2017 Auckland Women in Leadership Program

Weaving the Lattice of Leadership for Women in Higher Education: The University of Auckland’s Women in Leadership Program

Lorraine Stefani, Mary Ann Crick, Melanie Moorcroft
The University of Auckland, New Zealand

Lorraine StefaniLorraine Stefani is Emeritus Professor (Higher Education) at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and an Independent Consultant on Inclusive Leadership in Higher Education. Her research interests include interrogation of leadership models in complex organizations, and leadership development in higher education. Recent publications include an edited volume Inclusive Leadership in Higher Education: International Perspectives and Approaches published by Routledge and a chapter in the ILA Building Bridges Series book Breaking the Zero Sum Game- Transforming Societies Through Inclusive Leadership entitled, "Inclusive, Authentic, Values-Based or Opportunistic – What Counts as leadership Today? A Case Study of Angela, Donald, Francis and Helen." She can be reached at lorraine.stefani@auckland.ac.nz.

Mary Ann CrickMary Ann Crick, Staff Development Manager at The University of Auckland, is responsible for the Women in Leadership program which has been running since 2000 with approximately 450 women participants, both academic and professional. Her portfolio also includes the Senior Women’s Leadership Network and the NZ Women in Leadership program. She has presented on the WIL program at the International Leadership Association Oceania Conference in 2013, the Association of Pacific Rim Universities Women in Leadership workshop in 2015 and in 2016 at the ILA Conference in Atlanta. In November 2017 she attended the APRU WIL conference at the University of Sydney.

Melanie MoorcroftFor the past six years Melanie has been the Associate Director HR/People and Organisational Development at the University of Auckland responsible for the capability and leadership development offerings for staff. She has also been consulting, coaching, and developing managers, professionals, and business owners to improve their individual and team/business performance for over 20 years, including working on large-scale change initiatives and strategic plans; workforce development plans; quality management/auditing systems and workshops in the health, education, justice sectors, and private businesses. Her particular interests are the development of organizational frameworks to align actions with strategic objectives and using behavioral coaching techniques/interventions to develop individual, team and organizational effectiveness.


In 2000, the University of Auckland (UoA) initiated a Women in Leadership program for the purpose of addressing the issue of gender equity. The program was modeled on the successful Leadership Development for Women initiative at the University of Western Australia (UWA) that had been in place since 1995 when, in the words of Jennifer De Vries (2005), UWA became serious about “creating a workplace where women would want to work and where their contribution would be fully realized.” The University of Auckland viewed a Women in Leadership (WIL) program as a strategy to “increase the numbers of women in senior positions and foster training, mentoring, and career development for academic and general staff women.

The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand. It is an agreement entered into by representatives of the Crown and of Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). It is named after the place in the Bay of Islands where the treaty was first signed, on 6 February 1840. In recognition of New Zealand as a bicultural country with obligations to its Maori population under this treaty, the cultural metaphor of Te Kete — baskets of knowledge — is used to describe the weaving of the lattice of leadership.

Basket Basket Basket
Te kete-tuatea
Basket of light,
Present knowledge.
Te kete-aronui
Basket of pursuit
The knowledge humans seek.
Te kete-tuauri
Basket of darkness
Things unknown.

When the UoA Women in Leadership program was initiated, the statistics for women professors hovered around 15%, which was in keeping with the figure for all eight of the universities in New Zealand. The UoA Senior Management Team recognized the need to:

  • Address the issue of gender equity and create an environment where women’s significant contribution is fully realized.
  • Increase the numbers of women in senior positions.
  • Enhance opportunities for women to be recruited and retained in under-represented areas.
  • Foster formal and informal learning, mentoring and career development.

Now in its 18th year WIL has a number of unique characteristics. First among these is that the ethos from the outset has been one of inclusion with a focus on equity. Māori have a distinct status as tangata whenua (indigenous people) and equity policies at the University of Auckland recognize its commitments and obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. Other equity groups considered by WIL are Pacifika, women working part-time and/or on fixed term contracts, ethnic minority groups, women with family responsibilities. Pacifika is a term that is unique to New Zealand, Aotearoa, describing migrants from the Pacific region and their descendants who now call Aotearoa their home. Pacifika have been in general an under-served population. Furthermore, academic (faculty) and professional women staff members work together on the WIL program, which fosters better understandings of work contexts.

Very often academic staff (faculty) have little understanding of the significant roles and responsibilities of professional staff and vice versa. Having academics and professional staff working together on WIL brings everyone into the ‘living room.’ A significant aspect of WIL is that women self-select to participate and engage in the program – they are not chosen by heads of departments or other senior staff members. Another unusual aspect of this program is that it has a working group comprising both academic and professional women. These special aspects of the WIL program contributed to its winning the New Zealand Equal Opportunities Trust Manaaki Tangata Innovation Award in 2006. At the presentation of the award, the CEO of the Equal Opportunities Trust stated: "
While other organizations do have leadership programs for women, the University of Auckland's program shows a great deal of innovation in the degree of thought that has gone into developing it. It was extremely well researched and executed, and it has made a real difference to the women who have participated, as well as to the university.

The Program

The WIL program begins with an off-campus overnight introductory retreat that all participants must attend. A key aspect of the retreat is to provide the time and support for the participating women to identify their personal leadership development goals and needs and an action plan to achieve their goals. The working group, taking into consideration the goals and aspirations of each individual, will match them with a mentor who will support them for the full year.

Workshops and special seminars shaped by the identified development goals of all program participants are held monthly throughout the year and participants are encouraged to attend those events that relate to their own specific goals. A reading group is set up to discuss research and ideas relating to current leadership practice. Women in Leadership alumnae are invited to a variety of workshops and social events to facilitate on-going learning, information sharing, and networking.

While the program runs for a full year, in reality, the relationships developed throughout the year within each cohort last much longer. The mentors and mentees both gain a great deal of knowledge and camaraderie, which also helps build capacity and strengthens women’s networks throughout the institution.

The expected outcomes for participants are that they will have:

  • Identified their personal leadership goals;
  • Enhanced their personal skills and strategies to contribute more fully as leaders;
  • Increased their self-confidence to participate in decision making;
  • Gained access to a women’s support network; and
  • Increased their organizational knowledge and understanding (structures, promotions and career options, research grants, policies, decision-making processes, and relevant policies).
    Baskets Naku te rourou nau te rourouka ora ai te iwi

    With your basket and my basket the people will live

Notwithstanding the willingness of the UoA senior management team to support a Women in Leadership program, the financial resource provided is very limited. However, the ongoing success of the program, as shown by evaluation data, attest to the benefit of the long-term commitment of the program manager who has been associated with WIL since 2002. She brings deep institutional knowledge and extensive networks. The working group, comprising senior academic and professional staff and WIL alumnae, many of whom become mentors to those participants following in their footsteps also makes a huge contribution to the success of WIL. On an annual basis, the program comprises approximately 24-28 women, both academic and professional. During a recent interview, the WIL working group raised the following points when asked about the importance of their contribution:

  • The WIL working group is not an advisory group or committee.
  • The group is embedded in WIL.
  • The members are all involved in the selection process.
  • The group works through consensual decision making.
  • Working group members all attend the retreat.
  • It is a highly participatory group.
  • All members are facilitating the program at different times; matching mentors/mentees.
  • Solidarity is the key — WIL was built on feminist principles — these principles have been upheld through bumpy times.

Measuring Success

As with any development program, as development is not necessarily tangible and easily quantifiable, there is a recognized need to determine its added value. In providing development opportunities for a heterogeneous group, it cannot be assumed that everyone’s needs and starting points are the same, nor can it be assumed that everyone has the same goals and aspirations. The purpose of the UoA Women in Leadership program is to build capacity across the institution, which is a long term and hard to measure goal. Notwithstanding these challenges, the WIL program is evaluated on an annual basis using questionnaires and the feedback is used to constantly modify and update the program.

In 2011, an evaluation questionnaire was developed and sent to 100 women who had participated in WIL during its 10 years in operation. Of that 100, some of whom had moved to other positions outside of the university, 92 women agreed to participate in the exercise. This number comprised equal numbers of academic and professional staff. The questionnaire comprised 22 questions with the initial ones being name, department, academic or professional staff, position or level at time of participation in WIL. The next questions, which were divided into two sections, one for professional staff and one for academic, focused on career progression and promotion data and whether respondents had taken on formal and informal leadership roles and contributed to university governance since participating in WIL. The response rate to all of these questions was extremely high and the space for additional comments provided rich data on women’s roles and responsibilities, challenges, and views of their working environment.

The next two questions required a response on a 5 point Likert scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, and were designed to probe respondents on the extent to which their participation in WIL contributed to them achieving the overall program goals. Encouragingly, 88.2% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed (SA/A) that the program had helped them to develop a better understanding of the concept of leadership and the range of leadership styles, and 85.7% strongly agreed or agreed that the program had encouraged them to further their career.

The next question asked for responses to 18 sub-points on the same Likert scale. These sub-points represented the intended outcomes of the WIL program and sought information on whether or not the program helped women achieve these hoped-for outcomes. Though it is not possible to address all 18 points in this brief article, five of these points have been selected on the grounds that the qualitative narratives that came through the questionnaire responses primarily corresponded with these issues:

  1. Identifying your personal leadership style and needs (81.4% SA/A out of 86)
  2. Reflecting on your roles, goals and potential (94.2% SA/A out of 86)
  3. Developing skills/strategies so as to contribute to UoA as a leader (74.4% SA/A out of 86)
  4. Improving your networking skills (80.2% SA/A out of 83)
  5. Increasing your understanding of a gendered workplace culture (60.5% SA/A out of 86)

The final open question focused on what aspect of the Women in Leadership program had been of most value. Out of 77 responses, almost 50% stated that the mentoring had been highly significant:

“Taking part in the WIL programme makes you step back and take a good look at your current situation and evaluate where you want to head and sets in place personal plans to achieve the goals and outcomes to be achieved. My mentor was a never ending source of encouragement and wisdom. She encouraged me to push the boundaries to achieve my goals, when obstacles were encountered her extensive senior management experience came into play”.

Other key information that the impact evaluation provided is that 54% of professional women staff surveyed had taken on new roles since participating in WIL. This was not always expressed as promotion, but there were significant shifts in these women participating more in the overall governance and operation of the university through committees, working groups, and projects. Almost 50% had applied for and been successful in gaining awards and fellowships, many of whom would not have considered applying prior to WIL. Likewise, 89% of academic women had applied for and been successful in gaining promotion and 63% had taken on a leadership role within the university.

What is interesting is that in all of the comments received, women do not appear to be participating in the WIL program specifically for the purpose of promotion, but rather it is the mentoring, the networking, the confidence building, and the wider and deeper knowledge of the university — a weaving of the lattice of attributes that contribute to leadership, that is the attraction and success of WIL.

As a result of the impact evaluation in 2011, changes were made to the program to reflect the data that was collected and analyzed. Follow-up evaluations were carried out in 2016 with the post 2011 WIL cohorts. The evaluation questionnaires followed the pattern of those in 2011 and, in addition, participants were asked about the added value of WIL for them; mentors were asked about both the enablers and challenges for continued career/leadership development for women, and the working group was asked to give their perspectives on the influence and impact of WIL on the organizational culture.

For convenience, the actual responses to some of the key evaluation questions are shown at the end of this article in an appendix.

Ending Thoughts

While it is immensely difficult to align cause and effect, the evaluation data shown indicate that WIL does indeed add value. Does this added value translate to more women in leadership positions? The following data sets at the very least show positive trends for both academic and professional women at the University of Auckland!

Senior Academic Women Staff Figures

2005  2016
Associate Professors  25.5%  Associate Professors 38.8%
Professors  17.8%  Professors 25.2%
Combined Associate Professors/Professors   22.0%  Combined Associate Professors/Professors   31.4%

Senior Professional Women Staff Figures

Women hold 52% of senior positions (Professional staff above level 6), which is higher than the University’s target of 49%. This has been a consistently increasing percentage in recent years and for the first time in 2015 senior women outnumbered men.


The Women in Leadership program is but one strand of the institution’s commitment to building leadership capacity and capability and to its mission to work towards an inclusive ethos. As can be seen from this article, it is women themselves making strenuous efforts to ensure that all women have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. A complex lattice of networks is necessary to empower women in higher education.

Ehara taku toa i te toa taki takiengari he toatakimanoi

My strength is not that of an individual but that of the collective.

Appendix: Actual Responses to Some of the Key Evaluation Questions

1. Positive responses regarding five key goals of WIL 2011 2016
Identifying your personal leadership style and needs 81.4%   92%
Reflecting on your roles, goals and potential 94.2% 92%
Developing skills/strategies to contribute to UoA as a leader   74.4% 85.7%
Improving your networking skills 80.2% 79.4%
Increased understanding of a gendered workplace culture 60.5% 65.8%

2. The Added Value of WIL for Participants

“Building my confidence and support from women leaders in the WIL programme as well as the outstanding relationship built with my mentor.”

“Mentoring and the practice of setting personal stretch goals each year for my own growth.”

“Getting to interact more with the academic staff side of the university and understanding them better (i.e. how promotion works, workloads etc.).”

“WIL provides an important space for talking about gender issues and leadership that are otherwise invisible.”

3. Mentor Perspectives on Enablers for Continued Career/Leadership Development

“Mentoring, sponsorship, support and role modelling of senior leaders.”

“Gaining knowledge of the variety of career options and networks of influence – knowledge is empowering.”

“Immediate manager support is key and having a network beyond the department or Faculty helps women be more confident in going forward and the steps to take for career enhancement.”

“Acceptance of different modes of leadership; strong focus on individual development; strong networks; range of development opportunities.”

4. Mentor Perspectives on the Challenges to Ongoing Career/Leadership Development

“High workloads, juggling family and career.”

“Lack of understanding by Faculty Staffing Committee and Heads of Department re principles of merit relative to opportunity.”

“Politics, the unspoken rules of the institution which are difficult to navigate.”

“Lack of knowledge of the system.”

“Unsupportive HoDs and supervisors.”

“Baby boomers holding back innovation and opportunities for staff coming up behind them.”

5. Working Group Perspectives on Influence & Impact on Organizational Culture

Unique way of bringing academic and professional staff together, learning from each other – a common language coming forward.

WIL is giving women a sense of the university as a whole.

WIL gives a greater sense of continuity of career — a more skilled workforce.

Women taking on more strategic roles, finding a voice on committees.

Engagement is strengthened.

Raising the status and profile of women, women can have meaningful leadership roles, not just positional leadership.


de Vries, J. (Ed.). (2005). More Than the Sum of Its Parts: 10 years of the Leadership Development for Women Programme at UWA. The University of Western Australia, Perth: Organisation and Staff Development Services.

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