I’ve been on a large number of women’s leadership courses. My first was in 1999. I still don’t rule the world, so what’s happened? Invariably I get sent spam invitations like this, to my university email address:
- In the middle of or embarking on a challenging role, restructure or project at work?
- Needing to thrive in a difficult environment or with people that require the ability to bounce back fast?
- Increasing your ability to be brave and achieve much more in your life, work and world?
- Looking to make a bigger impact and difference and you know it will require resilience?
- Going through a career, business or life change?
- Trying to juggle it all and you could do with a boost of inspiration!
- Dreaming, visioning (or procrastinating!) on achieving something new, big or different that requires resilience this year?
I am then invited to spend around £150 plus VAT to spend a collective hour with an ‘executive coach’ in a webinar telling me how to be a bit more like a grown-up.
Sometimes my university sends me on special higher education leadership courses specially aimed at women. These cost the institution around £2000 plus VAT. They usually involve sitting in a large hall with several hundred other senior management hopefuls, drawing mind maps of how torn we are between our different life roles, role playing how awkward people at work are to us, and hearing ‘inspirational’ speakers tell us how important it is to have women in science as they can develop new kinds of lipstick! And get their daughters developing new kinds of lipstick! (Yes, I have actually witnessed this first hand). At some stage in these courses, pictures of women leaders go up on a large screen, and we have to declare which leaders inspire us the most. I have found the hard way that the correct answer is NOT to grab the microphone and make the case for Boudicca, Cnut and General Sir Mike Jackson, by the way, just in case you are wondering. The correct answer is invariably Maya Angelou, Mother Theresa or Princess Diana, after which you are expected to say something about how your aspirational management style involves tearful looks into the middle distance about how unjust the world is, and how their calmly creative leadership styles have encouraged you into great feats of inclusion, because this represents true Female Leadership.
This is the life of women in academe.
What opened my eyes was getting a new institutional email address at the point of the UCL/IOE merger, where UCL made a careless typo, and suddenly a significant number of people really, really thought I was a man called Stephen Gray. All sorts of *different* offers came pouring into my inbox. Sessions on how to position your department competitively to ensure the largest possible share of resources, invitation-only seminars offering significant networking opportunities with business leaders, invitations to review large-scale projects for decent hard cash in my spare time. It opened my eyes to a different world. Here are a few of the most spammy ones (bear in mind I do serious research into things like Big Data, algorithms, privacy, biometrics and so on, so our research areas technically overlap at the edges, from the look of things):
Head Global Data Privacy
Director, Statistics & Programming
Health Informatics Director
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My FEMALE university persona never got to see these, but my MALE university persona suddenly did, and I have not even cut and pasted the (strangely relevant) paid gig offers here, because they are confidential. Now this isn’t a plea for commercial conference businesses to start sending me spam, but I wanted you all to see the stark difference in tone between the spam aimed at women, and the spam aimed at men. The women’s spam assumes a position of weakness, doubt, diffidence, and cautiousness, rooted in a perceived lack of resilience. Engaging with courses dealing with this is done under the guise of reflective practice and softening the workplace. The man’s spam assumes swashbuckling engagement with ‘other leaders’, ‘senior-level executives’ and ‘chiefs’. Engaging with this is all about building your business/department/sector, and not about wondering if there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.
Is it any wonder that so few women are in senior leadership positions, if this is the deal? Unless women are busy learning how to compete, rather than busy learning how to engage in even more of what sociologists might call ’emotional work’, there ain’t going to be much energy left for promotion. And without promotion there is no chance to make changes to hard-edged corporate cultures. So it’s a Catch-22 for all of us.
Let’s have some proper leadership courses for women. With no lipstick.