WOMEN IN BUSINESS – An Interview with Fiona Beveridge, Executive Pro-Vice Chancellor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Liverpool

In this final instalment of our series of interviews with NWBLT members and our partners we hear from Fiona Beveridge.   In this interview Fiona gives us some fantastic insights with regards to being a leading woman in academia as well as some great points about what can be done to improve opportunities for women in all academic disciplines.

  1. This year is significant for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, with the centenary of the representation of the people act that gave women – although with restrictions – the right to vote. In your opinion how important is it for us to mark this event?

I think it’s very important. I think it’s important to take time and reflect on what has been achieved and what’s still to be done. I think gaining political rights was a huge step forward and there are now a record number of women in Parliament, but the picture’s not as rosy when you look at local government. I think there are also huge challenges around economic and social issues, with women still much more likely to live in poverty, suffer the motherhood penalty on earnings and retire on inferior pensions.

  1. Beyond merely celebrating and reflecting on this what tangible things do business leaders, policy makers and other influential people need to do to continue the further advancement towards equality?

I think for business leaders, academics and policy makers, it comes down to commitment. If they can articulate regularly – that is, remind themselves and their organisations – why it’s so important to nurture and develop the best talent they can attract, then they will find a way to do that, but they have to express that commitment. There are many ways to address deficits; you can take positive actions to attract women cohorts to the workplace or into political organisations; you can make workplaces more women friendly; you can make sure your advertising is inclusive and encouraging; and you can provide mentors and career support to young women at the start of their career. All of these things are valuable but the main thing is for leaders to express that commitment and follow it through in their organisation.

  1. You’ve mentioned mentoring, which is something that has come up a lot on previous interviews. Do you think mentoring is as easy to do, there are obviously a lot of sectors where there are senior women who can act as mentors, but there are other sectors – I’m thinking in certain academic subjects there are a lack of senior women at the moment, is there any way to allow mentoring to go across sectors or academic disciplines. Is this something we should be trying to do?

Yes absolutely, I think the challenge women face in breaking into a sector that is male-dominated is pretty similar from workplace to workplace. I think having some external perspective can actually be quite useful about the challenges you face in the workplace. I think there are times in our career where women may find it most useful to have a mentor in the same workplace but equally times where a mentor from a very different sector or industry can be very useful

  1. It is great news that so many women are going to universities and attaining undergraduate degrees. However although women start off their academic careers outnumbering men, as they advance to senior academic positions women begin to become the minority. What do you think is the cause of this? How do we encourage more women to pursue academia, like their male peers, as a career?

There are some areas of academia that are female dominated and some that are very male dominated at the undergraduate student level. As you’ve identified and particularly in those male dominated areas, even though there are women coming through, there is a very leaky pipeline. I think sometimes the culture in those areas is not very helpful for women. Academia can sometimes seem archaic, sometimes there’s uncertainty about how to go about getting a promotion or being invited to present your paper at a conference. I think we have to take apart the whole of the academic experience and think about how it looks to the outside, to the uninitiated, perhaps young career academics coming up. When there’s a lot of informal practice and informal knowledge then I think that’s where we have real difficulty with the leaky pipeline. So we have to try to unpack things on a more transparent basis and then I think we have to charge our leaders in universities with taking responsibility of the development of those careers. Whether academics coming in are male or female,each one is an individual. Each young academic needs a full range of opportunities and experiences for their development and our leaders need to ensure that they are getting that.

  1. There is also clearly gender split in terms of subjects being pursued by women at university. What do you think business leaders; academics and policy makers can do to encourage women to enter fields that often have connotations as “masculine subjects”? Can business leaders help in this, should we be bringing business leaders into universities? Or is this something academics can do on their own?

I think it’s a bit of both; one of the lessons that business leaders can bring is that, particularly at the top of a business, its all about people, its all about skills and talent. Even though a business might have a very macho image – there may be a lot of heavy machinery or there may be a certain amount of dirt or whatever -actually that doesn’t mean that everyone working in that industry, by any means, is 18 stone and going out getting dirty every day. I think helping young people to understand that there’s a whole range of employment within an industry, whatever its image, is really important. Also, I think industries that have typically had a macho image are being transformed by technology – that macho image doesn’t rest on very much anymore – in terms of genuine differences in aptitude between men and women, or differences in inclination. So, I think getting a clear picture of what it’s actually like in any industry is very important. So having students going into workplaces, but also having industry leaders coming into universities and talking about what they do in their daily lives; those kinds of things would really change perceptions.

  1. Do you think gradual technological change will, therefore, do a lot to equalise society much more in the next 10 to 20 years. Will we be having the same conversations around such things as the President’s Club and the pay gap, or are we heading in the right direction, are we doing all of this at the right pace, or do we need to start thinking about how we’re going to speed up this process of getting more women into higher positions in business and academia?

I worry that we will still be having the same conversations in 20 years. I think that because we’re making some progress there is a risk that we think it is all coming right and we take our foot off the pedal. I think technology gives us an opportunity, but it is just an opportunity. We do have to think very carefully how we shape workplaces around the technological opportunities that are coming. At the end of the day the technology is neutral and it could serve to reinforce gender gaps as much as it could operate to close them. I think we need to be very careful and I think we need to understand that gender differences are rooted in culture rather than technology.