International Women’s Day 2021: Women in leadership

Blog for members
08 March 2021
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On International Women’s Day UKCISA Board Member Lynsey Bendon, Assistant Director of Operations and Student Experience at the University of Sunderland, talks to us about the challenges and joys of being a woman in a leadership role. 

Despite having managed teams and departments for most of the last decade, I’m still occasionally caught by surprise when I’m referred to as a leader!  

I come from a ‘non-traditional’ background and like the vast majority of my year group, I left school after taking my A levels to enter employment. My early career was in the private sector, predominantly finance and banking. The early 90s was not a time of equality or diversity: in one interview as a school leaver, I was asked what my strategies would be for brushing off the overt sexism practiced by senior managers. In my first role the women were only allowed to wear skirts, not trousers.  

I moved on to work as a Junior Foreign Exchange Dealer on a small trading floor that had an ‘all or nothing’ mentality and where I was the only woman.  The environment was frenetic, and exciting, but also exhausting.  I left finance when starting a family, as it was clear to me at the time the two would not mix. 

I returned to the workforce in the early 2000s to a student helpdesk role at UEL. The university community was diverse and inclusive and such a revelation after my years in finance! I did not feel any less valued as a part-time member of staff or penalised for being a working mum. And though juggling family and work wasn’t easy, I loved my role, student interactions and my colleagues. After a few years I progressed to the role of International Student Adviser and this is where my love affair with UKCISA began!  

I joined this amazing community of professionals and within it met many strong willed, expert, committed, passionate, supportive women, unafraid to be the loudest voice in the room. So many women I have met through UKCISA have inspired me over the years, encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone, try new things and widen my practice. I’ve also gained a fabulous peer group of like-minded professionals.   

I followed the lead of those I admired and embraced the opportunities on offer such as standing as a regional AISA Chair, as well as volunteering for working groups and conference sessions. At 39 I took the plunge and began to study for the UKCISA/Nottingham Post Graduate Certificate. It was hard work but one of the highlights of my working life. It improved my skills across the board, boosted my confidence and I have some amazing memories. 

The qualification opened the door for me to progress to a management position and almost immediately after graduation in 2014, I stepped up into the role of Immigration and Compliance Manager at London Met helping to rebuild after the events of 2012. It was a great time and we faced many challenges, but those also allowed for new opportunity. A colleague and I pitched, wrote and delivered a specialist training course for UKCISA based on our experience with credibility refusals. Delivering training to your expert peers is utterly nerve wracking but ultimately very rewarding! 

I was promoted to the Head of Student Services at LMU in 2016 and was elected to the UKCISA Board of Trustees in 2017. After some very busy years, I secured my current role as Assistant Director (Operations and Student Experience) at the University of Sunderland in London in January 2020. This is by far the most agile institution I’ve ever worked for and I am really enjoying the variety and challenges that have come my way.  

I made a conscious decision when starting my first management role to really be myself. This included keeping the occasional terrible joke and not diluting my working class London accent (think Eastender’s extra!) as I feel it’s part of opening the door for those who follow me. I like to think that I have always been a supportive colleague and I now see myself in a greater position to empower others.  

I volunteer as an Aurora HE Role Model and I am proud that for all of my HE career I have worked for institutions that have widening participation and social mobility at their core. It gives me great joy to think that I am playing a small role in encouraging those who I work with, and support in their studies, to realise their full potential.  

We have a long way to go to reach equality for all, but my goodness, with people of the calibre I’ve met in the HE sector, we really have the ability to get there.