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Aurora reaches new heights

04 Mar 2022 | Celebrating the ongoing impact of the Advance HE programme designed to empower women to seek leadership roles in higher education and achieve leadership success.

Aurora is the Advance HE programme designed to empower women to seek leadership roles in higher education and achieve leadership success. 

Established in 2013, Aurora has worked with 200 institutions and more than 8,000 women to improve the gender balance in leadership in parts of the higher education sector. With over 1,600 participants taking part in Aurora in 2021-22, the alumna will grow to just under 10,000 by the end of the current academic year.

Advance HE’s Assistant Director Programmes and Consultancy, Steve Lloyd, who heads up Aurora reflected on the programme’s ongoing impact by explaining that a survey carried out in 2021 revealed that before taking part in Aurora, only 34% of participants rated themselves as very confident, or somewhat confident, in pursuing leadership positions. This jumped to 84% after the programme, with nearly a third rating themselves as very confident to pursue a leadership position, up from 3%.

He said: “This is significant because pursuing leadership positions means different things to different people. For example, for some it would be applying for promotion but for many it might be leading a project, informally influencing and engaging with a bigger group of colleagues, nominating yourself for roles that previously you may have shied away from, or more generally growing confidence in your skills, so it demonstrates the wider impact of Aurora beyond simply getting people promoted.”

Aurora was created in response to the Leadership Foundation’s stimulus paper Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspiration, written by Professor Louise Morley in 2013, which showed that there were fewer women in the most senior positions in higher education than 10 years previously. Professor Morley identified areas that could be addressed to change this.

When Aurora was launched, it provided the first development activity specifically for women only, distinguishing it from other leadership development programmes and based on a model blending formal development and education, self-directed study and mentoring in partnership with institutions.

It brings together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive actions to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector.

Led by a team of leadership experts the core focus is on “leadership ignition” with participants exploring four key areas associated with leadership success: Identity, Impact and Voice; Core Leadership; Politics and Influence, and Adaptive Leadership Skills. These areas are covered through thought-provoking activities, collaborative problem-solving and motivating stories, supported by inspirational women speakers. Participation embeds strong networks of early career women across the sector to share best practice, insights and experiences.

Steve Lloyd said: “We have enhanced the programme over the last few years as we moved it online – enhancing our mentoring guidance, adding a mentor training offer and some optional face-to-face sessions for later this year for Aurorans who have completed the programme online. We have also added some optional virtual networking sessions to compliment the core content and are now hosting the first action learning set and providing stronger support for this critical aspect of Aurora. These changes also ensured we were well placed to continue the programme throughout the Covid-associated lockdowns and we're delighted to see record numbers of participants and engaging institutions for 2021-22.”

Each of the four delivery days are currently held online, with delegates usually being drawn from a wide range of institutions in the same region. The aim for these days is to offer structured leadership development delivered by expert programme directors in a truly interactive way via small group work and experience sharing. This is complimented by prominent keynote speakers and in formal networking opportunities.

Past inspirational speakers have included space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, BAFTA award-winning game director, entrepreneur and artist Brenda Romero, and the face of international women’s rugby, Maggie Alphonsi.

Aurora is supported within institutions by ‘Aurora champions’, who are the key point of contact at the institution for Aurora and manage all aspects of the programme internally to ensure that participants feel fully supported. Institutions often run comprehensive and competitive selection processes to identify and select participants to attend. They support participants by connecting them to a mentor and often offer a number of additional “wrap around” activities for current and past participants ensuring through their formal management structures that they support individual learning objectives with the aim of ultimately enhancing the wider gender equality initiatives at the institution.

The opportunity to network, whether face-to-face or online, is seen as essential to increase the impact of the programme, whether with colleagues from their own institution, specific cohort, or the wider Aurora community. Recognition of the importance of this element of the programme has led to the creation of a range of short optional sessions run online which are hosted by the Advance HE Aurora team every fortnight.

These include Coffee and Connect sessions, an informal one-hour session, and Watch Parties, where delegates watch a TED talk or video and then discuss within small groups before a 10-minute feedback session for all participants.

In addition, there are three “networking special” sessions during the year, which may include inspirational guest speakers, panel discussions and exploration of specific topics related to women leadership.

Steve Lloyd said: “We are continuing to develop ways to ensure we can connect cohorts from each academic year beyond the core sessions and are all exploring how we can connect the wider Aurora alumna community as we recognise the power this continued networking can bring as individuals progress through their careers.

“As we start to transition out of Covid restrictions we also recognise how much many of our current participants would value the opportunity to meet face-to-face, so towards the end of this current academic year we will also be hosting a series of four one-day 'Your Future in HE' face-to-face events to provide an opportunity for Aurorans who have undertaken Aurora virtually to finally meet and network.”

International Woman’s Day 2022 – Break the Bias 

The Aurora team and current 2021-22 cohort is celebrating the programme’s ongoing impact via a bespoke event to celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 on 4 March.

Hosted by Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, and with guest speaker Shirley Malcom, senior advisor and director of SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the event will explore gender bias in higher education and how to #BreakTheBias.  

Aurora 2021-22

Aurora is Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector.

Find out more and register your interest here.


Aurora: Your Future in HE

Face-to-face events taking place in 2022 will be of interest to Aurorans who are engaging with the main programme virtually on the 21/22 cohort, and are open to those who have previously engaged virtually but have not yet had a chance to meet face-to-face (from 19/20 and 20/21 cohorts). Find out more

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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