Throughout March, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing the stories of inspiring women in leadership positions across the sectors we work in.

Today, we speak to Rachel Nicholls, CEO and Principal of Inspire Education Group (IEG). IEG is a large further education college group, consisting of Peterborough College, Stamford College and University Centre Peterborough.

Rachel began her further education career in 2001 in student engagement as a College Activities Coordinator, leading on the enrichment element of Key Skills Enrichment and Tutorials, before progressing into teaching, Head of Department, Head of Faculty, Assistant Principal, Deputy Principal and now CEO of Inspire Education Group! She has worked with numerous fantastic colleagues across eight colleges.

How do you inspire inclusion in your work and life?

It’s a journey, an ongoing process – I can always learn and do more.

For me, there are a few things I really focus on.

  • Be mindful of language: I try to use inclusive language that avoids assumptions about gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and other aspects of identity. I try to remember to ask how people prefer to be addressed and respect their choices.
  • Challenge biases: I like to think I reflect on my own biases and assumptions – we all have them and it’s important we challenge these. Equally, when I see or hear biased behaviour or language from others I respectfully challenge it.
  • Celebrate diverse perspectives: I encourage diverse voices to be heard in meetings and discussions. I acknowledge and value different viewpoints. In my personal life, I seek out friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures, this richly adds to my own experience.
  • Be an ally: I enjoy learning from others about their experiences – good and bad, and offer support to those who face prejudice, discrimination or exclusion.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in leadership positions today, particularly in education?

While there have been strides towards gender equality both generally and in the FE sector, women still face various challenges in leadership positions.

Representation is an area where we have made significant progress. According to the Association of Colleges 2022 College Senior Pay Survey, the gender split in CEO / Accounting Officer level roles is circa 45% female, 54% male with 1% preferring not to say. This is significantly better than some sectors, but still an area for us to monitor and address.

Women still face challenges from a work environment and culture point of view. Stereotypes and implicit biases can hinder women’s advancement, influencing recruitment, promotion, and performance reviews. A culture that emphasises long hours and presenteeism can disadvantage women with caring responsibilities. Expectations around childcare and home responsibilities are often placed disproportionately on women, creating additional burdens. Hybrid/agile working can help and support all staff but perhaps even more so for women.

Women often lack access to strong mentors who can advocate for them and provide career guidance, which can be crucial for advancement. I have been fortunate to benefit from some fantastic women mentors and role models. We need to make sure we continue to support and mentor ‘up and coming’ women in the sector.

What advice would you give to other women aspiring to leadership roles in the FE sector?

I guess I would suggest a few straightforward things, none of which are particularly rocket science or new.

Building your network and relationships is key. Seek out mentors – credible and trusted individuals who you can learn from, they can be a great source of support. Consider a coach, but spend time seeking out someone that fits with you and will provide you with support but also the challenge. Consider joining professional groups specifically for women for example the Women’s Leadership Network.

Credibility and expertise are vital for success. Seek high quality professional development, relevant to your desired leadership role and that is going to add to your skill set. Similarly, keep up to date and current – hone and develop your skills critical for leadership, such as communication, critical thinking, risk appetite and management and decision making.

Most importantly, take risks and step outside your comfort zone. The best learning takes place when you are outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges and projects, even if they seem daunting – this is a great way of developing self-belief and confidence but also proving yourself to your colleagues and leaders within the organisation.

There will be sticky moments – leadership can be challenging and lonely sometimes, but as long as you don’t try to be someone you’re not and learn from setbacks its hugely rewarding and a privilege.

Drew Richardson-Walsh is the Director of our Education Practice. With a wealth of expertise having previously worked in further and higher education leadership roles and first-hand experience of being a deputy chair of a thriving multi-academy trust, Drew passionately believes that access to high-quality education is the key to true social mobility, and he works tirelessly to support our clients to secure exceptional talent for their leadership teams, executive roles and non-executive board positions. You can connect with Drew on Linkedin or send him an email.