The workplace remains subject to male dominance and as such, says Carol Taylor, there is need for a space for female leaders to share ideas where they are in the greater number.

More than 100 delegates went to the Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) annual conference, in London, run in partnership with College Leadership Services.

While not aimed solely at women leaders and aspiring leaders, delegates were overwhelmingly female.

Is there a need for a space where women who are in, or who aspire to, leadership can come together? Are there strategies that women need to learn? Are there decisions that women face that men usually don’t face? Is there really a level playing field with no glass ceiling?

It was interesting how the conversations changed over the day — early comments like “I was very annoyed my boss sent me on this….why would I want to go to a leadership conference only for women?” became: “It’s great to have a chance to hear how successful women lead”.

The change of atmosphere was palpable as the day went on — women expressing how good it felt to be in the majority, those who began to feel more relaxed about issues such as career choice, managing meetings, handling leadership. It was clear, for example, that [National Union of Students president] Toni Pearce’s excellent session on lad culture would have had a very different tone with fewer women’s voices.

For me there is a specific need for spaces where aspiring women leaders can come together to share tactics, think about their development needs, and talk to successful women leaders.

No one can seriously doubt the male hegemony, which leads to men appointing men to posts where leadership qualities are required, thus reinforcing the cycle. This is not to say that there aren’t many supportive, open and aware men in senior positions out there, but just to say that there aren’t nearly enough.

No one can seriously doubt the male hegemony, which leads to men appointing men to posts where leadership qualities are required, thus reinforcing the cycle

While we no longer get interview questions such as “What will you do when the kids are ill?”, women are still subject to subtle ways in which they are either undermined or expected to perform in a certain way.

Take, as a very obvious example, the images used in publications and periodicals, which are overwhelmingly white and male. Take the language used to describe women, ‘bossy’ being one of only a number of gender-specific words used as subtle put-downs.

Delegates at the conference, which took place on May 21, were treated to a keynote from Sophia Swire who, among other things, stood up to drugs warlords, set up more than 250 primary schools in Afghanistan.

Her lively speech took us through how she had used networks, persistence and sheer bloody mindedness to change lives and raise aspirations, especially for girls and women. This set the tone for the rest of the conference, which was — you can do most things if you set your mind to it.

The closing speech of WLN chair Sally Dicketts was forthright and pertinent, developing the theme of role models for young men and women in colleges, at all levels, and about the need for us, men and women, to challenge wherever we need to.

She finished by saying that for her, leadership was about kindness — yes, we had to be tough and forthright, strategic thinkers and responsive managers, but above all, we should be kind.

We must have leaders in the FE sector who represent the range of people we work with, the people we want to attract.

We must recognise and value a range of leadership styles. We have to enable women to make choices about whether they want to aim for leadership positions, whether that is as a governor or a chef executive of a
charity, whether it’s as a principal of a college or curriculum leader. It’s up to all of us to make this happen, and the thriving WLN is one place where something is being done.

Carol Taylor, deputy chief executive, development and research, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace)