Dr Valerie Stead
Senior Lecturer of Management Learning & Leadership
"We have these strange gendered assumptions that really disadvantage men and women, so it’s really important in an educational establishment that we have the ability to talk about these issues and to think about how we can make them different for the next generation."
By Isabella Ford
Interview from 2016
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A-Levels: French, German, English Literature and Language
University of Manchester
Degree: German with French
Master's: Management Learning
Family CareLine Manchester
Deputy Manager at British Pregnancy Advisory Service
Rape Crisis line
Deputy Manager at a day centre for mental health problems
Project for Carers
Training Officer for Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
Part-time research around Lancaster University
How does working at a university compare to when you were studying at university?
It’s a very complex and very interesting role, no one day is ever the same. When I was a student I definitely underestimated the complexity of the role - I only saw university professors giving me lectures so I had no appreciation of all the other aspects that being an academic involves.
As well as teaching and assessment, academics are involved in development, design and administration of programmes, in managing quality control and of course they conduct and write about their research, generate research income and develop projects and supervise research students. So the role of an academic is multi-faceted.
As a student I certainly wasn’t aware of all these aspects and I think it’s something the general public perhaps does not fully appreciate either.
Universities have also changed dramatically since I was a student with a greater emphasis on employability, greater interaction with students and increased demands on both staff and students.
What are your responsibilities on a weekly basis?
My current role is a senior lecturer in leadership and management. Lots of different things make up my week.
I am responsible for teaching on various courses so my week will usually involve teaching preparation. I’ve taught across a whole range of programmes, but at the moment I’m teaching on mostly postgraduate programmes.
My week will also usually involve the supervision of doctoral students who are at different stages in developing their research, so I will be reading and commenting on their work and progress.
Another portion of my week will focus on administration. I am the departmental director of teaching, so I have various responsibilities related to the quality of our teaching and currently I am working on developing professional accreditation of our Master's programme.
At the moment, I am working with colleagues from other UK universities on an edited book collection, and working with colleagues from across the UK and US on different papers and also developing a book chapter. This is all related to gender and media and as part of this project I am also currently co-ordinating a seminar that we will run here.
As part of my research, I also co-ordinate a research forum called the Academy for Women, Diversity and Leadership which hosts events a couple of times a year so often I will be working on something related to that too.
Showing how my research can inform and explain everyday events is important and I might also be in touch with our communications team in response to something in the media, for example I recently wrote an article for an HR magazine about gender and dress in the workplace following controversy in the media about firms asking women to wear high heels at work.
Why would you recommend going into lecturing at uni as opposed to teaching at A-level or GCSE - do you think there is a driving motivation for lecturing at university, or a specific kind of person that suits it?
I do think there is a huge difference between the teaching at each of those kinds of institutions: for example, in schools you have a determined curriculum by the government that is set out for you, and while teachers are hugely creative in how they deal with that, they have little say about the overall curriculum.
In higher education, we set our own curriculum, so we have the great privilege of being able to develop, design and determine what it is we are going to teach, the materials we will use and how we will teach it. Of course, there are rules, regulations and clear procedures, but we do have a level of creativity that perhaps you may not have in other places of education.
Also, at a university level, teaching is often research-led so this is a wonderful opportunity to bring your research to students, to discuss and debate cutting edge ideas and practice.
I think that being a lecturer demands great self-discipline and commitment to your subject. It is not a 9-to-5 job, so suits someone who is able to work independently and is highly motivated. Academics will typically work long hours to manage the different aspects of the role.
Why did you choose to lecture in management and leadership?
I kind of fell into it - it wasn’t something that was planned. All of my work in the voluntary sector and my work in the public sector drew me towards the developmental activities, and by doing that I then took on managerial roles. From there, I became aware of the different problems that a manager might face and became interested in that.
When I came to do my master’s degree in Lancaster, I thought that I needed to do something different and I looked at management learning, how managers learn and how they learn to lead. I was really fascinated by ideas that show how learning, managing and leading are shaped by the social and political context in which we work.
Looking at management and leadership in this way, I became interested in how things were different for women, due to social expectations and perceptions of what men and women can be and can do. This led me to develop my current research interests in gender and leadership and a particular focus on women’s leadership - so I think it’s all evolved from those early days of volunteering.
What challenges have you faced throughout your career?
It depends on the stage of the career.
Early on, a challenge was actually working out what it is I wanted to do. Some people just have a clear idea, I always think how fantastic that is and how lucky they are! But I never did have that certainty, at least I didn’t think I did. When I look back I can see a very clear thread to my career, but it didn’t look like it at the time. One challenge was actually knowing what I was good at and recognising that.
Another time when it’s been challenging is when I had very young children, and feeling I wanted to continue to work but also wanted to enjoy my family. Some women do have choices in this situation, but a lot of women don’t and they have to work because they have to bring money in. I think it’s made more difficult due to the fact that organisations still aren’t very good at helping women - and increasingly men - manage that balance. We’re stuck in this 9-to-5 mindset and there’s a lot that could be done about that.
There is another challenge women have to face and that is being seen as someone who is credible. I’m fortunate in that I work with great colleagues who are very aware of stereotypes that can affect how people are viewed, but I think an ongoing challenge for women is gaining a level of credibility that seems to be taken for granted by men.
It’s a challenge in any woman’s professional career, to be seen on a level playing field. Women are often disadvantaged and it’s not necessarily something that happens out of malice or is even a conscious act.
For example, women are often allocated more admin rather than strategic roles so this can mean less chance of promotion. In academia, I have observed how women are often more likely to be steered towards teaching roles, while men are more supported in research roles which often have greater status. There are lots of those sorts of things that have been around for years and are so hard to break through.
In your experience, why do you think there are less women in leadership?
I could talk to you for several hours on this, but I’m sure you don’t want me to do that!
I think there’s a number of issues, one of which is very visible and revolves around reward - the huge gender pay gap for professional women. This is a big issue: men are still getting paid more for the same work while women get paid less. Women aren’t rewarded enough, so they may go and do other things, or unfortunately they give up because they think it’s too hard.
Then there’s the issue of family. If you look at the statistics of women at university, there are actually more women than men, so they are achieving more intellectually. There are also almost equal numbers of men and women going into managerial roles, but after that the numbers rapidly decline.
In their late 20s, early 30s, women start to think about having families and this means they step out of the workplace for a bit, even if it’s just for maternity leave. They can then find that it’s very difficult to get back into the workplace.
Also, women still tend to take on the bulk of the domestic work at home, there is again research to support this. It’s very difficult to then maintain an all-consuming job, like a leadership role, unless you have somebody to help look after the children and have the money to do it.
So, all of these are factors but I think the most important thing of all is the one we are surrounded by but tends to be less visible: the stereotypes around men and women. These deeply-held assumptions that we have are tied to our biological sex - for example, women are often seen as caring, cautious and protective due to their biological ability to have children. Men, meanwhile, are seen as providers: aggressive, assertive, competitive.
What happens is that these spill into leadership, and a leader is seen as someone who is typically male, who has these attributes associated with men. Women are, therefore, seen out of place, and if they do display what are regarded as ‘masculine’ characteristics, they run the risk of being assessed as not being ‘proper’ women.
These ideas filter through our structures and systems and are reinforced by seeing leadership teams that are largely male, historically because men were mainly employed in these roles but also due to stereotypes. As men are typically viewed as leaders they are more often in leadership roles so our organisations are based on the idea of men as leaders.
This is where we see ideas around ‘glass ceilings’ - it’s very difficult to get past these gender assumptions and women have to work very hard to be given the same opportunities.
A man in a big leadership role with a family is never questioned or seen as an anomaly, but a woman in the same situation is always questioned.
What do you think can be done to battle against this?
What we need is for young people and children to understand these issues and to understand the reality of what it is to be at work.
When I talk to young men and women about these issues, they sometimes haven’t thought about it. Before they come to university and when they are at university they often see themselves as treated equally, but when they get into the workplace and if they decide to have a family, they start to find that things are very different.
I think what we can do is make people aware, talk about these issues and make sure that they are no longer swept under the rug. Of course, there are organisations that do try to address these concerns, for example through policies about having flexible working hours, and access to parental leave.
However, developing policy does not necessarily mean that issues are sufficiently addressed. For instance, there is evidence to show that a lot of men who have the ability to take paternity leave don’t take it and one reason is because it can be seen as a kind of weakness or lack of commitment to the job.
We have these strange gendered assumptions that really disadvantage men and women, so it’s really important in an educational establishment that we have the ability to talk about these issues and to think about how we can make them different for the next generation. Certainly when I was at university, these issues weren’t even talked about.
Research has been carried out in playgrounds that shows boys and girls will engage in different behaviours and play certain games, showing early gendered behaviours of what they think is appropriate behaviour.
The way men and women behave, is part of our culture and part of our socialisation and if you behave outside of that, it can be problematic. In our society, we as women are expected to behave in ways that are seen as acceptable to men. Children learn very quickly what is seen as acceptable and what isn’t - it’s very hard to undo.
How can someone learn leadership - what does it involve?
I take the view that leadership is very much a social and relational process, so in order to learn leadership, you must be doing leadership tasks and taking on roles.
In any leadership role, you will quickly learn about what takes priority and what has importance given the context and those you work with - your group of followers or peers or colleagues.
For example, being in leadership in a university in the North West is very different from heading up a multi-international organisation in the South of France. This is because of a range of factors including: what the organisation is trying to do, its purpose, the people who are around you and their expectations and needs, social and cultural rules of the context in which you operate, whether you are male or female, how people perceive you and the leadership role you have, etc.
For me, what leadership is about is always understanding the environment that you are in and how to operate within that culture. So, from that basis, leadership is certainly something you can learn.
We can also become very limited in how we define leadership. I like to think of it very broadly, so for example you can be a leader of ideas - it’s not always about hierarchy, Leadership can take many different forms.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. Absolutely, I always have done.
What is the one piece of advice that you have picked up over your career?
The one thing that sticks with me is to be clear about what it is that you care about and commit to it. Don’t give up on it. If you have a commitment to, for example, English literature and you want to be a writer, don’t give up on it. Just keep going - there is always so much in life that can get in your way.
Be persistent, sometimes you just have to stick with it and keep going. Be ambitious, don’t sell yourself short. People will try and knock you, don’t let them succeed.