Picture shows Parveen Yaqoob smiling with the words 'My Career, My Way'

Job-sharing: a route to diverse, confident and collaborative senior leadership

coaching dvc job-share leadership part-time work pvc stem women of colour Jan 29, 2024

This autumn marked the end of a 5-year job-share arrangement, which was not only the first on a University Executive Board, but also the happiest and most fulfilling period of my professional life so far.

Ten years ago I had no intention of pursuing a senior management role. I’d been working at the University of Reading for 20 years and saw senior leadership as admin-heavy, stressful, and likely to have a negative impact on my research and work-life balance. But then something happened that changed everything. I was taking part in a STEM outreach event for Year 9 girls from a local school as one of 6 role models from different careers in STEM. The facilitator kicked off the session by asking us to explain why we’d agreed to take part. I found myself saying that there were still very few women in senior positions in universities and I’d like to see that change. The minute the words were out of my mouth, I realised how hypocritical it was for me to say that and not be prepared to step up and do something about it, particularly as women of colour are so underrepresented on University Executive Boards.

I didn’t suddenly discover hidden depths of ambition, but I did stop automatically dismissing opportunities when they arose, and within months of that turning point I was appointed Head of the School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy, a role that I held for 3 years. Two years into the role, my line manager, who was then a PVC, (he’s now the VC) began to encourage me to consider the role of PVC R&I, which was due to be vacated the following year. I was unsure at that stage, so I took the opportunity of having some coaching; the University provides 6 free coaching sessions to anyone in the leadership group, and I used those sessions to weigh up the pros and cons of stepping up to a PVC role. I wanted to maintain my research portfolio and to take on new external opportunities outside my organisation, but I also had family responsibilities and needed a model which would provide some resilience and work-life balance, whilst still working full-time. The coaching helped me to realise that a job-share might be the answer, and this was reinforced by the fact that the University was actively committed to job-shares in senior roles as part of its Athena Swan action plan. I took a bit of a risk by applying as an open job-share candidate, taking the position that I would be willing to work with anyone. It couldn’t have turned out better; I was ‘matched’ with Dominik Zaum, who was looking for a job-share for exactly the same reasons. We didn’t know each other very well at that stage; our sons were at the same primary school, so we’d say hello at the school gate, but we were soon setting out in writing how we would divide the responsibilities and where our roles would overlap. The basis of the job-share was that we would each contribute 60% of our time to the PVC role and 40% to our research and other activities. A year into the role, I was asked to additionally take on the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor, which was to be accommodated ‘within the 60% somehow.’ The reality for both of us was that our portfolios just grew and grew and we adapted to accommodate them, often at the expense of our research.

Nevertheless, the benefits went way beyond complementary expertise. Having someone to refine ideas with before presenting them to others, to learn from and to share the highs and lows of the job was a joy. Knowing that someone always had my back and acting as each other’s champion gave me confidence and courage. I felt a real sense of achievement when a senior colleague remarked that we ‘spoke with one voice,’ because our aim was always to be two people doing one job, rather than two people doing two parts of a job. We worked hard to achieve that; I recall that when we co-chaired our first meeting, someone asked us a question and in response, one of us said ‘yes’ and the other said ‘no’ at exactly the same time. It was very awkward and needless to say we learned our lesson! If a job-share works well, it can model collaborative working and collective responsibility and it has certainly transformed the way I work; I am a much more collaborative, confident and inclusive leader as a result of my experience.

We never planned the end of the arrangement, but fate intervened this summer. Following the departure of another Board colleague, it was clear that Dominik was a perfect fit to step sideways to fill that role, leaving me to continue with the PVC R&I role on my own. After 5 years, it felt natural to move on and take separate roles, but the strong foundations that we built continue to support a uniquely productive working relationship. I was very lucky- I know it doesn’t always work out, but for me it was exactly right for what I needed at the time. Many people think of job-sharing as something for people who want to work part-time. It is so much more than that. If I hadn’t been offered a role as a job-share, my Executive Board would have remained almost entirely male and all white, so job-sharing can be a route to better Board diversity.

I started this blog by saying that the 5 years I spent in a job-share were the happiest and most fulfilling of my professional life. I’ve now had 3 months in the role on my own and although I’ve stepped away from my research and the workload is challenging, the confidence, the leadership and the collaborative approach that I’ve developed over the last 5 years has been transformative.

About the author:

Professor Parveen Yaqoob OBE is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation and a Professor of Nutritional Physiology at the University of Reading, where she has worked for 25 years. She chaired the Athena Swan Governance Committee from 2020-2023, overseeing a transformation of the gender equality charter, and was recently appointed to the Board of Directors of Advance HE and Chair of its EDI Committee. Parveen is also a Non-Executive Director of the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust and was appointed OBE for services to higher education in 2022.