In the final part of our focus on gender equality in colleges, Sally Dicketts, CEO of Activate Learning, explains how the Oxford-based group is encouraging more women to enter and build careers across its seven colleges
So what measures is Activate Learning taking to level the playing field for women? Implementing specific training is a key first step: “We put on our own middle management training,” says Sally Dicketts. “When we started we did very well with women, but within a few years their numbers coming through fell away so we put on middle management training just for women to help them."
Activate also runs a coaching programme for BAME staff who coach senior leaders and vice-versa. Its senior team comprises nine people - four women and five men - with a governing body of slightly more women than men and currently 45:55% female: male representation in the group’s wider management category of 45 senior leaders. “Once you have reached that level you have a network in place where women can follow other women,” says Sally. “And it’s interesting to note that I have nearly always worked for female leaders.”
In smaller organisations without sufficient representation, encouraging networking is essential. “When I became Activate’s principal in 2003, there were very few other women principals. I had to find out who could help me within my network, and this included men, who are often in the seat of power you are trying to get to. It’s no use saying you can only deal with women if the world you’re entering is mainly men. You need to understand what makes them tick, particularly if you want to retain your femininity and yet be recognised as a worthwhile individual in the group. It’s vice-versa if you are a man in a predominantly female-led organisation.
“I believe absolutely in diversity of thinking, not just diversity! There is no point in having five women or five BAME people around the table if they are all just private school and Oxbridge educated. You need to promote all types and not just women who mimic maleness.
“If you want what women bring to the party, you also need to create the right emotional environment to deal with their feelings, to allow people to thrive and to be loved for who they are,” says Sally, who urges other colleges to set up coaching facilities - Activate has its own coaching director - to help people express and deal with their emotions and how they communicate. “Women will often tend to talk round a subject before getting to the point, whereas men are often more analytical. I’m now trained to get to the point quickly if I have to!”
Sally says some female interviewees may be particularly afraid or anxious: “If you don’t put them at ease and create the right emotional environment, fear can switch off the lymbic (emotional) part of their brain, stop a person thinking and turn them into a gibbering wreck.” If that happens, Sally will often pause midway through an interview and might say to the candidate: ‘Do you know you are coming across so introverted that I don’t know what you’re thinking?’” The candidate (offered a ‘second chance’) may well come back and say: ‘Well, this is me, I’m actually like this’ and the interview can be transformed.
Travelling the country via the Microsoft Teams video conferencing platform in her role as AoC president this year, Sally sees a great need for governing bodies to become genuine critical friends of college leaders, very affirming, giving you positive, constructive and yet sensitive feedback (“I like the way you are leading this . . .”; “I wonder if perhaps you could spend more time on this . . .”; “How can I help you in that . . .”) - and, of course, highlighting your successes. It would encourage more women to come into the sector - I think lots of women don’t go for that top job because they are not sure.”
Sally has two coaches - one female, one male. She believes leaders need people who can hold up the mirror in a caring way and get you to think of the bigger picture. Women newly in charge can over-nurture their organisation and focus on doing their last job rather than standing back and doing their new one.
“Coaches can also help you manage your chair of governors, who ideally will be strategic but will know how and why you operate as you do. The task of a good chair is not to meddle in day-to-day affairs but speak as the college conscience, checking that what the organisation is doing is the right thing and that it’s being achieved to the best of its ability.”
Sally aims to break down certain myths haunting aspiring women leaders. If you fear taking a senior job will interfere with family life, remember that the more senior you are, the more control you have of your own timetable, she says. “You don’t need to follow any role model of 24/7 working - doing very long hours without breaks makes you far less productive.
“As long as you are very clear about what you are trying to achieve as a senior leader and you don’t get sidetracked by irrelevancies, you can manage workload. Yes, it’s pressurised, but we get paid for the accountabilities we hold, not for working a longer day.” Activate holds a weekly staff meeting asking what impact everyone aims to make that week. “If someone brilliantly does in one day what they are paid to do in five, I welcome it.
“If you trust people and give them clear outlines of what is wanted, they will deliver. It’s about enabling people to be independent. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves so we need to liberate ourselves. At the end of the day being a leader is a fantastic job; the more senior you are, the more control you have of your own diary. As a teacher, you are naturally limited by timetables but as a CEO I can ask my PA to reorganise.”
Sally’s final tip is beware of becoming what she calls ‘compare bears’. “Just be the best person you can be. I see myself as experienced, not confident, but the more you do something, the better you become. When you start a new job, you won’t be amazing - you are a probationer. But don’t forget that while some people will be more amazing than you, think of all those who are less!”
Sally Dicketts is the group chief executive of Activate Learning - a group of colleges, schools and training providers based in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Surrey. She is also the current president of the Association of Colleges.
See also part 1 (March 8): Overcoming prejudice to reach your goal
Interview by Richard Doughty