Kathryn Waddington, Emerita Fellow in Psychology and Saire Jones, Education Development Partner & CETI Manager
Progress happens when enough people, in enough parts of an organisation, agree on what is and what is not okay. It happens when people start to have rigorous, provocative and ambitious conversations about the best ways of working together.
This quote from the report: ‘Women Count’ was used in our recently published paper – a critically reflective evaluation of an online action learning initiative supporting women’s career progression that we co-facilitated as chairs of a Women of Westminster working group. The images of a glass sea horse and group of women that introduce this blog are explored and explained more fully in the conclusion of our paper. Here, we present an action learning and coaching case study, summarising a) its background, process and outcomes; and b) recommendations for academic staff development and future research that can be applied more widely and inclusively.
The aims of the equality and progression working group were to:
- identify and address gender inequalities and barriers to women’s career progression; and
- explore opportunities for personal, professional, and career development for all staff.
The assumption behind these aims was that while there is strong evidence of endemic gender inequalities in higher education, opportunities for career progression need to extend beyond women in academic and/or senior leadership roles. This broadens the horizons of academic staff development to include the notion of holistic academic development. This approach takes a broad institutional focus that includes professional services and support staff, while also paying attention to the multiplicity of academic roles/careers (e.g. teaching, research, service, administration, leadership). When the action learning group met in 2021 Kathryn had an academic role as reader in work and organisational psychology, and Saire had a professional services role as educational development partner. We approached co-facilitation of action learning from a shared understanding of working together as ‘third space’ practitioners and professionals. That is, those of us working in higher education who do not fit conventional binary descriptors/roles such as academic or professional services. We are also both accredited coaches, and our approach was based on shared principles, values, and appreciation of the impact of coaching in higher education.
The aims of the action learning initiative were for participants to come away with a set of realistic actions to help them address and/or better understand issues experienced in regard to their personal, professional, and career development. The Thinking Environment coaching model was used to facilitate action learning, focusing on core components of attention, equality, ease, and appreciation. The group met once/month for two hours (online, due to Covid-19 restrictions at the time) for seven months. Each participant had the opportunity to present an issue/problem during ‘air-time’ which provided a confidential space to think, and for other members of the group to ask clarifying/open/probing/challenging questions. As coaches we appreciated the importance and role of supervision in our practice and engaged in peer supervision with a colleague after each action learning meeting. The essence of supervision is that it is less of an intellectual/theoretical process or activity, and more of a way of being, and being with, that promotes critical reflection, self-care, and self-compassion.
The Thinking Environment enabled participants to think through and reflect on actions which could be used by both academic and professional services colleagues. These included:
- finding a mentor/ally
- using self-compassion resources
- looking/applying for jobs internally/externally to be ‘new job-ready’
- doing one thing at a time, saying no and setting boundaries
- reflecting on the questions asked by the group.
These led to reappraisal of career plans, promotion, personal development, academic publications, research funding, improved work-life balance and so on. But individual career aspirations still collide with systemic barriers and challenges to career progression, and not just for women. Colleagues working in academic development and learning technology roles face barriers to accessing continuous professional development opportunities, which are the cornerstone to career progression. The approach we advocate here calls for a collective and systemic process for inquiring into – and revealing – the institutional problems and practices that create barriers for career progression.
Recommendations & Conclusion
Key recommendations are for:
- university leaders – be alert to what is ‘really going on’ in your institutions to better understand where systemic challenges and barriers collide with individual career aspirations;
- human resources (HR) and organisational development (OD) practitioners – appreciate the value and synergies that arise from integrating action learning and coaching in your people and organisational development strategies, policies, and practices;
- academic developers and learning technologists – think beyond narrow professional parameters and boundaries to seek out and explore new personal, professional and academic career development opportunities, and learn with, from and about other colleagues working in ‘third spaces’.
In conclusion, good action learning should be based on trust, relationships and skilled, courageous coaching conversations. This blog makes a contribution to the development of coaching cultures in universities, highlighting the importance of creating psychologically safe workspaces. However a recent systematic review concluded that there is still little empirical research into the phenomenon of coaching cultures. This case study provides the groundwork for future research and will be included in the Centre for Education and Teaching Innovation Conversations on Education Research Series. Watch this space and join in the conversation – we’d love to hear your ideas for future research!
Saire and Kathryn presented this action learning and coaching case study at the Advance HE (2023) Staff Development Forum (SDF) Festival of Learning and Development under the theme of Professionalising Learning.
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