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Aurora case study: Dr Karen Masters

12 Nov 2018 | University of Portsmouth

I joined Aurora in 2014, my first year as a permanent academic at the University of Portsmouth. I had worked at Portsmouth as a fixed term researcher (a “postdoc”) since 2008, and following a string of fellowships, and a stressful and extended search for a permanent job (now typical of young academics in my field), I was offered an academic staff position in Portsmouth.

At the University of Portsmouth, the ten places offered annually for Aurora are oversubscribed and are, therefore, allocated on the basis of an application. In my application, I said that I believed the skills I’d learn would help me to “negotiate this change of status with my colleagues,” “develop my confidence” and help me learn how to be a more effective mentor for the next generation of young astrophysicists. I also expected to find networking opportunities, and through this experience improve my networking skills.

I attended Aurora at venues in London roughly once a month from November 2014 to March 2015. Aurora sessions are themed around specific topics, from “Identity, Impact and Voice,” to “Power and Politics,” “Core Leadership Skills” and “Adaptive Leadership.” I was initially concerned about the time commitment – and a full day in London once a month did take its toll. But looking back, taking that time is such an important part of the process. It gave me a space to self-reflect, to consider what about the way I present myself and interact with others works, and what doesn’t. Simply being in a conference venue with over 200 other ambitious (and female) women was a life changing experience. The statement made by “taking over the men’s toilets” for the day (or at least some of them) was quite powerful – similarly that the only men in the room were support staff (clearing away coffee cups, or providing the stationary). At each session I tried to sit at a table of people I had not met before. Each table was also assigned a “role model” – a more senior woman working in higher education who helped guide us through the activities.

About halfway through my Aurora experience I decided to submit an application for promotion to Reader. In my application made just a few months prior I had mentioned an ambition to do this in the “next few years.” Something about the Aurora experience made me realise there was no reason to wait.

I realised there was no real risk involved – a rejection would simply be feedback to try again the next year (and even the next), so why not go for it. My Heads of Department supported me, my application went in, and was awarded. As of 1st Sept 2015 I became a Reader, one step closer to Professor!

The other change I’ve noticed following attending Aurora is in how I watch people in meetings. I’m more aware of body language, and unspoken words. I’m not going to claim to be fluent in this language yet, but I’m noticing it, and at times I am able to deliberately change how I’m sitting – power posing, or perhaps uncrossing my arms, leaning in, or out as appropriate. I find the perceptions people have of others fascinating, and I’m learning to play more with the different roles and perceptions people have of me.

I’m an astrophysicist, and immediately on reading that you’ve made some assumptions about the kind of person you think I am. Since you know I’m female I wonder what you’re assuming about my appearance…. You might like to joke about how I’m not used to every day things, that I’ve “got my head in the stars”. You might be led to assume I’m very smart – even a “genius” at maths. That one word “astrophysicist” is a job title, but also shorthand for a whole lot of assumptions.

I’m a mother. Another word which carries a lot of assumptions. I spend a lot of time at the weekends out with my young children, and while most of the time I’m simply enjoy their company, I can’t fail to notice the difference in how people interact with me when I’m with them and when I’m not. The most memorable occasion was a visit to a special exhibit on robots at the Science Museum in London. As an astrophysicists I’d be assumed to be interested, even knowledgeable. As a mother I was ignored.

I’m a feminist. Another loaded word. You might read from it that I “hate men,” but what I want you to understand by that is I firmly believe in equality between genders. I do not believe that men are innately better suited to leadership than women, or that women are naturally better carers. I think each individual has their own qualities, and that for our society to reach the best of it’s potential, all people should be supported to succeed. But I also believe that right now our society is loaded in favour of men. The qualities we recognise as leadership qualities are encouraged in little boys, and discouraged in little girls. That’s not equality. That’s why we need programmes like Aurora.

I am proud to be an Aurora alumna. I wear my purple pin with pride, and I encourage any women working in higher education (academics or support staff) to apply for the programme. You will get a lot out of the experience, even if it’s not exactly what you thought it would be when you go in.

I find the perceptions people have of others fascinating, and I’m learning to play more with the different roles and perceptions people have of me."

Dr Karen Masters
Reader in astronomy and astrophysics
University of Portsmouth

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