Spotlight on our Guest Lecture Speaker: Professor Patricia Lewis

Professor Patricia Lewis

Our exciting MBA Guest Lecture Series continues tomorrow, on Friday 10 March 2023, covering the important topics of diversity and inclusion with a focus on women in leadership. This free hybrid event will run from 12.30 until 14.00 (GMT) on Zoom and in-person in the MBA Suite in Sibson.

The event will host four speakers including Professor Patricia Lewis, Professor of Management at Kent Business School. Here, we catch up with Patricia ahead of the event to find out more about her life as an academic shining a torch on gender inequality.

What was your life like growing up?

I grew up in Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s when gender was the only significant form of difference as the population was very homogenous. While class differences were materially present, culturally they were muted as there was no significant Labour movement.

Additionally, the Irish state and society was organised around the suppression and oppression of women.  I saw this every day of my life but was lucky enough to be born at a time when the cultural mood music of second wave feminism could be heard.

I could see a way out through the push for modernisation, the entry of Ireland into the European Economic Community in the early 1970s (now the EU) brought in legislation which outlawed sexual discrimination and I got access to university education. I studied at Trinity College Dublin, so my sociology education was not overly influenced by Catholicism, and I was introduced to feminism as a critical body of work.

Did you ever feel your gender held you back?

Yes! I didn’t get to university until five years after I left school. An example which always stuck with me was my first interview for a research position after I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a First-Class degree in Sociology.

I was one of three people who was awarded a First in 1990 within what was then the Faculty of Economics and Social Studies and the only woman out of around 150 students. My brother advised me to bring along my undergraduate dissertation to show that I could do research and that I could write.

When I showed my dissertation (which I did get published as a journal article) to the interview panel, the first question they asked me was ‘Did I type the dissertation myself?’! I went to another interview for a research position and was asked about my views on abortion, which was a controversial issue in Ireland at the time.

Gender was everywhere and my experiences meant that I tended to see the world through a gendered lens.

Who were inspirational women in your life?

Any women who was able to live the life she wanted.

What led you to academia?

My interest in the social embededness of every aspect of life.  I was advised not to focus on gender for my PhD and I took that advice because at the time in the early 1990s in Ireland, it did not have the type of presence that gender and a general concern for Diversity does now.

However, once I got my first permanent academic job, I started to build a body of work which explores the gendered dimensions of entrepreneurship, leadership and organisations, and I have enjoyed doing this.

Which kinds of research motivates you the most, what do you hope to achieve with your research?

Research which demonstrates how gender is culturally embedded in our lives. I seek to make visible the way in which organisations, entrepreneurs and managers are subject to and constituted by gendered cultural norms and how such constitution contributes to the persistence of inequality.

Gender inequality is a significant societal challenge and a UN sustainable development goal, yet my research has demonstrated the durability of gender inequality patterns despite policy interventions, pointing to the persistence of deep-seated cultural norms that reinforce disadvantage.

How has your research made a difference to women and women’s rights?

Actually, that is a difficult one to answer – I think you would have to ask others about that. Within the academy, I have led and contributed to several research agendas to build understanding of how inequality is often reconfigured rather than eliminated. This has included making visible the masculine norm embedded in entrepreneurship.

My use of the concept of post feminism within organisation studies which makes visible the mainstream acceptance of feminism in relation to work and organisations, the consequences of this luminosity and the impact on the identities of women in entrepreneurial, management and leadership roles has had an impact in that as a critical concept it is now drawn on by many gender and organisation scholars in their work, which is good to see.

How do you instil this in your teaching?

By showing students that being a leader, entrepreneur or manager are not simply neutral, technical activities. Rather, they are saturated in gender cultural norms which impact on how leadership and entrepreneurship is practiced and evaluated.

What does ’embracing equity’ mean to you? How does it manifest within the discipline of management?

I have to admit I am not hugely keen on the term ’embracing equity’ as I think it does not convey the complexity and challenge that attaches to addressing the issues of equality and equity. As an alliterative strap line it tames the feminism which has always underpinned the quest for a better life for women.  I would prefer something stronger to communicate the importance of the issue.

While organisations are certainly more open to diversity and ensuring that they draw on a diverse pool of talent, there is still a highly individualist approach to equality and equity, which basically means supporting gender equality but ‘one woman at a time’.

This means that progress is slow and, within a context of slow progress, there is always the possibility for a move backwards rather than forwards. We have to ensure that the move towards a more diverse, equal world is not ‘rolled back’ and we need to be vigilant that this does not happen while also pushing for more equity.

Are we still in an incredibly inequitable world as women?

Yes, unfortunately there is still a lot of inequality and a lack of equity. For example, if we look at the higher education sector, at the make-up of the Professoriate, women and other historically disadvantaged groups are still in a minority.

The University of Kent has a better record than many universities in relation to gender, as it has sought to ensure EDI runs through the ‘DNA’ of our institution but there is always more work to be done.

What are your hopes for gender equity in the future?

Actually, I am a little pessimistic about the possibility of ever achieving full gender equity but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying!

This is a free event and is open to all University of Kent MBA students, alumni and the wider business community. Register your place today.

Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.

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