Please tell me about your role and remit at the University
My current role is predominantly to support the development of key aspects of the University’s equality and diversity agenda and to provide advice and support across a range of equality issues. Until the end of 2019, I was the Athena SWAN Coordinator for the University. The Athena SWAN Charter is the Gender Equality Charter for the higher education sector, which started in the UK but is now international across the Republic of Ireland, Australia and Canada. It’s a framework for recognising and encouraging good gender equality practice and to reduce the barriers, particularly for women, but for all people in the higher education sector.
How did you come to work in higher education?
I actually started my HE career in Australia, when I moved there in 2000. I was studying HR and Psychology, so it was a useful way of getting the practical application of working in HR alongside my studies. Working in HE was a bit of an accident or serendipity, rather than a plan. Having said that, I’ve got lots of academics in my family so I was familiar with the sector, but initially, it was purely because it was a good HR job. I moved back to the UK and got a job at the University of York in 2016, so I’d had 14 years’ experience in Australia by then, mainly in Learning and Development roles. I’ve met lots of people over the years who have worked across both the UK and Australian sectors, and they’re comparable.
Do you feel that your job is rewarding and purposeful?
My job is rewarding because the work I do is about social justice and creating a better workplace and life experience for all. That’s essentially the heart of the work that we do within equality and diversity, and the work that is driven by the Athena SWAN Charter. Working within the university sector, there’s a very strong support and understanding for the principles of social justice. Ethically and morally, that’s often part of how a university views itself; how it’s treating all of the people who are in the community. The bigger purpose of universities is their role in creating new knowledge and challenging ideas, to support future generations to be curious, open-minded and to share knowledge. This resonates with me on a personal level and it’s a privilege to be part of that.
Please highlight the standout development opportunities you’ve had
I’m fortunate in that I’ve got both an immediate team and a wider team within the HR department, which is incredibly supportive and willing to give people opportunities to develop and grow. At the University of York, I’ve been able to work across a range of agendas and to get involved in a huge range of projects. I have recently started receiving mentoring here, which was fully supported by the department as I moved into a slightly new role at the beginning of this year. Another opportunity is to have been able to work across academic departments, supporting them in their gender equality work and broader equality and diversity work, then seeing that work recognised. The diversity of different projects that I’m able to get involved in is really exciting and challenging, although it’s not always easy.
How do you think working in higher education compares to working in a commercial environment?
There’s a richness within the university environment as there is such a range of expertise, views, knowledge and experience. One of the main things is that money isn’t the bottom line. Of course, we need to be viable and universities have to manage in a fiscally responsible way, but the role of the universities is around creating new knowledge, asking questions, building curiosity, challenging ideas and growing young leaders of the future. That’s quite a different model to a commercial environment. I think the other way that it differs, and this could be part of the challenging aspect of it, is because you’ve got a huge range of views across many academic and research disciplines. People coming from the commercial sector might also find that the university environment works at a different pace, and that’s one of the challenges and strengths of working in this sector.
Please tell me about your experience of the facilities on campus for university life and wellbeing
There’s a really good set of health and wellbeing principles and opportunities at the University. I know that if I need some additional support for my health and wellbeing, that’s available to me. We have our employee assistance programme, Health Assured, as well as the gym, lunchtime programmes for yoga and lots more going on across the campus. It’s a large community of people and a very collegiate place, so people enjoy doing things together. If I wanted to go for a run at lunchtime, I could find someone to go for a run with; there’s that community feeling. We’re lucky in that we have a campus environment here which fosters this, but we’re also not that far away from the centre of town as well. From an equality, diversity and inclusion point of view, there are networks on campus for staff who want to meet with people and share experiences or challenges around issues they’re facing.
What has been your career highlight whilst working in higher education and why?
A general highlight for me is having been able to facilitate conversations with leaders at all levels, to help them to come to a deeper understanding of themselves and others. This ranges from helping to build awareness in people, both of their own strengths and perhaps their own biases, to being able to see and appreciate others. That is a general theme that’s run throughout my career in HE. There’s an openness to that growth, curiosity and open-mindedness. They are the hallmarks of this sector, so to have been able to work in a way that’s sometimes challenging in conversations, but to facilitate that among my colleagues, is what I value the most and have continued to value over the lifetime of my career.
What are your tips or advice for those considering a career in HR at a university?
Talk to people who work in HR jobs at a university and find out about the range of different things going on, because I think most of my HR colleagues would say that no day is the same. There’s a variety of different kinds of work that you can get involved in and it’s never dull. It’s often challenging and, as a result, incredibly rewarding.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.