Professor Chris Ennew OBE – Provost, University of Warwick, kindly agreed to answer our questions on her career progression in the Higher Education sector.
Please can you talk us through your career to date?
I started my career (post PhD) with traditional academic roles at Newcastle and Nottingham; at Nottingham I started to involve myself in activities beyond the standard requirements of my role (I got closely involved in setting up and managing a computer lab for my Faculty – for staff and students.) At the time, this was something quite novel and I had to take on a range of tasks and work with stakeholders across the Faculty and the University.
I then started to get identified as someone who could “do things” and was asked to get involved in a range of activities outside of my department. I started to realise that I really enjoyed being involved in making the academic process work and supporting the work of the University. I went on to occupy a range of institutional roles; I was asked to set up a Business School in Malaysia and then I ran an externally funded research institute. I moved on to become Dean of Faculty, then PVC International, then Provost at a campus in Malaysia, and finally I joined Warwick. I’ve been here for close to six years now.
What inspired you to become a leader?
I think it’s difficult to pin this down to one single thing; when I was growing up, I was always encouraged to “do my bit”, to take responsibility without having to be asked and so this naturally translated into “getting involved” and contributing beyond my immediate and direct work role. Of course, to some degree I was also following the example of people I admired. What was key, I think was the realisation that I enjoyed leadership roles – I enjoyed developing new initiatives, improving ways of working, and supporting and enabling others to achieve. I enjoyed getting involved, problem solving and making a difference.
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
I think I’ve benefited from lots of informal mentoring and support – but perhaps not much in the way of formal mentoring. Certainly, in the early part of my career, I didn’t come across many formal mentoring opportunities, but there were always people around who would help, support, encourage and advise. And of course, this meant that I benefited from the input of a very diverse community of leaders – some were senior women, others were male colleagues. Some were able to offer general advice and encouragement – others were a bit more like sponsors and tried to present me with opportunities to take on leadership roles. And of course, being willing to take opportunities and gain experience started a bit of a virtuous circle because it helped me get visibility and generated further opportunities.
I have had formal mentors in more recent years – and they have been hugely valuable, but perhaps in a different way – because they’ve helped me navigate difficult and challenging situations/projects.
During the early stages of your career, can you tell us about any barriers to progression for females that no longer exist today?
I’m not sure that there is anything that doesn’t exist today – I think many of the challenges that I faced still affect the progression of women now. We still need more and more visible role models; I think there continues to be unconscious biases (and indeed some conscious ones). And while we have made considerable progress with some of the structural barriers to the progression of women, the persistence of occupational segmentation and the associated pay gaps vertical and horizonal segmentation remind us that there is a long way to go.
What would you consider to be the biggest challenge for females pursuing a leadership role?
Navigating the unwritten rules, getting to be part of the formal and informal networks, overcoming the many unconscious biases…
What are the benefits of having women in leadership positions?
I think it’s pretty simple – if we want the best leaders, we need to draw them from the broadest possible talent pool and if we exclude certain groups (e.g. women, other marginalised groups) we will not get the talent we need and deserve.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you navigate your way through it?
Yes, of course! I think we all experience this to some degree – and perhaps some of us more than others. I think I have learned to accept and live with my self-doubts – sometimes it has meant that I have had to work harder or longer – to check and double check things that I have been working on; sometimes I have stayed quiet when I should have spoken up (because I wasn’t confident in what I would say). But I’ve learned from those things, and I try to ensure that I continue to learn and use that learning to strengthen my belief in what I can do. It also reminds me of the importance of giving positive feedback and reassurance to others – something that’s easy for us all to forget.
How can women develop their leadership skills?
Formal leadership training, informal leadership training (observing, thinking, reflecting, discussion), mentoring, coaching. Providing positive and supportive feedback. And don’t underestimate the value of building and learning from networks.
How can women support other women in their organisations?
Being willing to mentor and coach, but also being willing to sponsor, encourage and create opportunities for others, share expertise. Be willing to be aware of your own decisions and your input to organisational decisions – to ensure that you can challenge actions that might create unnecessary barriers to the progression of women or other marginalised groups.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Trust in your own abilities.
If you found this article inspiring, see Women Leaders in Higher Education.