Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman at top of academia

Professor Margaret House
Professor Margaret House
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The new vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University is one of only a handful of women to make it to academia’s highest level. Rod McPhee reports.

SHE won’t mind it being pointed out, but, on first meeting, Professor Margaret House doesn’t come across as the most likely boss of one of Britain’s best universities.

Firstly, she’s a woman, and the fact is that fewer than 20 females have made it to the level of vice-chancellor in this country. Secondly, and most importantly, she doesn’t display that dominant matriarchal manner that we somehow, wrongly, expect from women in power.

A misogynistic viewpoint? Maybe, but it’s an expectation which the professor, who became the vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University two months ago, acknowledges herself. She believes many ambitious women feel they have to be pushy and aggressive just to stay on a level pegging with men.

“I don’t feel I’ve been held back a lot by being a woman, but I do feel I’ve had to be better than my male counterparts,” she says “A woman being as good as a man just isn’t good enough – unless, of course, you are very pushy.

“There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve been praised by people when they’ve sort of been saying: ‘She’s done a fantastic job... for a woman’.

“Of course, that might have 
been my imagination. But there have been times when I’ve felt I’ve been excluded from things because there’s an Old Boy’s Club – and the boys have still got the jobs.”

Whatever prejudices which may linger, the professor has successfully overcome them and is now drawing up grand designs for Leeds Trinity University, which include expanding its research arm and fostering international exchanges.

Crucially, she also wants to instigate a staggered increase in student numbers from 3,000 to 4,000 over a period of years – a rise she insists can be achieved without having a negative impact on neighbouring Horsforth.

It’s all a far cry from 1966 
when the university started life as two Catholic teacher training colleges. However, while the ambitions are noble they may be difficult to realise in a city which already sports two well-established centres of higher education.

Prof House insists she is not trying to compete with Leeds University or Leeds Metropolitan University, but is equally determined to avoid the tag which many ‘new universities’ attract.

“Leeds Trinity is far from a Mickey Mouse institution,” she says. “That annoys me, especially as someone who comes from a former polytechnic. In fact, annoying isn’t the word. It’s very frustrating as someone who’s been a very active researcher and proud of it. The idea that my research is ‘Mickey Mouse’ because I carried it out in an ex-poly is very insulting. So, I don’t want anyone to be able to turn round in 10 years time and say, ‘Why did we make that a university?’ My job is to make Leeds Trinity University future-proof.”

Given its comparatively low profile in the minds of those who are clued up on higher education, the institution has already garnered a number of accolades and was ranked in the top 10 per cent of UK institutions for teaching excellence according to The Sunday Times University Guide 2013,

But in the year 2013, how progressive can a Catholic university, even one with a female vice-chancellor, really be? And how Catholic can any university be? Although Trinity started life as two Catholic colleges, these days just one in five students count themselves as followers. How does Trinity reconcile the imperfect match between the moderate behaviour associated with religion and an often hedonistic student lifestyle?

“I think it fits perfectly,” says Prof House, who is also a Catholic. “It gives us a USP for a start, 
and the Catholic underpinning makes it much more of community university. The difference is that if you do come from a faith background then being here might be seen as offering a more protective environment.

“Another difference is that we are sensitive to issues which Catholics are sensitive to. So if there are potential issues then we address them – we don’t just automatically say ‘Well, everything is okay’.

“We talk about them and find a way forward. We think more carefully about how we deal with things like sexual health, for example, and the other week we had a discussion here about gay marriage.

“But the students at Trinity aren’t, on the whole, any 
different to those of any other university. They’re just as boisterous, cheeky and love the nightlife. You don’t have to be a goody two shoes to come to this university.”