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Throwing Down Ladders

18 Feb 2019 | Dr. Sara Shinton Dr. Sara Shinton has mentored on the Aurora programme since joining the University in 2017 and is a role model on the 2018/9 programme. Here she reflects on what it means to her to be a role model.

Dr. Sara Shinton has expertise in supporting researchers from PhD to Professor, research leadership and developing a more inclusive academic culture. After many years of consultancy, working with universities and organisations across Europe, in January 2017 she joined The University of Edinburgh. As Head of Researcher Development, Sara oversees the training programmes for The University of Edinburgh research community, which deliver hundreds of events each year. She has mentored on the Aurora programme since joining the University and is a role model on the 2018/9 programme. Here she reflects on what it means to her to be a role model.

Since agreeing to be a role model on the Aurora programme I’ve been considering the responsibilities this places on me. Although I’ve been positively influenced by my own role models and recognise that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”, I don’t think my visibility is enough. Similarly, whilst deeply committed to training, I recognise that attending a course doesn’t result in progression. To advance, people need opportunities to develop and demonstrate their skills. Here I explore the importance of “throwing down ladders” so that opportunities flow more effectively towards under-represented groups and why this means we can all play a part in improving diversity in academia.

Why ladders?

The phrase “throwing down ladders” came from an impeccable source. Over a decade ago I was running a leadership programme for new academics and our guest speaker was the then Head of College of Science and Engineering at Edinburgh, Professor Lesley Yellowlees. Lesley is an active champion for women in STEM, former President of the Royal Society and Chemistry and member of the Board of the Scottish Funding Council. She recently chaired the Tapping All Our Talents Review Group and writes about her frustration with the glacial progress on equality in science here. She talked about diversity in science and how important it was to use her position of influence at the top of the ladder to encourage more women up behind her. With customary enthusiasm, she told us “I’m throwing down ladders!” and explained that it wasn’t enough to be visible as a senior leader. She had to create opportunities and encourage people to take them. This message stuck with me.

Around the same time, I started to notice that in other contributions from senior leaders that there was a tendency for women to talk about the luck they’d experienced in their careers. If you listened carefully, the reality was that these women had been given opportunities that they were qualified and equipped for – they had climbed ladders. (I have a separate issue about women viewing this process as luck and have a side mission to eradicate this from career narratives, but I risk digressing.) I started to think about what ladders I could throw down.

What helps?

Culture and environment are important. I feel I’m in an institution which accepts it needs to find different approaches to diversity and inclusion and has started to work on identifying and evaluating these. Some of our thinking on equality has been captured in Equal Bite which captures personal experiences, research and the messy reality of gender issues in HE. 

We’ve built on the Equal Bite foundation and are launching an EPSRC-funded Inclusion Matters project to unpick the complexity of academic leadership and design interventions which can tackle the “pinch-points” which undermine diversity in strategic grant leadership. Whilst it’s essential that institutions change and move away from the idea of “fixing the women”, individuals can play a part in this.

What do I do?

In my role, I oversee programmes which support career development and equip people for the challenges of research and academic careers. In these workshops, we create spaces for discussion about diversity issues whilst encouraging everyone to see this as a shared goal. This is straightforward to do in leadership programmes as people start to develop their thinking about the workplace cultures they want to create, how they will appreciate different styles and circumstances and stop to think about how the system that’s worked for them may not be working for others.

My own career progression has been accelerated by the network I’ve built. I would not have had the confidence to take many of the steps that have defined my career without this cheerleader chorus. I am generous with my network and regularly connect people for career conversations, to build mutual interests or because I think they will support and enable each other. My role gives me added opportunities to create networks through a fund we have for academic development ideas (the IAD Action Fund ) and through programmes we run and support (our own Ingenious Women programme and Aurora.)

Finally, I try to throw down the ladders, encouraging my staff to take on roles and responsibilities that will raise their profiles and build their skills. This isn’t as entirely magnanimous as it sounds – these are often roles that were once developmental for me, but now offer minimal learning. Rather than holding onto these and getting overwhelmed, I think about what benefits they offer and think about who needs those benefits. It’s taken me a couple of years to realise that alongside the offer of the opportunity, there needs to be a strategy to build confidence and skills in preparation for new challenges.  

What could you do?

If you like the idea of joining the ladder throwing club, you could start by reviewing your own responsibilities and thinking about who might benefit from them more than you do. Work out how you are going to delegate in a way that sets your successor up to be successful (and prepare yourself for the pangs that strike when they do things their own way.) Be generous with your networks and make connections, whilst being careful not to overwhelm individuals. You can also be honest about how your career has progressed – some role models appear so shiny that it’s difficult to relate their experiences to your own messy reality. Finally, aim to give confidence to others so they start to spot the ladders for themselves and feel entitled to climb them. 
 

Find out more about the Aurora programme here.

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