The diversity challenge – an outline of my journey

Diversity in HE (Higher Education) leadership (or rather lack of it) is a hot topic.  Quite right too, we all know the stats.  It is a complex, multi layered issue with no silver bullet solutions. London Higher is exploring issues around this and I will blog about our findings soon.  Meantime, here’s a taste of my journey.

At school (mid 70s) a teacher told me lessons like cookery would be for me ‘…far more important than other subjects’.  Back then this sort of sentiment was all too common (my mother shared it!).  Today at least in school this is not the case. I happily ignored the advice and went to University (far fewer women than men did so then) and on into the world of work.  My career in the HE sector started when I was 27.  By 35 I had three children aged five or under.

Going back to work that first time, to a new employer, my brain was addled, I lacked confidence and basically I had to because I earned more than my then husband.  Then to my horror four months later those two blue lines appeared in the box.  Guarantees for pregnant employees were limited, especially for anyone who had only been in a job a few weeks.  How lucky was I that my (white male) boss, and the Chief Executive, supported me when there was no legal requirement to do so. They decided I was worth sticking with. I believe I proved them right.

Being a working parent with three children is tough.  The fact my youngest (now 20) was born with severe learning disabilities added an extra dimension. This burden of caring will be with me always.  Fortunately over the years attitudes and office policies have improved. Flexible working, for instance, was once a non-starter. Now many organisations, including London Higher, are accommodating.  Not that in itself this solves everything. I still regularly worry during the day, and yes I change plans and miss engagements sometimes because last minute I find I need to be at home.  Attending evening events, some of which I know would be useful – for information, profile raising, networking or whatever – and nights away I cannot readily manage.

I’ve made it to a satisfying career point. Could I have done more if earlier on I hadn’t felt constrained about what I could apply for? I don’t know. I do know that today I can talk about my burden of care in a way I couldn’t five years ago, and my juggling act whilst hard is doable in a supportive workplace.

Another thing I know is that anyone can suffer mental health problems. I battled with depression ten years back, caused by no single factor but many combining.  I owe so much to the six (white male) Vice Chancellors on the London Higher Board who closed ranks around me and supported me to take all the recovery time I needed.  They didn’t have to but they did. Again I believe I proved worthy.  And I hope I would offer the same support to others facing a similar situation.

Rather than clamming up, nowadays I realise I should share my personal experiences however minor they may seem compared with those of others. Feeling alone is never helpful. I also believe I’ve learned how important it is to be open, and to try to be understanding and non-judgemental.