“I don’t believe in rigid hierarchies”

Do women lead differently? How do they view employee leadership and what is their approach to management? Italian studies expert Tatiana Crivelli Speciale and natural scientist Nicole Joller each have different views on this topic – including on gender quotas.

Interviews: Nathalie Huber

Tatiana Crivelli Speciale
Tatiana Crivelli Speciale
Tatiana Crivelli Speciale: The Italian studies expert is the President of the Gender Equality Commission of UZH and manages a staff of 120 employees as head of the Institute of Romance Studies. (Image: Frank Brüderli)

What are the characteristics of academic leadership and management?

Tatiana Crivelli Speciale: Academic leadership involves two distinct roles: On the one hand, the head of a department or institute is responsible for its strategic and administrative management. On the other, they’re also a scholar working together with colleagues, overseeing research projects and supervising doctoral and Master’s theses. In the second role, you’re a fellow researcher among peers, regardless of hierarchy. It’s quite a challenge to keep the balance between these two functions.

What makes a good leader and manager?

They have to be prepared to take on responsibility, and they should have a strategic vision. But it’s also just as important for a leader to have good social skills. In other words, they have to be willing to not only listen to their employees, but from discussions with them also get ideas for their own work. Basically, a good leader and manager should be able to get along with everyone. This can be very demanding and at the same time very rewarding. At the Institute of Romance Studies, for example, up to seven different languages are spoken, with many different cultures coming together under one roof – a terrific diversity.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t believe in rigid hierarchies. Then again, I’m happy to take on the responsibility that comes with having a leadership role, and I’m very goal-oriented. I enjoy leading through having a dialogue with the team, because I think it’s better when people can shape the structures that they operate in. Of course, I’m aware that this takes more of an effort than when you’re a boss who simply gives and enforces orders.

What do you find difficult as a leader?

When I’m not taken seriously. I know that as a woman this can often be the case. Whenever I want to introduce something new, I always have to be prepared to defend and justify my decision.

Are you in contact with other women in leadership and management roles in academia?

Yes, having a network is crucial. One of the groups I’m involved in is an interfaculty group that meets once or twice a year. We usually present our research fields to each other. I think it’s very exciting to get insights into other disciplines. These contacts are also important for my work on the Gender Equality Commission: I can get in touch with other female colleagues and get their views on specific issues whenever I need to.

Do you think there should be a gender quota for the Executive Board of the University, for example?

I would welcome gender quotas. They’re a valid tool at least for a while.  It’s scientifically proven that diverse teams operate differently and sometimes work more efficiently. Women are grossly underrepresented in leadership and management positions and bodies at universities, with the share of female professors currently at around 20 percent. As UZH’s Gender Equality Monitoring proves, there’s still a way to go until this changes.

Are continuing education programs in leadership and management skills for academia fit for our times?

Leadership and management courses that focus on the gender-specific differences of leadership would fill a current gap. Is it true that men are generally more dominant when it comes to leading a team? Or that women tend to have a more inclusive leadership style? It’s precisely these differences that women should discuss with men, so that different perspectives, methods and opinions can inspire their work as managers.

Nicole Joller
Nicole Joller
Nicole Joller: The SNSF assistant professor researches at the Institute of Experimental Immunology and leads a team of six employees. (Image: Frank Brüderli)

What characterizes academic leadership and management?

Nicole Joller: I don’t believe that leadership tasks in academia are any different from those in industry or politics. But there is a limit on the makeup of a team right from the start: You only supervise doctoral candidates for four to six years.

Do women lead differently than men?

I think any differences in leadership style are to do with different personalities rather than being gender-related. 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m open, in the sense that employees can talk to me about everything.  I respect my staff and I’m also open to suggestions related to my research. I always discuss my plans with my employees in advance. It’s important that they understand and whenever possible support my decisions.

Are continuing education programs in leadership and management skills for academia fit for our times?

Yes. But management courses should start at an earlier stage than at the level of professors. Because doctoral candidates also have teaching duties, oversee internships and supervise Master’s students. It would certainly be useful for doctoral students to already learn certain basic leadership and management principles.

Are you in contact with other women in leadership and management roles in academia?

I’ve had many female bosses in my career, and I’ve kept in touch with many of them. In the world of science and academia, networking is all about resources, expertise and connecting with the right people. That’s why I want my network to include men as well as women.

Do women need a continuing education program tailored specifically to the needs of women to acquire leadership and management skills?

I’m not really sure that would make sense. Since generally neither men nor women are born as leaders – both first have to gain leadership experience.  However, there are sometimes situations in international research teams where women are less accepted as leaders. Gender equality isn’t as advanced in all cultures as it is in ours.  Specific strategies to deal with these types of situations would be useful.

Do you think there should be a gender quota for the Executive Board of the University, for example?

Quotas can be a double-edged sword: In the short term, they allow you to reach a goal and remedy an imbalance.  But with quotas there’s also the risk of not choosing the person who’s most suited to the task. In general our goal should be to have leadership and management bodies with a gender representation that also reflects the general population.


Professorinnen-Apéro 2019

Women are the majority of UZH students today, but the situation is different for professorships and academic management positions. How this could be changed was the topic at this year's Professorinnen-Apéro.

Nathalie Huber is Editor UZH News; English translation by Philip Isler, UZH

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