education students. But when it comes to positions of power and steering the movement, women fair less well representing 45 per cent of officers and 38 per cent of presidents. It is clear that there are barriers which are affecting the number of women in leadership within the student movement.

NUS launched the I will lead the way programme to increase the number of women officers and women presidents. It aimed to encourage women to stand, ensure that women have every opportunity to develop and progress and to lead organisational change. It also provided a coaching and mentoring programme for women to provide advice, confidence building and support for women intending to stand.

We have also been working to highlight the culture of sexism and harassment on campuses. In 2010, NUS released Hidden Marks: A Study of women students' experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault, the first ever nationwide report into women students' experiences on this topic. The report provided a snapshot of the harassment and violence that women students have faced, with 14 per cent experiencing serious physical or sexual assault. 68 per cent were subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment and nearly one in four experienced unwanted sexual contact.

Following on from this report, NUS commissioned ground breaking research into lad culture on campuses across the UK. NUS released That's what she said: Women students' experiences of 'lad culture' in higher educationBoth publications were featured widely in mainstream media.

We've teamed up with Laura Bates from everyday sexism and Lucy Holmes from no more page three to host the "lad culture summit" which discussed how we can tackle this problem and launched the National Strategy Team. At the summit we announced we were creating a National Strategy Team who will work to support higher education institutions and student unions in tackling the problem in a practical way, changing an entire culture embedded on our campuses, which is more than asking for one simple change within an institution.

About this author

The National Union of Students (NUS) is a voluntary membership organisation that represents the interests of more than seven million students.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.