Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President & Vice-Chancellor, The University of Manchester, kindly agreed to answer questions about her career.
Please can you talk us through your career to date?
I initially wanted to study art (I did A level art at art college in the evenings) but I realised how difficult it is to have a successful career in this field, so I chose to take a degree in physiology (despite having dropped biology at the age of 14). During my degree in London I was inspired by my research project and so went on to do a PhD. I then held a series of fellowships for much of my career, finally as an MRC Research Professor. During this time, I did take on several more junior leadership roles, for example as Research Dean for Life Sciences. Then I became Vice-President for Research at The University of Manchester, then Deputy President and Vice-Chancellor, and became President and Vice-Chancellor in 2010.
What inspired you to become a leader?
Nothing specific and it was never my aim or ambition, things just sort of came along and each time I was talked into applying.
Have you ever received help or guidance from a female mentor, and do you have experience of mentoring other women? Please tell me more about your experiences in these areas and the difference mentorship made to yourself and others
Yes, both, though also many male mentors. I have gained enormously from their wisdom and experience, though sometimes you just have to learn the hard way by making mistakes. I have mentored quite a number of women and probably learnt as much from them as they did from me.
During the early stages of your career, can you tell me about any barriers to progression for females that no longer exist today?
No, I can’t honestly say that I was ever aware of barriers, though I was often in a minority (sometimes of one). When I became VC I was the only female Vice-Chancellor in the Russell Group of Universities. Now there are nine, and I am the Russell Group Chair.
What would you consider to be the biggest challenge for females pursuing a leadership role?
Confidence and balancing personal and professional life.
What are the benefits of having women in leadership positions?
I don’t like to generalise, but women often like to work in teams. There is evidence that companies with more female leaders are more successful.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you navigate your way through it?
Frequently. It depends on the situation – sometimes it’s best just to be honest about what you don’t know, other times it’s worth remembering that others in the room probably don’t know any more than you do.
How can women develop their leadership skills?
Watch, listen, read about great leaders (male and female). Get a good mentor and a coach (they are different). Think about your strengths more than your weaknesses and play to them.
How can women support other women in their organisations?
Mentoring, guidance, and giving opportunities.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Be a bit bolder.