“It’s everyone's responsibility to take action to drive equity in organisations”

Professor Donna Whitehead‘Shy bairns get nowt’ is a saying you may hear from USW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Donna Whitehead. Growing up in Hartlepool in the North East of England, a career in Higher Education was not something that had crossed her mind.

“I was the first in my family to go to university and never really saw myself as having a plan for a career in higher education. I didn't plan for a career in anything, really,” she said. But a message from one of her former law lecturers a few months after she graduated, as she was working as a legal assistant in the local council, suggested that she apply for a lecturer position at Sunderland University.

“So that's what I did. I just remember thinking, well, what's the worst that can happen? Yes, I'll be a nervous wreck, but the worst that's going to happen is I'm not going to get the job.”

But she did, launching a career that would see her working in multiple universities as her career progressed from a law academic to a senior HE leader, joining USW as Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2021.

“I suppose those are the two things that my career has taught me,” Professor Whitehead reflects.

“The first is that you've got to put yourself out there. You really have to even if it is just a development exercise – committing yourself to going through a process and learning from it.

“And the second thing is that tapping someone on the shoulder and saying ‘why don't you go for that?’ could influence someone’s future progression, just as it did for me.”

But as a woman in HE, has that progression been tough?

“Yes, there are barriers, but it's a pretty good sector when you compare it to the private sector in terms of how it helps women balance complex lives.

“The barriers are not confined to education, but across multiple sectors. Women tend to carry the caring burden, whether that is for children, parents or relatives. That is changing, but that remains the position.”

Professor Whitehead also highlights the number of women who leave their careers, or put them on pause, as a result of the menopause or perimenopause, as another historic and remaining barrier. An ever-stubborn gender pay gap, and an underrepresentation of groups in HE, such as those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, also continue to pose barriers.

But there are many positives. “I'm a woman who has had two children in the sector. And over the years, I've had complex family situations, and I’ve benefitted enormously from the flexibility the sector offers.

“Now, that depends on role, of course, I appreciate that. Colleagues who work serving students food, will have less flexibility than perhaps an academic who has a clear day of teaching, and may choose to do their work or research from home.”

There are a lot of initiatives taking place in the University, and across the sector, to tackle these barriers and inequalities. At USW this includes ongoing work for Athena Swan, a Women’s Development Programme, work addressing the gender pay gap, the implementation of a Strategic Equality Plan, and staff networks to name a few.

Professor Whitehead adds: “But what we're also trying to do is go back to some of the root causes of underrepresentation. Our Future Students team go out working with school children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, inspiring them to go on to higher education. They are working on sorting out that pipeline because of course, if they then don't reach university, then they don't get a career in higher education, then we can't sort the issue out.

“There is also ongoing work on differential outcomes for our learners, ensuring that our outcomes are equitable for all learners, regardless of their background.”

As well as the structured and targeted approaches to addressing equality and equity, Professor Whitehead is also clear that everyone in HE has a responsibility to play their part.

“I see it as everyone's responsibility to take action to drive equity in organisations. It's part of our role as citizens within our organisations but as citizens of the world as well. But when you are occupying a leadership position, the responsibility is even more so on our shoulders.

“It's what drives my enthusiasm for the sector, for everyone to be able to, it sounds twee, for everyone to be able to achieve that potential. If you go back to the mission of the university to change lives, that's really what it's about.

“And my life was changed from higher education, but also my life has been changed as a result of people tapping me on the shoulder and saying, why don't you try that? Someone put a ladder up for me and I've climbed up the rungs to the next level, so now it’s my job to throw the ladder back down to support others to climb those rungs.”

It may often seem that women at the top of the ladder have everything under control, yet Professor Whitehead is honest about the struggles for balance that everyone may experience in one way or another. “Every woman struggles with balance - who has the answer to that?! If someone could tell me, that would be really good,” she says.

“I think it's really important for leaders, for role models, to show vulnerability. We've got to show that we make mistakes and apologise. We've got to show humility and vulnerability. For me, role models are more about morals, representation, and just being your authentic self.”

Professor Whitehead mentions the many brilliant female role models, and male role models that she has had throughout her career.

“The first person to tap me on the shoulder at Sunderland University, and suggested I apply for that job was a male. I think it's easy on International Women's Day, isn't it, to think about what women can do for each other. And that's brilliant. And we should do that, you know? But actually, it's also about how we can bring men into the conversation to drive equity for women as well.”