In the run up to International Women’s Day celebrated on 8th March, Prof. Rajani Naidoo, Vice-President Community and Inclusion, invited Prof. Nancy Harding, Professor of Human Resources Management and Head of the Strategy and Organisation Division at the University of Bath School of Management, to share what inspired her and her journey to entering academia, her career and the successes and challenges she has met along the way. Many thanks to Culture and Inclusion team and Lucy Spedo Mirandola, who brilliantly captured the key highlights of this conversation and turned it into an interview-style blog below. Now over to Nancy and her fascinating story!
Could you walk us through your career path and what inspired you to embark on an academic career?
When I describe myself as a Professor and Head of Division, it's a bit of a shock really. If my 16-year-old self was looking at me now, she would be really scared of me because I grew up in the Welsh valleys in a very working class community - my father was a coal miner, my mother was a very frustrated housewife. I'm the oldest of seven children so to be blunt, it was a very poverty-stricken background in many ways. I grew up in a house that had no bathroom. We had an outside toilet and a tin bath in front of the fire on a Sunday and had to put a shilling (a 5p coin) in the meter for light.
It was a childhood in a little village that had a school which really encouraged my education and I passed in the Top 40 in the 11+ exam to go to grammar school. I left school at 16 and was a teenage mother but I did my A levels when my children were in school and went to university when I was 27. I got a first-class honours degree and the university got me a PhD grant - and I absolutely loved it!
Would you like to tell us more about your academic work, some of the biggest issues in your field and anything you're currently focusing on?
Doing my first degree, I was learning to explore my class background - coming from a mining community, it's deep in your bones that you distrust managers. For my PhD, I explored managers as if they were workers which has informed all my research. I've done a lot of research into leadership and I always start from the perspective of why, when given a leadership role, do certain people become so obnoxious and what’s required to have much more kind, generous, supportive, nurturing, imaginative leaders so young people have good role models.
Now I’m exploring the return of misogyny and chauvinism. I came late to feminism as I was always interested in class. I was a working-class woman from a coal mining community where women were strong and led a matriarchal culture. It was only when I became middle class that I experienced a backlash against me as a woman, which was a shock. So that's when I discovered feminism. Now I'm exploring the effects of the return of misogyny in internet culture and the community, looking at finding a way that women and men alike can stand up and resist this insidious cultural return. My focus is on what’s generally called equality and diversity, but I call it fairness. I'm also working with 2 colleagues on more desk-based research to explore greed and developing an understanding of why some people can be so self-interested with no concept of the wider community.
What is your teaching focused on?
Because I'm a Head of Division, I have some teaching remit so I teach 2 modules and I teach qualitative research methods to doctoral students which I love. These are the next generation of academics so it’s fascinating working with them and seeing them develop and I also teach second year undergraduates. They are all phenomenally bright – I hope they enjoy learning for the pleasure of learning. I'm also thoroughly enjoying teaching multinational, multi-ethnic classes, especially in the PhD group – out of 18 students in a class before Christmas I think we had eleven nations represented.
In your opinion, what is the best part of your job?
I describe myself as gambolling in fields of ideas, spotting ideas like flowers. I just love the opportunity to think and to read and that you're with such great minds exploring and trying to understand the world. And then it’s the people. The reputation of scientists as aloof is totally wrong. Academics tend to be very friendly, sociable people so I see my role as ensuring that every colleague in my division has a chance to live up to their full potential and has as much pleasure in their work as possible. And is not overstressed although it’s difficult in academia these days.
Which woman or women have inspired you the most and, in your opinion, do you think it's important to have role models and mentors who are women in this space?
That woman is Jackie Ford who I met when I moved to Leeds Uni in 1996. Her office was opposite mine and we were very early career researchers. Jackie was this very impressive woman, who had been a senior manager in the health service when women were still quite new in senior roles and in academia. We had lots of battles to fight which we ended up fighting together, Jackie always defended my back and vice versa. I think it’s really important as academics that you have some close colleagues who are there for each other as it's a tough job. We have to be superb teachers, do fantastic research, publish in the top journals and we have to keep smiling and it can be really challenging. If you have at least one really good person you can go to where they protect you, care for you and nurture you and you for them, it makes a difference.
Is it important in your opinion to have mentors and role models who are women in this space?
When Jackie and I started going to conferences, which can be quite challenging places, we learned very early on to always go with a close colleague because as women, we were very much in the minority. We were always sitting in the back row, silenced. But now it’s slowly changed and is roughly 50-50. An early career researcher said to me last year that Jackie, myself and a few other women were very visible when she first went to conferences but our visibility made it easier so yes, I think it’s important.
Is it a myth that there’s a lack of women in science or choosing unconventional career paths and any stereotypes that you're aware of that persist in this area?
I'm in the social sciences, so this is where women can often dominate, or at least be 50-50 and my Division (Strategy and Organisation) as a people focused division, follows that trend.
It's quite typical that women tend to do what people call the soft subjects, the people focused subjects, but what I call the very important subjects. It's about people and you can't have a world without people. But I've been doing research into professions like medicine or the law which have become female dominated at lower levels but not necessarily at the senior levels and, more specifically, software development where the number of women has declined. Our original research suggests that the idea that the men working there are so obnoxious that women can't work with them seems to be true so we are hoping to do more research in this area.
What is the action or decision that you are most proud of at the moment?
In my role as head of Division, there has been a colleague who has been quite ill. We were able to support this person to do just a little bit of research over time until they slowly recovered and they're now back in work 90% of the time. I really like that they didn't lose any income, that they continued their research and we took any worries that we could off their shoulders. Similar things are happening now with other colleagues.
It's important that whenever anybody is ill, they get full support so they do not have to worry about the effects of their illness on their careers or their work. When everyone rallies around we can make life much better for people through little kindnesses.
Is there something you would like to do better?
I'm working at Bath, which is not far from the Welsh valleys, but I've done very little to encourage people, younger versions of myself, to aspire to study in Bath. It's a very middle-class culture and I think it puts lots of people off. There are lots of us who come from a working-class culture and we have made it through, so how do we encourage our successors to come and show the world how brilliant they are? I think just by being here I've been part of the drive to bring more women into academia but I’ve never tackled the class issues. I’ve lost a lot of my accent so we are not role models for working class people because they don't know we are working class – they see these sort of quite posh middle class people, which a lot of us are not.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a woman thinking of starting a career in academia?
Be passionate about it. Follow your passion. It's a tough career - we have to excel at teaching, research, writing, admin so there's lots of complicated demands on our time, so you need to have a passion for it that will keep you going through the tough times.
But it's almost a calling for many of us as we've got this huge love of it. And the other thing I would say is you'll find lots of other women and men who are adamant about broadening the people who are represented in academia. It's a tough, demanding career, but there are lots of careers that are much more tough and much more demanding. My eldest son is a psychiatric nurse and when he tells me about his days, I think ohh, we face nothing like that in academia! We are paid to sit down and read for part of our time, we go to conferences, which means we get to see parts of the world we'd never otherwise see. It's a very privileged career and it can be a very happy one.
So follow your passion and know that there will be people there who are going to support you and encourage you.
And find your own Jackie Ford!
Never give into the doubts and uncertainties most of us suffer from. When you look around, look at all these people that you think are amazing, they are probably all suffering from imposter syndrome as well.
And then enjoy it!