Athena Vongalis-Macrow



Monash University - Ph.D. in Education

Athena Vongalis-Macrow had just decided to leave her previous job and take some time off after a tough year when a position as a senior lecturer in the faculty of arts and education at Deakin University in Burwood, Australia came up. She decided to go for it, thinking she had nothing to lose.

Athena got the job. Now, she spends her time working with students, talking with colleagues and developing her latest research project or idea. Athena, who completed her Ph.D. in education at Monash University in Melbourne Australia, is specifically interested in the globalization of education, but also draws on her background in sociology, education and philosophy.

Athena's latest research considers women and leadership and works to capture the diversity in this field. She has co-authored posts for the Harvard Business Review blog titled "What Women Want in Their Leaders" and "Stop Stereotyping Female Leaders." Read on for more about her interesting research, including why she says pressures to be a "superwoman" have to end.

The Superwoman practice has to stop.

How did you discover your current job?

I stumbled upon my current job; it wasn't planned. I had decided to leave my previous work and take some time off because I had a tough year and wanted time to think about other options. When my current position was advertised, I went for it because I realized I had nothing to lose. And when I got the job, I decided that if I wanted to keep working, I needed to change the way I worked. I think this job is far more fulfilling and relaxing for that very reason.

What is your typical day like?

My typical day has three forms of interactions. Firstly, dealing with students and their concerns about study or their own careers. A lot of this involves listening and giving suggestions. Most students lack confidence rather than knowledge. Talking with colleagues is also part of the day, although these days, it's more via email. The main part of the day is spent thinking about your current research project or ideas and trying to sort these out in your own mind. This is the hard part, because it demands space and time. I try to write everyday as a way to track ideas and sort out my thinking.

You work in the university's education department, but have been researching women and leadership. How do the two relate for you? What took you that direction in your research?

As a sociologist, I'm always curious about groups and how they interact. My first interest in leadership came from considering education as a system and institutions as organizations. So, I was curious what happens to different groups within this system. Gradually, I started to look at other organizations and the question of leadership kept coming up. With it ideas about identity, power, groups that are 'in' or 'out' and so forth.

Women and leadership is a relatively new field and what I'm more interested in now is capturing the diversity within this field. Yes, we're all women, but we do have a sense of our own identity and will. Culture, ethnicity, race, sexuality are just as varied between women as they are between men and women. So, the challenge is to evolve and recognize that we cannot take each other for granted just because we are women.

What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?

The most rewarding is being able to express an idea or thought so that others understand it and it makes a difference. If you can then influence students and colleagues to take on the idea, that's such a bonus, too. This is also the most challenging. My business is about creating new knowledge and insights.

What's one lesson you've learned in your work that sticks with you?

That no one ever changed their mind as a result of an argument. You have to be persuasive with your ideas, but not too ‘in your face.' I think I'm still learning. It's difficult to maintain grace and openness when your ideas are being torn to shreds!

You've researched what mid-career women looking to advance want in their leadership. Can you tell us about what you found? And is there one trait that's valued above the rest?

Confidence and authenticity. Sorry; that's two, but they go hand in hand. If you believe in yourself, there's a confidence that goes with it.

You've written about two types of practices that work to stereotype women in leadership. What are they and how can women work to disrupt this stereotyping in their own communities and workplaces?

1. The Superwoman practice has to stop. All evidence shows that multitasking gets the job done, but what about the quality? Multitasking also elevates stress levels and can lead to all sorts of health issues. I think women can forget superwomen multitasking and do that which is more fulfilling.

2. Negative cliques are ultimately bad practices. That means when you get together with colleagues, avoid bonding over negativity and woes; talk instead about your future plans and what you need to get there. In networking talk, those networks based on negativity are doomed to failure and also waste lots of time.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women in the workplace today, particularly women in your industry?

Academia is an established and hierarchical system. However, women aren't outsiders any more. There are actually more women working in academia than men. However, there are less women in leadership. It seems that the numbers are there for a critical mass of women to demand more from their workplace.

I think demands for democratic leadership elections in universities are a must. University leaders should have to compete for the right to lead, especially in public institutions. As academics, we're always judged by our peers; I think this practice should extend to managing the organization, too. The challenge is for more women to achieve leadership, but also challenge the practices that have excluded them and many other groups, too.

You're working on the book, "Glass Wall Barriers." Can you tell us more about the book and the impetus for writing it?

This book is currently in ‘retirement’ while we consider new ideas and new ways of writing.

What are three things you love aside from your job?

I have a loving relationship with a great husband and his support is invaluable.

I love undertaking creative projects around the house and am considering a course in interior design. (This is my excuse for great expeditions in finding quirky antiques or some great artifact with a history.)

Finally, I love golf. If I had my life to do over again, I'd pick up a golf club at the age of three.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing I missed out on is talking to my mother about her work and her work experiences. I think it's important that women learn about work and get that insider knowledge from other women, so ask your mother, aunt and friend about work and what they know about getting ahead. You'll be surprised how many women don’t give this kind of advice to others. Men have been doing it for centuries!

-Interview by Keriann Strickland