The only way is up? Navigating our professional services careers

Jun 29, 2021

Written by Alison Field (University of Sussex), Abbie Milsom (Coventry University), Diana Pasek-Atkinson (Nottingham Trent University), Elizabeth Sutton-Klein (most recently at UCL), Anita Syal (Open University).

During a break-out discussion at an online WHEN event, a small group of women in professional services discovered an area of common interest. We took issue with two of WHEN’s stated “ambitions for the sector”: to increase the number of women vice-chancellors and black female professors. We asked the question: What if you don’t aspire to be a VC and you don’t have a route to being made a professor?

What does the term ‘career progression’ suggest to you? If you’re thinking about promotion, or a higher salary, you’re probably not alone.

We can’t imagine that any member of WHEN would be opposed to its objectives of seeing 10 new female VCs appointed by 2025 and 100 black female professors in post.

But is it every woman’s dream – regardless of race, background and culture – to move upwards, in pursuit of title, income and status? (When we encounter anybody new, the first question is invariably about our livelihood. Instead, when we meet new people, we could be asking, “What do you do outside work”?) And should success be measured in this linear way? Why is it important to reach the heights of a VC to be considered a success story?

Abbie recalls: “Through my 20s, I was asked a lot: ‘You’re not very ambitious, are you?’ I was quite content doing what I knew I was capable of and doing it really well. I only considered moving roles when I became unhappy in that one – not because I had some desire to ‘move on up’, as I was apparently expected to.”

And even if you are ambitious, what if this ambition is not framed by wanting to be ‘top dog’ – or even to increase your earnings? What if progression for you is about something different to climbing a ladder?

This is certainly true for Diana, who says: “As someone who has pursued much of my career in self-employment, and whose current role in professional services is as a practitioner, my intrinsic motivation has never come from a desire to move upwards in the hierarchy; rather my satisfaction and stimulation is in seeking out creative and collaborate approaches to changing things for the better.”

When we discussed our feelings around what makes for a great job in a university professional services team, there were many positive comments about growth, development and drive – but, alongside these, some disquiet as to whether there is much recognition for developing in a role or for moving sideways, in a status-driven organization such as a university.

As Abbie says: “Success is not always progression through a hierarchy; it can equally be about doing your best at what you do, or even reaching your limit in one area and taking a sideways move to something new that will challenge you in different and exciting ways. Things start to get stale only when you become stationary.”

We noted, however that for some, older, women in professional services – those on the lowest grade – higher education appears to provide no way ‘up’ at all. 

We heard about Susan (not her real name), who was appointed to a bottom-grade post in her early 50s, after a career break. She said: “Personally I would love to get back into a management role one day – and hope that I can achieve that objective.” Eight years later, however, she remained stuck in that job, unable to access career-development opportunities. In this context, we noted that leadership programmes tend to be aimed at those who are already in leadership roles.

If universities were to support older women on low grades and provide equal career-development opportunities, they would benefit from those women’s work ethic, tenacity and breadth of experience and skills.

Bearing in mind the intersectionality of gender with other demographic factors such as age and race, we can surely all endorse this exhortation from WHEN: “Let’s speed up gender equality in higher education.”

But we also invite you to consider a broader, more inclusive definition of the term ‘career progression’, which can be about forward movement, and taking on new challenges and opportunities. In this context, we welcome WHEN’s goal to support “1,000 positive career moves” for its members. But that doesn’t always mean the only way is up!

So you might want to consider taking your own path (even if it doesn’t lead to a role as a VC or a professor). As we discussed in our group, you can always go back down the path and take a new one …

Even within your existing role, you can play to your strengths, improving both your satisfaction and your performance. Have a go at ‘job shaping’, by looking at yourself and what you do. Many jobs are actually quite flexible, meaning that you can adjust their focus to fit your skills and preferences.

And remember the adage: “Do what you love, love what you do”!

Our top tips for career satisfaction (whether you aspire to be a VC, a professor or something else)

  • Examine and understand what motivates you: Are you at a career crossroads or in a career cul-de-sac? To avoid that end-of-the-road feeling, consider where you are now and where you might want to be. Be honest with yourself (but at the same time not self-judgmental), find some allies, and take active steps to discover what works for you
  • Understand and act on your own core values: Without ongoing self-reflection, it’s possible to lose sense of who you are and what’s important to you. Inevitably, sometimes you will have responsibilities, or circumstances beyond your control, which mean you sideline your needs – but there’s always a choice
  • Be open to making new connections: Take up opportunities, both formally through networks such as WHEN, your professional bodies, and your workplace interest groups – but also informally by ‘reaching out’ to people on LinkedIn or other platforms. When you attend an event (whether online or in person), ask questions and connect with the speakers
  • Develop relationships: Act as a mentor/mentee or a buddy
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Audit your knowledge and skills
  • Seek recognition: Promotion is only one form of recognition. Could you achieve it in other ways? For example, you could put yourself forward for an award, gain accreditation from your professional body, or enter a competition

Further information and resources