Leadership in the Third Space: Reflecting on the Experiences and Common Leadership Traits of Professional and Academic Staff Leading in Third Space Environments.

Meredith Hinze, University of Melbourne; Scarlett Whitechurch, La Trobe University; Oriel Kelly, University of Auckland; Benedicte Rokvic, The University of Sydney

 As participants in ASCILITE’s inaugural Women in Professional Leadership Community Mentoring program (WiPL) in 2023, we set out to better understand how we work in the third space and how we work as women in leadership. We sought to better understand ourselves, our expertise, our career journeys and to articulate what an effective leader looks like in the third space, by exploring the traits and characteristics needed to lead effectively within the liminal third space.  We aimed to both illuminate and reimagine women’s leadership in the third space.

We conducted a literature review of the key leadership theories, including authentic leadership, servant leadership, the challenges of leadership, leadership traits and credibility, and the experience of women leaders in higher education and other contexts. Some of the common traits in female leadership identified were empathy and emotional intelligence, communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, and these are also the capabilities needed in the future workforce and leadership of that workforce (Naqbi, 2023; Palermo, 2023). The skills commonly found in third space professionals, including the ability to lead change, working with a diverse range of people, flexibility, and resilience, make us well placed for the work of Learning and Teaching leadership in tertiary institutions today (ATEM, 2023; Brigance 2011; Kouzes and Posner 2007; Naqbi, 2003; Quinsee, 2022).

Our roles involve assisting a diverse range of partners to design, develop and embrace the digital environment and new pedagogic tools.  We explored our individual skills through a SWOT analysis to identify collective strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of third space professional staff leading teams, in order to propose a new model which highlights the value we bring to our institutions and pinpoints where we can and should take the lead.

Voted best poster by attendees of the Christchurch ASCILITE 2023 conference, our poster Reimagining Women’s Leadership in the Third Space introduced and proposed a model of leadership relevant for the third space, through the lens of the three conference themes of diversity of people, creating deeper partnerships and the complexities of digital education. The poster included a brief overview of the literature where we discovered themes such as: Servant Leadership (Smith, 2005), a coaching and leadership style which empowers others and ourselves by flipping perceived weaknesses, highlighting our strengths and diminishing the threats, and raising the importance and credibility (Kouzes & Posner, 2007) of the role and the work that we do.
The key findings from the literature resonated with themes we identified in our SWOT analysis.

Our model connects and overlaps the three elements of People, Partnerships and Pedagogies. We strongly identified that the interconnection of these areas embodies our skills as women leaders navigating the third space. A question mark was placed at the centre of the overlapping Venn diagram to represent the undefined nature of the third space. We symbolically adopted the Chameleon motif in our leadership identity as a lack of clarity in our roles means we adapt to each new situation, context, demand to navigate an environment that is often ambiguous and uncertain. As women in the third space we need to be flexible, resourceful, blend in and stand out at certain times, bring together the different skills in a team, and become different leaders in different situations.

A highlight of the conference experience for us was connecting with Jacqui Thornley and Bettina Schwenger whose conference paper Unveiling the chameleon: How can we successfully collaborate and deepen partnerships in educational design projects also drew on similar iconography in the form of Chameleon Characteristics (Communication, Humility, Adaptability, Mentorship, Empathy, Looping, Engagement, Oscillation, Networking) in their analysis of the centrality of relationships in the learning design process.

During the conference, we had many engaging conversations with academic and professional staff colleagues from different contexts. Conversations involved discussion of the value of mentoring relationships and communities of practice for professional development, the challenges around articulating the value our roles bring, different styles and approaches to leadership. Our team member Benedicte was connected virtually and monitored the responses coming in via the QR codes where viewers were invited to reflect on their role and place themselves in the third space.

The results we collected indicate women in the third space work in a spread of roles and level of experience. The small sample shows that the majority are not working in educational management or education technology management but in educational design and learning design as represented in the middle range in the landscape mapped. We now wish to add to those responses as we refine our model.


Viewers also reflected on their leadership superpower (a self-identified key strength or skill used to navigate the challenges and complexities of their role landscape. Seven responses were received during the conference and these are telling. We relate most to the response “The honest answer is I don’t know”.

Other responses identified:

  • listening
  • Empathy and flexibility
  • Creativity and learning
  • Relational – networking and connecting
  • Understanding of the online experience and being able to reflect on successful and unsuccessful experiences
  • Caring about students and colleagues


The responses model and reflect some of the aspects of leading and working in the third space. But, what can you add?  We are now seeking your experiences to further explore leadership in this space from both professional and academic perspectives. We invite you to participate in a short survey.

There is such a diversity of contexts, of team makeup, team location and structures and roles leading in the third space. Leadership may or may not involve leading a team. It also involves leading support services within the space. We’re interested to know what the ASCILITE community think and how you reflect on your own positioning. We invite you to provide your perspective by completing the abovementioned short 4 question survey.  The survey is anonymous, and it will only take five minutes. The survey will be available until 15th July 2024. Responses and the data could be used anonymously to help us further develop our model.


Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM). (2023). Professional staff: the forgotten but critical enablers of Australia’s higher education system. Submission to the Australian Universities Accord Review Panel, April 2023. https://www.atem.org.au/eknowledge-repository/command/download_file/id/402/filename/Professional_staff_-_the_critical_enablers_of_higher_education_ATEM_2023-04-10.pdf

Brigance, S.K. (2011). Leadership in online learning in higher education: Why instructional designers for online learning should lead the way. Performance Improvement, 50: 43-48. https://doi.org/10.1002/pfi.20262

Hinze, M., Rokvic, B., Kelly, O., Whitechurch, S. & Bennett, M. (2023, December 3-6). Re-imagining women’s leadership in the third space [Poster Presentation]. Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand. DOI: https://doi.org/10.14742/apubs.2023.638

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B.Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed., pp. 27-41). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Naqbi, Al S., (2023). Reflecting on Leadership Experiences: The Positive and Negative Journeys of Women in Leadership. http://doi.org/10.20944/preprints202304.0267.v1

Palermo, J. (2023). Rising to Feminine Power: The Lasso of Truth. Ultimate World Publishing

Quinsee, S., (2022). “Leadership in the Third Space”. In E. McIntosh and D. Nutt (Eds.), The Impact of the Integrated Practitioner in Higher Education: Studies in Third Space Professionalism Routledge (pp. 33-39

Thornley, J. & Schwenger, B. (2023). Unveiling the chameleon: How can we successfully collaborate and deepen partnerships in educational design projects.

In T. Cochrane, V. Narayan, C. Brown, K. MacCallum, E. Bone, C. Deneen, R. Vanderburg, & B. Hurren (Eds.), People, partnerships and pedagogies. Proceedings ASCILITE 2023. Christchurch (pp. 564-567). https://doi.org/10.14742/apubs.2023.548

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting identities and blurring boundaries: The emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.2008.00387.x





4.5 2 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments