19th Uddevalla Symposium: Rethinking Leadership and Gender

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Read James’s first and second blogs on the symposium.

Trigger logoAre female leaders more efficient in family firms? Does corruption have a gendered effect on small firm performance? These are some of the questions posed at the recent Uddevalla symposium, held in the UK for the first time at Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus, between 30 June and 2 July. As part of its stated themes of ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’ the symposium took time to focus on gender inequality, with TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) holding a dedicated paper session to consider the topic.

The question of gender equality among businesses and innovators is a complex one; gender exists as a category long before we enter the workplace and carries with it a variety of social, psychological and material implications. It’s clear that increased gender diversity can have a positive effect on firm performance and, as McKinsey & Company pointed out recently, will be absolutely crucial to global economic growth in the coming years – possibly to the tune of $12 trillion by 2025. However, for both the global economy and society at large to benefit from these prospective dividends, attention must be paid to gender inequality in its current form and its attendant complexities.

Therefore, a much discussed theme of the symposium appeared not so much as, how can we honour an obligation to gender parity, but crucially, how can we unleash the huge productive potential of an equal and diverse workforce and, what are the implications for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Is leadership a gendered role?

A keynote speech from Professor Colette Henry, Head of Business and Humanities at the Dundalk Institute of Technology and CIMR Visiting Fellow, considered the position of female entrepreneurs and innovators through the prism of veterinary practitioners and researchers. Her lecture, the first keynote lecture of the three-day symposium, discussed many of the counter-intuitive features of the sector – notably that there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners, in veterinary firms, despite women accounting for over 50% of those working or studying in the sector.

Her work suggests that current innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems, despite their propensity to change and evolve, are not sufficiently addressing less visible barriers for women. Professor Henry proposes an ‘integration’ model rather than merely beefing up the curriculum with corrective modules, this, she says, is the way to instil ambitious young females with the confidence and support necessary for them to excel to male dominated positions.

It seems, therefore, that the task of encouraging female innovators and entrepreneurs is one keenly tied to changing perceptions, of decoupling innovation and entrepreneurship from gendered ideas of what makes a good leader or a successful entrepreneur.

Porous Borders

Professor Per-Olof Bjuggren’s paper ‘Are Female Leaders more Efficient in Family Firms?’ also considered how definitions of leadership intersect with wider cultural issues, this time by scrutinising family firms. Professor Bjuggren’s work situates itself at the nexus of two historically gendered leadership roles, head of the family and head of the firm, allowing us to trace the relationship between the two and, ultimately, consider the effects of their intersection.

His work found that, whilst the effect of female CEO’s in non-family firms is ambiguous, female leaders in family firms had a positive impact upon the fortunes of the business. Whilst he proposes further research to unpack this assertion, his findings are crucial to understanding how the question of leadership is not one to be solely directed at businesses, but also society and culture at large. The quest for gender equality and equity cannot be an isolated and compartmentalised pursuit, as indicated by Professor Bjuggren’s work, it must look to consider the porous borders between whom we are at home and who we are at work.

You can see the winners of the 19th Uddevalla Symposium best paper awards on their site. To see the ways in which Birkbeck are tackling gender inequality, please visit TRIGGER’s webpage, as well as viewing the various networking and mentorship programmes such as ASTREA and AURORA.

Find out more

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Academia’s gender inequality problem

This post was contributed by Professor Helen Lawton-Smith of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. Professor Lawton-Smith is organising Improving gender equality in work – what can we learn from London’s business and policy organisations? on Wednesday 18 March, 2pm-5pm.

laboratoryWomen are under-represented in senior positions in science, engineering, maths and medicine disciplines at UK universities. Initiatives including Athena SWAN and the Aurora Women’s leadership programme have been set up to address this problem, yet such initiatives by themselves are not enough to tackle the problem of the current gender bias. What is needed is institutional embedding, so that gender and other diversity issues are integrated into an equality framework of decision-making processes and structures within organisations, which cannot be side-stepped by those in positions of power.

The four-year Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) project at Birkbeck is championing the role of female academics in scientific subjects as part of a five-country European project. This initiative is testing a blueprint designed to raise the status of women in scientific and technological organisations such as universities. The nine action areas are designed to identify barriers to equality in the workplace, including the impact of research. The project builds on Birkbeck’s existing commitment to promoting female academics. Results and reactions have been very interesting.

Equality issues have been tackled in a variety of ways by companies and by policy making bodies such as local authorities and government agencies. According to the New York Times in October 2014, Silicon Valley also has a diversity problem – one which is being tackled head on by companies such as Google and Facebook.

Academia has a lot to learn from how other kinds of large organisation have identified the nature and causes of gender inequality. On Wednesday 18 March the TRIGGER project and the BEI School are hosting a networking event designed to explore which institutional changes work best in supporting gender equality in large organisations. The panel’s speakers will reflect on why changes were necessary, what changes have been introduced, the outcome of those changes, and what still needs to happen to improve gender equality. The diversity of speakers will ensure there are opportunities for learning for all.

Interested? Find out more

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The challenges of peace-building, leadership and completing a PhD

This post was contributed by Kevin Teoh, a PhD student and staff member in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.

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When a notice in February asked for volunteers to organise the second joint PhD Conference between the Departments of Organizational Psychology and Management, I thought: ‘heck, why not – how hard can it be?’ The work began almost immediately: sorting out venues and keynote speakers, collating abstracts and printing booklets; it may seem like a lot of work, but with some organisation and a good team, we made light work of it. Besides, picking out drinks for the wine reception doesn’t really constitute work!

The day in late September was soon upon us, and over forty of my peers from across the globe converged on central London to talk about where we were at with our PhDs. A range of topics was covered, with varied subjects including theories, methodologies, findings and even reflections on personal growth (video of the day available). People shared ideas, advice was given, and encouragement provided. My own presentation was about junior doctors and their working conditions, and how I intended to explore the link to patient safety. This subject itself is very topical, especially as Birkbeck researchers recently highlighted how patient mortality rises in August when new junior doctors start working in hospitals. Presenting my work gave me a chance to verbalise and focus on the core emphasis of what I am researching , and I was told about some resources to help with a prospective study as well.

In addition to the student presentations, we organisers pulled off quite a coup by securing the attendance of two high-profile keynote speakers. In the morning keynote (video available here), former Birkbeck student Dr Peter Davis talked about his work in the area of post-conflict peace building in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Nigeria. What struck me most was how Dr Davis used his PhD to have a real-world impact. I certainly had not realised the important role the private sector has in developing a functioning economy, vital in sustaining peace.

Professor Adrian Furnham, from University College London, spoke on leadership derailment in the afternoon keynote (video available here). A very lively speaker, Professor Furnham distinguished between incompetent and derailed leaders; the former represents the lack of ability, and the latter represents too much of a particular characteristic. It made me wonder, we often consider the narrative of incompetent managers in the NHS, but what about those who are derailed? Perhaps I should integrate this somehow into my research with junior doctors.

PhD work can at times be a lonely affair. However, I think the numerous brilliant presentations, and the informal discussions and socialisation between sessions reinforced that we are in fact part of a wider, supportive community. It allowed many of us to put a face to a name, and better understand what others were doing. One of our peers had just finished her own PhD, and it was the first time she could use the ‘Dr’ prefix. She was deservedly excited about her accomplishment, and it was wonderful encouragement for us to persevere with our own work. By the end of the day, the overall feedback was positive with everyone benefitting from participating. Although the conference is now over, we are already looking at how we can improve further for next year’s event.

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