Women and leadership in engineering and science

Professor Dame Julia King

29 July 2014

Aston University's Vice Chancellor Professor Dame Julia King states her views on the issue of women attaining senior leadership roles in engineering and technology, an academic field traditionally dominated by men.

I was recently asked to talk at a meeting about why I think we are still not seeing women coming through into senior leadership roles, especially in the context of needing to grow the UK’s engineering and technology resource.  The invitation arrived just as I had read two very interesting pieces related to this issue:  ‘Closing the confidence gap’ by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic, and ‘The invention of difference, the story of gender bias at work’ by Binna and Jo Kandola, Pearn Kandola. Reflecting on my reading and the discussion at the meeting, I felt there was a lot more we could be doing at Aston to ensure that women (and men) succeed.  My talk was called ‘Confidence is what turns thought into action’. 

Confidence turns thought into action

How can we help women succeed in environments where they are underrepresented – so engineering and technology in particular, but senior management and leadership roles more generally? I want to touch on four interrelated areas, starting and finishing with confidence.


In terms of career success, the evidence shows that confidence matters as much as competence. Something inside me feels very disappointed by this – a feeling that quality should always be noticed, it shouldn’t have to shout about itself. But the evidence shows that it does – it is not enough just to be good at what you do. It is clear that a lot of women think the way I do and this drives their behaviour: if they do a really good job, this will be noticed and promotion will come when they are ready. It is quite common for women to feel that they are not ready to go forward for promotion. They also tend to underestimate their abilities and predict that they will do worse in tests than they actually do. On average, men exhibit the opposite traits.

If we could educate and develop women to have more confidence they would actually perform better and also progress further – we win on two fronts. (I am really pleased that this year’s promotion round at Aston shows women being more likely to put themselves forward for promotion than men, so maybe we are starting to get part of this problem cracked.) A recent Institute of Leadership and Management survey of UK managers asked them how confident they felt. 50% of female respondents reported self-doubt about job performance and careers (less that 30% of men gave similar responses), something sometimes called ‘impostor syndrome’ – I got here by accident, I am not really up to this job, I worry that I will be found out…


Something Professor Judith Baxter told us about in her recent Inaugural Lecture at Aston. Women tend to use more cautious, less aggressive/assertive language, and often apologise for what they are about to say ‘This isn’t quite my subject area, but perhaps you might consider…’ ‘I am not sure this is exactly relevant, but…’ This can be interpreted as weakness and makes what they say easier to dismiss or ignore. The reverse of this is of course how some women interpret language used, for example, in job advertisements, and how this affects their feelings about whether this is an appropriate role for them. They can be put off by descriptions of leadership roles - where the stress is on being decisive, strategic, ambitious and driven to deliver in a demanding, fast-moving environment… etc - thinking they won’t be suitable for them, and so not applying. Describing the same job in a different way can attract a very different range of capable and qualified applicants. This is one of the interesting areas of work of Aston alumnus, and Visiting Professor, Binna Kandola. My own recent experience here concerns Research Council referee forms which ask referees to select a word which describes their competence to referee the grant. I can’t remember the exact choices, but the list is something like: expert; knowledgeable in the general area; not in the field. I am prepared to bet that if you compared male and female respondents you would find a far smaller proportion of women classifying themselves as ‘expert’. The result of which, presumably, means that their voices carry less weight that those of their male colleagues when the grants are actually prioritised for funding.


People need to see evidence that those they identify with, people like them, can and do succeed. So role models are really important, even though the messages may be subliminal. And it isn’t just an issue for women as Lord Browne highlights in his new book about breaking out of the glass closet for a gay CEO. There is plenty of evidence that women and girls can succeed in technology and engineering – in the National Council for Universities and Business recent ‘green paper’ on its talent 2030 project www.ncub.co.uk, for example, the data for level 2 BTEC show that women do better than men in every subject, with an impressive 37% of women achieving the top grade, D*, in engineering (in comparison to 20% of men). In a contrasting field, investments run by female hedge fund managers out-perform those run by male managers. We all need evidence, and there is plenty of it about, but even with evidence you need the confidence to think that it applies to you.

Competition and Risk

At school we reinforce strong messages which encourage girls to be ‘good girls’. With pressurised teachers relived to have some hardworking and well behaved members of the class, being a ‘good girl’ is noticed and rewarded.

Girls are praised for not taking risks, for doing what is asked/what they are told to do. This gets them through school, and often college and university too, reinforcing the message that commitment and capability will get you noticed, recognised and rewarded. The implicit message that competence is enough. There is still an expectation that ‘boys will be boys’, an acceptance that they will break some rules and get some battle scars. This contrast of messages and expectations may be causing damage in a number of ways. Not only does it not prepare girls for a more competitive world of work, where being competent is not enough, but Professor Tomasz Mickiewicz's recent Inaugural Lecture at Aston showed data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor suggesting that (societal) tolerance of bad behaviour at school correlates strongly with entrepreneurial business growth in a country.

Girls need to be encouraged to take risks, and be rewarded for doing so throughout their education. They need to learn to fail – and to win. Some people suggest that stronger participation in competitive sport could be helpful here, something which teenage girls often drop out of. Encouraging and rewarding only ‘good girl’ behaviour embeds patterns of expectation and behaviour which must be unlearnt for a successful career.


So back to confidence - so much hangs on this. Experiment show that if you tell people just before an exam that they are likely to do well in it, they are more likely to do well, and the reverse is true. We need to train women and girls to be more confident, to take risks, to survive a few failures and to believe in themselves – or perhaps to believe in themselves enough to survive a few failures. This is something we can do something about in universities, and something which I think should be high on our agenda.

Catch 22

Unfortunately there is a catch. At work, women are penalised for being too confident, whereas it is acceptable behaviour in their male colleagues. We need to change this too!

Confidence is what turns thoughts into actions - a phrase that sums it up for me.  I hope we can get everyone at Aston thinking about what we need to do to improve the confidence of our students and staff.

By Professor Dame Julia King