Picture shows Diana Beech smiling with the words 'My Career, My Way'

Following female footsteps: My reflections as a sector leader

career advice career progression empowerment leadership role model Feb 26, 2024

Being a female leader of a higher education membership organisation is not a responsibility I take lightly. When I started my CEO role at London Higher a little over three years’ ago, I was proud to continue the legacy of a company that has only ever been run by a woman. I was even more pleased when, at the end of that academic year, I was joined by London Higher’s first female Chair of the Board, Professor Amanda Broderick (Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of East London), making us the first all-female Chair and CEO double-act of any sector body at that time. Since then, several other all-female executive partnerships have followed us, not least the current Chair and CEO of Universities UK (UUK), and I am now part of one of many all-female partnerships running an influential sector body. The duty to ensure this trend continues is one I feel acutely. 

When I think of my own role models in the sector as I began to make my way up the higher education policy career ladder, and indeed continue to do so, I am more than aware that they are all male. Although I remain immensely grateful to these men for inspiring me to get to where I am today and providing me with opportunities to progress, I also cannot help but wonder how much more self-belief and confidence I might have had about achieving my ambitions earlier in my career if I could have seen women like me in those positions – and, more importantly, been able to speak to them on an informal, peer-to-peer basis to learn from their experiences. As I go about my day job today, then, the thought is never far from my mind that my own leadership of London Higher may well be inspiring other women onto similar career paths, and I want to be seen to be actively supporting others to do so.

As a leader of a small company with a big reach, I see myself as operating in a space that can empower others, particularly other women, in two overarching ways.  First, as an employer of talented and enthusiastic people, I know it is my job to ensure I am creating the conditions to allow these individuals to be the best they can be and set them up for future success, irrespective of gender, race or other personal characteristics. In the particular field of higher education policy and communications, this means developing my staff as individual researchers, writers, thinkers and spokespeople in their own right, so they can build a portfolio of achievements and be recognised for their unique knowledge and expertise.

It also means delving into my metaphorical little black book of supportive sector contacts, which has now grown to include many influential women, so that those around me have access to others who can help develop their thinking and offer them additional opportunities, such as collaborating on external events or activities. I am proud that over the past three years, I have encouraged staff to pursue their own professional interests, connected them to others and developed a team of approachable and well-informed individuals, who can form relationships across our member institutions and with policymakers alike. For me, this is all about lowering the professional drawbridge, and extending a helping hand to others onto it, so that anyone in my team who desires it can move on unhindered to the next stage of their careers.

Second, as a convenor of a diverse and extensive membership of over 50 higher education institutions – collectively educating over 507,000 students, employing tens of thousands of staff, and working with partners across different sectors and industries – I see it as my job to open doors to and for this community. This may be by passing on opportunities to others in the wider “London HE” family who might not otherwise receive them. It may be by creating two-way learning and development opportunities for London Higher staff and those in our member institutions and partner organisations, so we can learn from one another and understand each other’s working cultures and commitments. Or it may even be by brokering new or better relations across our extensive network of stakeholders, for which people are key. Whatever the method, the end result is giving others the chance to develop and take on new challenges for their own benefit as well as that of the business.

Of course, empowering others in this way always brings with it the risk that talented people may outgrow their roles in our small organisation or be offered jobs in other companies, or even in our member institutions. But selfishness and protectionism are not qualities that define a good leader, and I would much rather run a company that is reflective of the values of the sector I represent: one where staff feel valued, trusted and empowered before eventually moving on with a sense of loyalty and gratitude for the experiences we gave them that ultimately helped to shape them.

It may indeed be seen as a typically female tendency in business to give credit to others and downplay personal achievements. Yet, to ensure we are nurturing a compassionate and collegiate higher education sector for the future – and one in which everyone has a fair and equal chance to succeed – female sector leaders like myself have an unspoken responsibility to look out for others and enable them to follow in our footsteps. The rewards may never be credited to us or our efforts. But when we can look at a future sector where there are as many female leaders as men, across all departments and professions, then that is when we will know we have done our jobs well.


About the author:

Dr Diana Beech is Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for over 50 universities and higher education institutions across the London region. Previously, she served as Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and Policy Adviser to the last three UK Universities and Science Ministers. Diana was also the first Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). In 2016, she held a brief appointment as Programme Manager at the Department for Education with specific responsibility for establishing the Office for Students. Diane has a PhD from the University of Cambridge (on conservative-Lutheran resistance in the Third Reich) and has also held post-doctoral positions at the University of British Columbia, the Technical University of Berlin, and the University of Cambridge. You can follow Diana and London Higher on Twitter/X at @dianajbeech and @LondonHigher respectively.