Why a level playing field needs good leadership

On March 30, 2015


Recently Philip Moriarty discussed on this blog both the importance of a recent Cambridge University event on what success means for women within the HE Sector and diversity issues more generally, but also (as he put it) the vacuity of leadership within a university context. “I didn’t become an academic in order to be led”, he says. Now, whereas I entirely understand this sentiment, I think in the context of improving our working environment – as opposed to structuring our research – leadership is not only important: it is vital. The lot of women in particular, will not be changed radically without decisions being taken at the top. And if that isn’t leadership I don’t know what is.

I have written in the past on my personal blog about the importance of leadership from the top, in the context of my own university and the vice chancellor’s commitment. Let me briefly revisit, building on what Phil wrote previously on Physics Focus, why I think it is so important and why in this particular case I think Phil is wrong, however appropriate his objections may be in other situations within our universities.

When I first became aware of what one might historically have termed ‘women’s issues’ – specifically within physics but also more broadly – those discussing the issues were typically women’s groups organised bottom-up. Too often, I’m afraid such groups simply became vehicles for complaint. Of course where the working atmosphere was bad, or perhaps ‘merely’ isolating and unsupportive, there was much to complain about. Structures that implicitly held women back and leaders/managers who constantly overlooked women, talked over them in meetings or dumped excessive amounts of lowly-regarded tasks on them out of all proportion to the average in a department, were all too common. Women rightly wanted to talk to other women about the unfairness of it all. But frequently that was all they could do. Regularly they had no route for their voices of dissatisfaction to be heard. Having valid cause for complaint unfortunately does not equate to change.

And that is why an event like the one we organised in Cambridge was addressed to the ‘leaders’ from universities around the UK. We weren’t wanting them to make pious statements of intent – those of the variety that Phil feels are vacuous – but actually to enact policies that would support minorities and make the workplace better for all. By all means leadership should listen to the bottom-up concerns, but self-help groups can only identify the problems, and possibly suggest solutions they believe would work – but not enforce procedural change or put money on the table to make sure there genuinely is support for minorities.

Let me give some concrete examples relevant to physics but also more widely, starting with support for students (undergraduate and graduate). In my department, a group of female students got together and wanted to organise some events with inspiring external (and female) physics speakers, plus some social events. This costs money. Not much but a little, and they approached the head of department. Andy Parker, being deeply committed to these issues, made that little money available and a longer-term sustainable programme is being put in place.

If we move up the ladder of seniority, since women in physics departments tend to be in such a minority, there is the danger of well-intentioned managers asking them to serve on far more committees than their male colleagues (and not necessarily the ones with real power either) in an attempt to approach gender balance on each one. Unless this is monitored, unless workload models are constructed and the data evaluated to check for this overload, women may all too often find themselves burdened in ways that may not be advantageous to their careers. Management/leadership needs to ensure fair workloads are apportioned transparently.

Finally there are policies that require the university leadership as a whole to act. In this category I would include ensuring that promotion criteria adequately reflect the full suite of activities academics may engage in and not just effectively end up counting the number of Nature papers or total grant income. These are the sort of topics that the Meaning of Success event specifically explored, since the book the University of Cambridge published last year demonstrated that the women we interviewed had a broader view of what ‘success’ looked like than the sum of the crude metrics too often used as a proxy for a real assessment of excellence.

Another action Cambridge has put in place is a Returners’ Scheme. With hard cash on the table, anyone (male or female) returning from six months or more leave (this may include sick leave, parental leave or other caring responsibilities for instance) can apply for grants of up to £15,000 to help them get back on their feet. This might cover assistance in field work, paying for an accompanying person to travel to look after a small child at a conference, or some minor capital item to kickstart a research programme. We know how valuable those who’ve benefitted from such grants have found these quite modest sums of money because they’ve said so; we also know such explicit support from the University conveys the message that returners are valued and it has encouraged many who might otherwise have felt dubious about their status after an extended period of leave. This programme does cost quite substantial amounts and is only possible because of commitment from the very top in finding that money.

So, for all these reasons, I think on this occasion Phil Moriarty has got it wrong. Leadership does matter to drive cultural change within an organisation such as a university. When it comes to procedural issues such as unconscious bias training, the leadership needs to tell people what to do. Unless this becomes mandatory those who would most benefit from the training may not make the time and effort to do so. Reluctant department heads may drag their heels about ensuring the working environment is comfortable for all if there isn’t some sort of central oversight providing a mild stick of expectation. Bottom-up is great for pointing out the problems and challenges, but without support from above effective solutions will not be put in place.

Image credit: Shutterstock/max sattana

About Athene Donald

Athene Donald is a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge working on soft matter and biological physics; she is also Master of Churchill College. She was founding chair of the Institute of Physics’ Biological Physics Group (2006-10) and is Project Director of the IOP’s Teaching Biological Physics project. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group and a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. She blogs at Occam’s Typewriter and at the Guardian.

6 Responses to Why a level playing field needs good leadership

  1. Thanks for a great post. The original quote from Dr. Moriarty included a bit more text that clarifies his argument: “I didn’t become an academic in order to be led… I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom. ”

    I think what’s missing here is a sense of how good leaders interact with a group. Good leaders willingly engage in robust dialogue about the right way forward. Indeed, gauging the group and soliciting feedback on ideas are key activities of good leaders. Successful university leadership includes and indeed encourages such dialogue when it comes to gender and other issues. A willingness of the leadership to engage in gender issues is not equivalent to handing down orders.

  2. I didn’t mean to imply this was about issuing orders, it is about making recommendations work. The recommendations and solutions, as I made clear, are quite likely to come from others (the bottom-up approach) but the leadership needs not only to listen but to act. In Cambridge, to flesh out my specific example, we have a whole series of groups and committees who feed into the process, with formal governance structures. The ‘leadership’ will most certainly be exploring and debating with these different groups, though probably not often contesting and arguing since I suspect in most cases I’ve seen there has been consensus and agreement.

  3. Athene is correct. Leadership from the top is essential if resources are to be allocated to achieving diversity.

    Philip Moriarty’s original article was a straw man argument. Define leadership and management to be people with fancy titles and inflated salaries telling other people what to do and then observe that it doesn’t work. Dictating from the top is an ineffective leadership style. That does not mean that leadership is not required. Effective leadership allows for debate and disagreement.

    Ten years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a week-long workshop on Women in Leadership. At the de-brief at the end, the academic women were unanimous that providing women with leadership skills was not enough. Men need leadership skills, too.

  4. Hi, Athene.

    Thanks for your post and apologies for the delay in my response (due to a combination of family commitments and the Diamond Light Source beamtime application deadline of April 1st).

    First, I need to stress right from the start — and I hope that this was abundantly clear from my “Follow The Leader?” post — that I fully support the objectives underpinning the “Delivering Equality:Women and Success” meeting. The points regarding the illusion/pretence of ‘objective’ meritocracy that you and others powerfully made during that meeting (and elsewhere) were particularly important.

    We agree on the objectives; it’s just that we differ on the best way to change the culture.

    I’m disappointed that Esther Haines feels that my post was a “straw man” argument. As you might expect, I don’t agree.

    Esther: “Dictating from the top is an ineffective leadership style”.

    Indeed. And yet this is exactly how leadership works in most universities. “Leaders” are expected to have “vision” — they set in place their grand schemes and rank-and-file academics are expected to fall in line. As I discussed in my post, the root cause of many of the problems with university management lies with the adoption of a corporate model of leadership. George Monbiot railed against corporate leadership in his column in The Guardian yesterday , and I note that there’s also an article in this week’s THE on the same theme but in a university context: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/death-of-the-ascetics-the-rise-of-the-v-c-lifestyle/2019343.article

    Note the focus on collegiate vs corporate values in that THE article. This is precisely what was at the core of my “Follow The Leader?” post. Collegiality is being devalued as compared to corporate “top down” management via ‘inspirational’ (*cough*) leaders.

    Esther’s position is that it’s a straw man argument to suggest that “change via leadership” is flawed when my arguments were based on poor leadership. This somewhat misses the point of my post. My argument is that the concept of change being driven by “leaders” runs counter to the collegiality that is absolutely core – or should be core — to universities. The leadership meme assumes that change must be driven from above. Indeed, Athene explicitly states this in her post: “The leadership needs to tell people what to do”.

    I disagree.


    If we want to change the culture with regard to diversity and quality — and, more broadly, if universities want to ensure that they maximise the “return in investment” of their most important resource, their staff — then we need to move away from the current fixation with top-down management driven by ‘leaders’.

    Anne puts it pithily in her comment above: “A willingness of the leadership to engage in gender issues is not equivalent to handing down orders.”

    The examples that you describe, Athene, show the importance of adopting the right procedures and culture . Indeed, the first example you use is precisely the type of collegiate activity I am advocating. The idea of the seminar programme involving inspiring female speakers came from the students themselves. It wasn’t imposed from above. The Head of Department of course needed to support that activity financially but I wouldn’t call that an example of leadership — I’d say instead that it’s a key example of the importance of bottom-up “lobbying”.

    Similarly, with regard to your example of routes to promotion, this is again a procedural matter. What needs to happen is that university managers, HoDs, PVCs, VCs etc… are responsive to input from their staff. Not that they impose their “vision”. Or, as you put it, that the “Leadership tells people what to do”.

    I’ll close by noting that Mary Beard – who I quoted in my post – also has concerns about the “follow the leader” culture:


    (I really wish I’d seen that tweet before I wrote my post!)

    Best wishes,


  5. Philip, of course we don’t disagree on objectives, and I think we disagree less on methods than you imply. It isn’t black or white. All I was trying to say is that, in this particular case, I think there are times when leadership needs to tell people what to do – eg making unconscious bias or equivalent training mandatory – but there also times, as we do in Cambridge, need leadership to listen and engage. My examples were precisely chosen to illustrate that all types of process are required, but bottom-up alone are insufficient. If you don’t have leadership acting then you end up with dissatisfied action groups feeling nothing is being done. I also think diversity may not be exactly typical of other situations found in HE and some mandating is required in order to effect culture change.
    (Mary and I have disagreed on this in the past, see this.

  6. My original comment was actually meant to be in support of university leadership playing a role in gender balance. Philip’s comment that he didn’t want to be “led” seemed to misinterpret what good leaders do: good leaders open lines of communication and work alongside individuals within the organization to find solutions. On rare occasions, there might be “orders from above”, but more frequently, leadership and individual professors can work together to find solutions that work for both sides.