Achievements are the building blocks that enable someone to construct a sense of themselves as a success. The achievements that matter most combine to form a version of success that has meaning and substance for the individual. Achievements also provide tangible evidence that colleagues, competitors and the wider world use to judge a person as more or less successful.
Different people find different evidence compelling, so it is no surprise that there was variance in the achievements that were seen to hold greatest weight for women at Cambridge. There was also a recognition that achievements could be ephemeral, highly personal and evolve over time or in relation to context. Nonetheless, clear patterns did emerge. These patterns, which are outlined below, point to potential mismatches between the achievements that are traditionally viewed as markers of success and the ones that participants valued the most. As such they indicate areas that organisations might want to consider if they are interested in developing a more sophisticated and gender-inclusive sense of what it means to be successful.
Being able to pursue interesting, high-quality work that has a positive impact
The vast majority of participants wrote about the importance of having interesting, stimulating work that gave them a sense of pleasure, pride and even joy. Constructing careers in which it was possible to have the freedom and autonomy to pursue work that mattered was an achievement in itself.
“There is nothing more exhilarating than to find out something for the first time – something that may have existed for over a billion years, but was never known before.”
The women we spoke to took great pleasure in the quality of their work, whether that meant pride in the elegance and clarity of a piece of research or reorganising an administrative system in a way that actively contributed to the effectiveness of a department. Work was particularly prized if it demonstrated a creativity that took people or ideas to the next level and raised the standard of what was possible. Many participants still seemed to retain a sense of ‘wide-eyed wonder’ in relation to their work, and talked about the enduring memories of early breakthroughs. If they got external recognition, these achievements became even more tangible and helped to build self-confidence.
There was an awareness of the world beyond Cambridge, and many people talked about wanting to connect, using everything from blogging, lecturing and conferences, through to the more conventional route of publication. Participants talked about becoming part of a wider intellectual or professional community, which then became a source of support, acknowledgement and stimulation. It was clear that they had an appetite to keep learning and developing throughout their careers.
“My previous jobs had always been ‘just a job’, but I feel that the role I hold now is more important than that; it has purpose and gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Work was almost always seen as a core part of the participants’ lives. Many of them found that it gave them a clear sense of purpose and was fundamental to their sense of who they were. Whilst work was rarely pursued to the exclusion of all else, it was nonetheless a central part of their existence. Some people talked about putting their heart and soul into their work, and also described the often gruelling journey they had undertaken to achieve a particular outcome.
The appetite to make a tangible impact through their work was clearly discernible. Inevitably, the type of impact participants were able to achieve varied considerably, depending on their specific areas of expertise, their seniority and the scope of their role. Although the nature and scale of the impact varied, the need to have an impact didn’t. Some participants took simple pleasure in the incremental improvements that were the fabric of their daily work, or in the persistent effort necessary to land vital grants and donations. Others pointed to keynote moments such as coordinating the press conference for a Nobel Prize winner from the University, or securing a medical breakthrough that would help to address a life-threatening illness. Several participants talked about taking pride in having changed their field with a particular discovery, but they did so with no more or less pride than those in service or support roles who helped to create the conditions for such a breakthrough, for example by ensuring a lab was safe and fully resourced.
Securing awards, promotions and other acknowledgements of achievement
The vast majority of participants had a healthy interest in securing acknowledgement for their efforts, particularly if it came from individuals or institutions that they themselves rated. In contrast, little value was attached to being able to secure the corner office or a larger desk with each new job. Promotion was an important marker of success for many, although it was more noticeable as a theme amongst academics than non-academics. For those for whom promotion was a factor, it signified vindication for hard work and validation from one’s peers.
“Gaining personal promotion was a real vindication of the effort that I had put in – despite one colleague telling me ‘it was just because they needed to promote women’.”
Getting a professional qualification, degree or doctorate was clearly valued by both academics and non-academics. This was even more the case when it had been achieved whilst under significant pressure, perhaps as a result of studying as a part-time or mature student. For some there was a sense of achieving second time around, perhaps after a less successful first degree, requalifying for a new career or after having left school early.
For many it was important to be acknowledged within their professional sphere beyond Cambridge. As well as the obvious indicator of being widely published, such acknowledgement could take the form of fellowships, prizes and medals, or becoming chair of an influential body outside the University. The elected nature of many of these achievements gave them additional validity, as it constituted feedback from one’s peers. Additional sheen was added if they were the first or one of very few women to have secured such recognition.
“To have the respect of my friends and colleagues because of the work I do gives me a sense of achievement.”
There were also roles and achievements beyond those directly related to people’s careers that held great significance, such as being a part-time judge or a school governor, leading a Brownie troop or being awarded a Blue in a particular sport.
Maintaining a happy and healthy family life as well as a career
This particular achievement, and its centrality to the participants’ notion of what it meant to be successful, was commented on more than any other. Participants would not view themselves as an overall success if their achievements in the work sphere fundamentally undermined family life. If they could see themselves as having integrated their work and home lives in a way that was broadly healthy and viable, then it was an achievement based on deeply held beliefs about what mattered most to them in life.
“I am very fortunate in being able to combine all the things I love most. They are my husband and children, pursuing the questions in science that excite me and being able to help others to do the same.”
The topic of gender, family and work will be explored in more detail in a subsequent chapter, but in terms of being an ‘achievement’, it is this sense of being able to have both a career and a family that stands out. The equation really seemed to work when people challenged the framing of an ‘either/or situation’, where either work or home life had to pay an extortionate price to allow the other aspect to thrive. Both were essential and needed to be integrated, rather than compartmentalised. This is not to say that tension and tough choices were eradicated, but for the people who saw this as an area of personal achievement those choices were managed in a way that broadly worked. Compromises were made, and few if any of the participants espoused the idea that you could have everything you wanted all the time. Pragmatism, informed by a clear sense of what really mattered, was the order of the day.
Being a good parent and grandparent was of paramount importance to many, as was maintaining enduring and mutually supportive partnerships. Whilst family life took many different shapes, there remained a consistent message about how vital it was. Many people talked about family indirectly feeding into their achievements in the work sphere by bringing a greater focus or a different perspective. Making time to enjoy one’s family despite time pressures was seen as an achievement in itself.
“With the demands of motherhood I needed to restrict my time in the lab, and this increased my focus and resulted in my science really taking off.”
For those with children, seeing them thrive and turn out well was a source of great pride – although many were wary of claiming this as their own achievement. Several pointed to the basic accomplishment of surviving the sleepless nights and energy-depleted years that come with very young children, whilst others enjoyed the fact that their teenagers would still talk to them!
It’s a truism to say that families are complicated, and for some people surviving unhappy childhoods, divorce or illness within the family was an achievement in its own right. Being able to secure an education despite family obstacles or to hold down a job whilst coping with a relationship breakdown both counted as achievements in the family sphere.
“I have recovered from an unhappy childhood and an unsuccessful marriage to a position where I feel happy and valued.”
Handling challenge, complexity and change
Achievement is not just about the happy, shiny things – it is also about withstanding tough times and challenging situations. Resilience demonstrated under pressure is perhaps the darker side of achievement, but is in many ways just as important as the more obvious markers of success.
“I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to pick myself up when things have gone wrong – as they have, not infrequently.”
No career is a seamless progression upwards, and many of the participants were able to process the inevitable bumps in the road in a positive way. There was pride in having withstood a range of setbacks, from failing to secure a particular promotion or having a grant application turned down through to conquering debilitating performance anxiety as a musician. The capacity to pick oneself up, bounce back and carry on regardless was something that participants clearly valued in themselves and others. This was also evident amongst those who talked about forging a career whilst having a chronic illness or depression, or providing support to a family member who was experiencing difficulties. Navigating adversity seems to have had the effect of sweetening subsequent achievements.
“My greatest achievements are often directly related to my greatest challenges.”
There was also a link with boldness and risk-taking that suggested many people weren’t just coping with challenge but were being actively stimulated by it. There were individuals who seemed to thrive under arduous field conditions without running water or electricity, whilst others jumped into the unknown by taking a job in a different discipline or on a different continent. There was an appetite to seek out situations that were scary because they offered the promise of new learning opportunities and excitement.
“I think one reinvents oneself each time one makes a serious move; it is very rewarding to be able to make major changes, stand back from the process and reassess.”
Being a role model or pioneer
To be a pioneer is also to take on the challenges associated with being the first, or one of a small number of trailblazers. This pioneering spirit showed up in various ways, including being the first in their family or school to attend university, being the first woman in a particular post, being the lone woman round a corporate board table or defying expectations by succeeding despite a lack of formal qualifications.
Being a pioneer was not exclusively linked to gender, but was often accentuated by the limited numbers of women in certain positions or subject areas. Some women also became more conspicuous having had a non-linear or unusual career pattern, such as pursuing academia late in life, making a significant career change, returning to work after many years away or being a senior woman in a successful job share.
Visibility brings with it a degree of scrutiny. It brings a sense of being a role model whether you like it or not, simply based on the fact that your colleagues, both men and women, will be aware of what you do. Some of the women we spoke to were more at ease with this notion than others. At their best, role models provide evidence of what can be achieved, for example as a mother returning to work, a mature student, a woman in science or coming from a working-class background. Some participants talked about wanting to set an example for their own children, or wanting to have a tangible impact by making a particular subject more accessible to a diverse range of students.
“As someone with a state school background who read Modern Languages at Jesus in the early nineties, encouraging talented students from all backgrounds to consider applying to Cambridge is important to me.”
Exercising leadership, authority and influence
“That my seniority as an academic has enabled me to work with others to facilitate steps towards significant culture change within the University has heartened me greatly.”
Many of the women at Cambridge expressed a sense of achievement when talking about the effective use of power and influence. Whilst there was clear frustration about obstacles in the way of securing leadership roles, when they got to positions of influence they wanted to do something constructive with their authority. They felt a pride in not shirking the responsibility that comes with leadership at all levels. This showed up in a range of ways, including stepping up as spokesperson for a major project like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), establishing a new programme for entrepreneurs, setting up a flagship clinical unit, leading an institution to full college status and helping to get a new sports centre built.
“Being influential in something bigger than my personal research agenda means being a part of delivering change.”
Leadership was not just found at the most senior levels or in the highest-profile projects. It was equally vital in the day-to-day exercise of influence to improve the working conditions of others, for example, by actively mentoring young women, turning around a failing department, bringing in technological advances or making sure a redundancy situation was handled fairly.
Having a positive effect on and engagement with others
Linked to the idea of exercising effective leadership was a strong interest in enabling the progression of others. People described the vicarious thrill that came with helping team members, or junior colleagues, to establish themselves as successes. Offering support could take the form of mentoring, helping people to identify their strengths, creating a good working environment, inspiring passion in a subject, enabling someone to cope with a setback or simply being a great teacher. It was seen as a privilege to be in a position to develop others and as such was not something to be taken lightly.
“I encourage people to develop themselves and not to be held back by feelings that, first, it’s not their place to develop themselves beyond their prescribed role and second, that it’s something beyond them.”
Several women mentioned the pleasure of being thanked by those they had helped, but at the same time they were not dependent on such gestures of appreciation. It seems that this area of achievement is one that can be understated, and one that is experienced both privately and through the successes of others.
Engagement with people was not just to do with helping more junior colleagues but also about developing a robust network of supportive friends and peers. This was seen by many as both an achievement and a necessity. Good friendships that sustained over time, and despite geographical separation, were a source of great mutual support and fun. They frequently led to positive professional collaborations and encouraged the establishment of successful teams. Many of these collaborations extended beyond Cambridge and as such actively contributed to the University maintaining its global reputation. Making a difference through having a positive effect on others also fed into thoughts about leaving a legacy that would extend beyond an individual’s own career or lifetime.
Demonstrating authenticity, integrity and roundedness
“Work(ing) collaboratively with the various personalities one encounters whilst retaining the integrity of one’s own values and instincts.”
The women we spoke to were adamant that who they were and how they worked mattered as much as the tangible outcomes they achieved. The ends did not justify the means. Integrity and authenticity were standards that they used to measure both themselves and others. They wanted to be known for behaving in a way that gained them a reputation for fairness and decency. They repudiated the idea that you could only be nice or competent but not both. Being thought of as ‘nice’ can be a way of damning with faint praise, but when reframed by participants it came to be associated with things like highly effective interpersonal skills, consistency of behaviour, clear communication and articulation of purpose. Participants tended to express real distaste for people who intentionally trampled others underfoot. They felt that something could only really be claimed as an achievement if it was secured without compromising themselves or their values.
In talking about authenticity, participants emphasised the importance of doing things their own way, not mimicking others. There was particular mention of not imitating men in order to get on, and being able to write, talk and act in a way that was recognisably their own. They also valued being able to pursue their own ideas and finding a niche that was suited to their particular attributes. Securing a situation where they could do work they really cared about meant they were more likely to perform well, rather than wasting energy bending themselves out of shape to fit in.
“I am pleased that I found a way to talk and write that felt as if it was me.”
Achieving in a way that was authentic also made it easier to claim success rather than seeing it as down to luck. It underpinned the self-confidence that comes with feeling responsible for shaping one’s own career and having taken or created opportunities. Several women talked about having achieved through their own determination and often in the face of opposition.
“The achievement that means most to me in life is my garden. It is my creative outlet and my sanctuary. I’m proud of the fact that I have managed to retain a creative outlet in my administrative career.”
Authenticity also implied a sense of roundedness and breadth, which meant that the women valued other aspects of their being, not just their work. Music, gardening, photography, fundraising and sport were all mentioned as important pursuits, not just hobbies. Achievement at the expense of having this kind of hinterland was not generally seen as a price worth paying.