Case study: Professor Caroline Gipps

Professor Caroline GippsVice Chancellor, University of Wolverhampton.

Professor Gipps is an international authority on educational assessment and has published widely on policy and practice in assessment and equity issues.

Did you have any problems once you got started on your career because of your gender?

The answer is no. And the reason why is a complex one to do with family, upbringing, personality and context. I am a fairly confident person and, I think largely due to my upbringing, have never suffered from low self- esteem. I have two brothers with whom I'm very close and my father worked from home so I saw a lot of him as I was growing up, so I am used to being with or dealing with men.

The third and probably most important point was that I was married very young (aged 22) and my husband has always been extremely supportive of my career. In fact it was he who encouraged me to do a PhD part time, as he felt that this was going to be vital if I wanted a career in the university sector, and he was right.

How has the reality panned out?

I have not had any difficulties in my career that I put down to gender. The reason is partly the field that I have gone into – education - which is one of the easiest careers, at any level, from Primary through to Higher Education, for women to get into and move through. That said, I am conscious that there are times in meetings when my voice has not been heard or the things that I have said have not been given due weight because of my gender. However, I do not believe that these have been sufficient to hold me back and my advice to any young woman would be not to allow yourself to get into that mindset. As Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission’.

Did you or do you have a mentor or role model? Is this important?

I have had several mentors and role models and most of them have been men. They have been crucial to my career development. The first, a woman, was the Director of my research project at the National Children’s Bureau and she taught me how to manage a large project, a team, and daily working life. She also was a marvellous role model in terms of taking holidays and eating out.

I then had subsequent role models who stretched me and encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring.

Has your family situation had an impact on your career?

Yes most definitely, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. As I have mentioned my husband has been my greatest supporter and has taken his absolutely fair share of domestic responsibilities and childcare.

He looked after our first child full time for a year when he was between academic posts and that had a profound impact on the way that we approached looking after the children. As a result of the poor childcare on offer in nurseries at that time, we decided to arrange for live-in childcare, which allowed us both to focus on our careers properly and, given that we were commuting from South West London into the centre of London to work, it meant that we could both manage a reasonable length of day without having to rush back every day to collect a child from a nursery.

It has had a profound effect on my career, my salary, and ultimately my pension. Something that many women who give up work in the middle of their career to care for children do not really think about; going part-time or stopping altogether has an impact on your career obviously, but also on your salary and future pension. I am not for a moment saying that all women should work full-time but the decision to stop working and/or go part-time has long term implications.

What are the benefits that women can bring to the senior ranks of an organisation?

It is a fairly accurate stereotype that women like to have team work from their senior teams rather than having a competitive environment. They also are less reluctant to discuss welfare and emotional issues than male colleagues; sometimes these things do need to be brought out into the open and discussed.

Women are usually more likely to ensure that a senior team understands that it is important to have a work/life balance; also that you have to do a good job, but if you make a mistake in good faith you will not be punished for it.

In your experience, why don’t more women make it to the top?

I think women are less likely to make it to the top because they get distracted by two things; one is family responsibilities. Without a support network or a supportive partner this is a genuine issue. The lack of affordable childcare is one of the biggest problems in this country.

But I also know that in the workplace many of my female colleagues get ‘distracted’ by supporting students whom their male colleagues do not. Getting to the top in this career, as in any other, requires determination, dedication and application: if women allow themselves to be ‘distracted’ by other people’s needs they will simply not make it.

What do you think can be done about this?

Affordable childcare is a national issue that many others have written about better than I could, but it is critical.

Senior women need to mentor other women much more actively, but we also need to encourage younger women to be mentored by men, and for them to engage much more with men as they move through the career structure. In my experience senior men, as long as I have made an effort to talk to them, have been entirely supportive and friendly and communicated back to me.

What advice would you give a woman trying to reach a position of power in the UK?

You have to be absolutely determined in how you allocate your time. That is time for family, social life, work and career advancement.

Career advancement does not just happen. You need to do a really good job day to day; get as much training or career development as you can or is appropriate; network with people in your sector whether that means joining boards or networks, or just going to conferences and talking to people; put yourself forward for activities beyond the day job, preferably at a national level; finally throw your hat into the ring to show people you are interested in advancement and that means not just once but as many times as it takes to get where you want.

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