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Celebrating International Women’s Day with a Q&A: Carina Fagan, Chief Academic Officer

We recently had the opportunity to discuss several different questions with our Chief Academic Officer, Carina Fagan. See our questions, and her responses, below. We find this a wonderful and inspiring 7-minute read.


What first interested you in education and how did you get started?

I started as a beauty and spa therapist and worked for Steiner on cruise ships and travelled the world for four years – my favourite destinations were definitely Bermuda and the Caribbean! In that role, I found that I really enjoyed coaching, mentoring and training junior staff, it gave me a real sense of personal fulfilment and I felt like I was making a difference in my own small way. When I returned home, I decided I wanted to learn more about teaching and so I did my first teacher training course at the National University of Ireland and got a job teaching beauty in an ITEC college. I absolutely loved it. Over time, I developed a fantastic network of colleagues within the vocational teaching profession in Ireland as well as colleagues at VTCT and City and Guilds International; and we worked on a number of initiatives together. With the support of colleagues I designed, developed and set up the delivery of teacher and assessor training courses, introduced a new national insurance scheme and professional membership, I was President of CEPEC in Europe and Vice-President of FHT in the UK, I chaired the development of national and European standards for the beauty industry and ran the VTCT Ireland office for a number of years. I always had a passion for educational assessment and very early in my career, I made a conscious choice to focus my specialism on teacher, assessor and quality assurance qualifications and practice. From 2002 onwards, I worked as an education and training consultant in a broad range of sectors, including for a network of 22 colleges and for other awarding organisations, as well as for VTCT.

What led you to where you are today?

In 2010, I joined VTCT as a full-time employee in the qualifications department as a Development Officer for Health and Beauty, a position which I held for five years before progressing to middle management. I then progressed to Qualifications Manager, then Head of Qualifications, then Head of Qualifications and Assessment, then Executive Director of Awarding, and now almost ten years on from first becoming a full-time employee at VTCT – Chief Academic Officer for VTCT and ITEC.

I am clever, experienced, knowledgeable, capable, strategic, an expert authority in my field, hard-working, effective at achieving results and at building and leading teams – but so too are lots of women! In truth, what has led me to where I am today is the support, guidance and mentorship of my two favourite male feminists; our Deputy Chief Executive Ashley Barnes and Chief Executive Alan Woods, OBE who took me under their wings, believed in me and had trust and faith in my ability. They made it their business to proactively support my career progression and give me the opportunity to take on increasing responsibility and accountability in the business. Without them, I would not be where I am today.

Tell us about some of the national education groups you are involved with and how this work is making an impact on vocational and technical education.

I am delighted to be part of the national policy group whose programme of work includes looking at ways of ensuring that vocational and technical qualifications that play an important role in schools and colleges; reliably and validly represent the skills and knowledge that students should be able to demonstrate after studying such qualifications. For the past few years, the government has made some significant changes to qualifications which feature in accountability measures in order to promote their value to the students who rely on them for progress to employment or further study.

I am also most honoured to be invited to sit on Ofqual’s European Qualification Framework (EQF) Referencing Group, which is the steering group responsible for the process of updating the EQF referencing to UK qualifications; a piece of work that will proceed regardless of the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union. This work was last carried out in 2010 and many aspects of the UK education system have changed since then. The updated report will provide a current description of the system in language that can be understood by a non-UK audience. The work will cover the nature of the qualifications and the relative position/status of the qualifications to the EQF, which itself acts as a global reference point for other international qualification frameworks.

As the only woman on the Corporate Leadership Team, what has this been like?

I am very lucky to be able to say that I work with men who are my friends, colleagues and advocates; men who have supported me in my ambitions and who want me to be successful in my work and in my contributions to the team and the organisation. Being ‘the only one’ is still a common experience for women in senior management and for me, I see this as both a privilege and a responsibility. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes I feel like I have to represent the entire female gender. I need to be proficient, competent and capable because I’m representing the potential of all women; which is of course ridiculous!! – since we are all unique individuals and at the end of the day perceptions of gender are just that; perceptions, which more often than not are socially constructed ideas that are far removed from reality or fact.

I have found so far that being the only woman on an otherwise all-male Corporate Leadership Team, has been an enriching experience for me and I am enjoying learning new ways of working, new ways of relating, and new ways of communicating – all of which are having a profoundly positive impact on my personal and professional development.

What do you think about the gender pay gap?

Despite improvements in other areas of gender equality in the UK, Europe and around the world, since 2015, the gender pay gap has been stalling in terms of meaningful progress. Women have made strides in education, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into earning power. However, more recent research suggests that the problem may not be as simple as a gender pay gap. Evidence points towards a ‘personality or confidence pay gap’ which is affecting both men and women. One study looked at the effect of different psychological traits on earning power. The analysis shows that men generally display higher levels of the personality traits that connote a stronger sense of confidence in their capabilities and achievements. Empirical evidence shows these ‘personality and confidence’ traits are positively associated with earnings. For me, this is great news for female empowerment, because communicating the confidence you have in yourself is something that can be developed and you have control over; whereas the physiology of your gender isn’t. Further, it can only be a matter of time before the majority of employers catch on to this and are prompted to evaluate whether higher levels of confidence necessarily justify higher wages; or whether higher levels of conscientiousness, proficiency and achievement of results are the factors that demonstrate an employee’s true capability and productive value. Recognising these points of difference will go a long way towards addressing the gender pay gap, in my view.

How has VTCT supported and helped you achieve your goals?

VTCT has helped me by providing the opportunity for my career progression, but also by providing practical support to me in my academic research, whereby vocational education, assessment, grading and qualifications recognition were my research subjects for my Master’s Degree in Higher Education and now also in my current PhD study. VTCT is a fantastic place to work. I believe it is important to trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do and have camaraderie with colleagues. The values and culture at VTCT are empowering and more than anything providing me with this framework of support and encouragement is how VTCT as an organisation has helped me to achieve my goals.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

The thing I enjoy the most about my career, in addition to working with a fantastic group of people is knowing that the work we do as an awarding organisation is so helpful to women and young girls all around the world. Vocational education is a solution to poverty at the most basic level and vocational qualifications are a passport to personal and economic independence and empowerment for men and women in a wide range of contexts. I take very seriously my responsibility of having oversight of the design, development and delivery of all the products and services of a global awarding organisation. Every learner matters to me and I never lose sight of what we are doing as an educational organisation and who we are doing it for; because I know that our qualifications make a real difference to people’s lives all over the world.

Which women have been inspiring to you?

Queen Elizabeth I – I am impressed by her courage and resilience, she deliberately chose to remain single so as not to dilute her own power and authority; a pretty brave thing for a female monarch to do 450 years ago! She reigned over a ‘Golden Age’, withstood moral criticism and was also one of the most motivational speakers of all time.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook – Her ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign sought to shift our perspective of powerful female professionals, whereby she highlighted research that suggests women can face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success. Women who are applauded for delivering results at work are also reprimanded for being ‘abrasive’ or ‘too aggressive’ or ‘difficult’. Assertiveness, competitiveness and decisiveness are leadership qualities that are commended in men, but often criticised in women; who according to social constructs are expected only to be nice, warm, friendly and nurturing. Sheryl highlights this ‘likeability penalty’ or ‘Goldilocks Syndrome’ that successful women leaders often face within senior management teams.

Benazir Bhutto, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan – the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority country.

Dame Stephanie Shirley – A CEO, who set up a software company in 1962 whereby she predominantly employed women until 1975 when that practice became illegal due to equality legislation. She adopted the name ‘Steve’ to help her in the male-dominated business world and her success culminated in her company going public and eventually employing 8,500 people. Her personal story and origins as a child refugee and later a mother of an autistic child are just as inspiring.


Why do you think diversity is so important in the workplace?

Everyday sexism and racism, also known as micro-aggressions, can take many forms in the workplace, some can be subtle and indirect such as assuming a colleague is more junior than they really are and some are more direct and offensive. Whether intentional or unintentional, micro-aggressions signal disrespect and also reflect inequality. Studies show that disrespectful and undermining behaviour in the workplace is more likely to be directed at those who are perceived to have less power such as women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and LGBTQ people. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work and I think diversity is so important at work for commercial reasons; because the global economy, society and customer-base is diverse and so smart businesses strategically seek to ensure that their workforce is representative of that diversity. There is a very strong business case, as well as a moral and ethical one, for men and women leaders at all levels in a company to set the tone on diversity, by publicly stating that micro-aggressions won’t be tolerated and by challenging biased language and behaviour when they see it, as well as by modelling inclusive behaviour themselves. The benefits of diversity are proven; new ideas, better results and happier employees.


On International Women’s Day, what is the most important message you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers?

Women make up half of the population and half of the workforce at entry level. Women earn more advanced degrees in higher education than men in 100 countries. We know that society operates with a set of assumptions about women that hold women back in their careers. I have been told in the past (by other women) that as a woman I have to be smarter, more experienced, more strategic, more expert, more effective at achieving results and more qualified than the nearest comparable man in the same role, just to achieve parity with them. I know that in a hundred years from now, this will all have changed. However, in the meantime, what I would say to young women starting out on their careers is – don’t buy into any of the myths about the perceived status of women in work or in society. Responsibility for housework and childcare is not a female responsibility, it’s a family and parental responsibility shared by both men and women. Women have excellent leadership skills, but the way women lead may look different to how men lead – this is ok and we need to embrace these differences. The metaphor of the glass ceiling was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women. On this, my advice to young women thinking about their careers is to be ambitious about your future and have every intention of smashing the glass ceiling or better yet be sure to choose to work for an ‘open-air’ company or start your own business where no ceiling exists!