Women political leaders share their experience at Women@TUoS lecture


The University Women's Network - Women@TUoS - and the Arts & Humanities Faculty Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee were delighted to host a panel discussion on women and leadership for the annual lecture on Friday 24 November. The panel, representing different parties and levels of political representation, included MP and former Shadow Secretary Rachel Reeves, MEP and Chair of the Development Committee Linda McAvan, Baroness Jenkin and Virginia Crosbie of Women2Win, and former Lord Mayor of Sheffield Sylvia Dunkley.

Dr Julie Gottlieb, Chair of the Faculty ED&I Committee, opened the discussion by inviting the panellists to speak about opportunities, obstacles and achievements of women in the political sphere, as well as their experience of campaigning for gender equality and women's representation at municipal, parliamentary, and EU level.


Women from across the University attended the event, including Professor Gillian Gehring, the first woman at our University to have her portrait hung in Firth Hall as part of the Portrait of a Woman initiative. The panel discussion was followed by questions from the floor, with individuals raising concerns specific to women in the Higher Education sector and more generally about the impact of political events such as Brexit. This was followed by lunch and time for networking and informal discussions with the panellists.

Despite their political differences, the panellists shared a commitment to gender equality, better political representation of women and prioritising gender issues. They spoke about their experience campaigning on these issues within the party system, and the ways in which they have smashed the glass ceilings they have faced. Julie Gottleib spoke about the many confident, capable and gifted women in leadership positions at our University, whilst acknowledging the barriers that still exist between women and senior leadership roles. She encouraged women to embrace leadership opportunities, taking inspiration and courage from the panellists.

The Women in Leadership event took place against a backdrop of key events concerning gender issues. Achievements were touched upon, including the increased number of women MPs in Parliament since the General Election and the planned unveiling of the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square - the suffragist Millicent Fawcett - to coincide with the centenary of women’s suffrage next year.

Our panelists are brave, bold and brilliant, and it was gratifying to hear how women from the three political parties agree about the priority of gender equality.

dr julie gottliEb

It was also acknowledged, however, how recent events have revealed the extent of gender inequalities, with revelations on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrating women’s continued and even increasing vulnerability to sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence. Despite the many challenges, women at the event were encouraged to remember that reactionary developments have also encouraged women’s mobilisation in the fight for gender equality and equal representation.

Julie and Claire

Dr Julie Gottlieb said:

"It was a privilege to have women leaders inspire women to lead. The panellists did not speak through rose-tinted glasses, they shared the real issues facing women in public life, including the scale of the abuse many women face on social media and elsewhere. There are lessons that we at our University, both women and men, can take away from their experience.

“Our panellists are brave, bold and brilliant, and it was gratifying to see these women share a platform, and to hear how women from the three political parties agree about the priority of gender equality and the need for constant vigilance."

Claire Mangham, Chair of the Women@TUoS Network commented:

“The annual lecture is always really well attended, as it provides our members with a forum to engage and discuss issues that are important to women. This year’s event provided us with insight into women's experiences in the political sphere, which is relevant to our own professional and personal lives. I look forward to working with Julie Gottlieb to further discuss and address the important issues that were raised.”

The panellists

RRRachel Reeves MP:

“It's 99 years since women got the vote and 98 since the first woman took her seat in parliament. Women in parliament have helped changed political priorities, policy and culture. They have also often been marginalised and trivialised but increasingly occupy positions at the very top of politics.”

Baroness and VirginiaBaroness Anne Jenkin & Virginia Crosbie:

Baroness Anne Jenkin founded Women2Win with Theresa May in November 2005. Women2Win is a voluntary organisation that has advocated for more female representation at all levels of the Conservative Party. She spoke about the work of her campaign group, including the role it plays in headhunting, mentoring and training women candidates for General Elections and how they support women to navigate the maze of Westminster once elected.

Virginia joined the Conservative party in November 2016 to help give a voice to the women in her community and is the current Director of Women2Win. She talked about her recent experience as a candidate in the General Election for the seat of Rhondda, Wales and how important it was to have the support of the CWO (Conservative Women’s Organisation) and Women2Win.

Only 21% of Conservative MPs are female, whereas Labour has almost half. Virginia discussed the role of W2W in encouraging more high calibre women to come forward for a life in public office.

SDSylvia Dunkley, former Lord Mayor of Sheffield:

“Female representation in local government is disproportionately low. Often family or caring commitments, sexism, and a lack of self-confidence and political and managerial skills can hold women back from reaching leadership positions. Many women have little experience of public speaking, lobbying and handling relationships with local media. Reducing gender inequalities in the leadership of local government will require mentoring, consciousness raising, support networks and training. Political parties will also have to address traditional structures and cultures and give greater recognition to the valuable role women can play in influencing the strategic development of their communities.”

LindaLinda McAvan MEP:

Linda McAvan has been active in politics since she was 17. She has extensive political experience at a grassroots level as well as public office and was active in the ground-breaking debates in the Labour Party to increase women's representation in the 1990s. She spoke about her experience of being elected the first woman MEP for the Yorkshire and Humber region and how EU law has helped advance rights for women and what Brexit could mean for women in Britain. As chair of the European Parliament Committee on International Development, she also reflected on women's rights at global level.

The University of Sheffield: Women@TUoS Network

Women@TUoS NETwork provides a fantastic platform to support women’s careers at the University of Sheffield. The Network is just one of many positive action activities at the University, but it is perhaps the most visible, dynamic and inclusive initiative that we run, and it is becoming an important vehicle for our University wide Athena SWAN agenda.

Our key principles are 'Advocacy. Inspiration. Progress’. It is a network run by members, for members, and it is highly consultative. It aims to support women in their career development, providing informal mentoring and networking opportunities, access to a range of role models, a forum for discussion and a unified voice to help raise issues and thus address the career challenges women face.

The Network’s primary focus has been women academics and researchers, and this focus has helped to give it a clear identity and purpose. However, many events and activities are open to all staff, women and men, and we now have an active group of members who are keen to see professional services issues included.

Recognising the importance of incorporating the agenda of the Women's Network into the University’s formal governance structure, we worked with colleagues on the development of the Gender Equality Committee as a formal University committee, and successfully secured 30% representation of Women's Network steering group members on that group. This ensures we are in a strategic position to help progress gender equality, and are embedded in the development of the University's Athena SWAN action plan.