26 February 2019: One of the UK’s greatest Paralympic athletes and now a crossbench peer, Baroness Grey-Thompson, was the keynote speaker at Advance HE’s Aurora event in London yesterday. She had a clear message for delegates - aim high, work hard and keep trying.
Aurora is a development programme, which aims to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in higher education.
Taking delegates through a snapshot of her early life and her career in athletics and in the House of Lords, Tanni explored some of the attributes behind her success, including:
hard work – illustrating her point with the fact that she had trained for four years to improve her personal best by one-hundredth of a second in order to compete in the 100m at the Athens Paralympics;
knowing the rules – the key, she argued, to being creative and imaginative in overcoming obstacles;
belief – from childhood, with the encouragement of her parents, she developed an attitude to take on challenges – to aim high, “even if you hit a cabbage” - rather than to succumb to those intent on limiting her opportunities; and
asking questions – “it’s better to know where you’re going and what you’re doing, than not.”
Reflecting on progress in the representation of women in leadership roles in higher education, Tanni said,
As with any journey there will be ebbs and flows, and while there has been progress, we still need to be proactive in making more happen. The Aurora programme is a really positive initiative, giving women in higher education the time and space to reflect on leadership, to become more self-aware, to learn from others, and in particular, to make new connections. You don’t just become a leader, you have to learn and work at it.”
She added, “Women can be reluctant to put themselves forward for leadership roles, often because we are too self-critical. We need to shift that mentality, but stay true to ourselves.” Tanni found that bringing other experiences to the workplace helped, and in her own sphere, sport meant she had to work with an enormous variety of people where she learnt to be sensitive to other people, to own her mistakes and to learn when “to keep her mouth shut!”
During her athletics career, Tanni won 11 gold medals and set 30 world records. She has very close ties with the higher education sector: she is Chancellor of Northumbria University and has honorary doctorates from nearly 30 universities. She attended Loughborough University, where she read Politics and Social Administration.
Aurora is our development programme for all people who identify as a woman. It is a unique partnership initiative bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector. Dates for next year’s Aurora programme will be published shortly.