Triumphing in the face of adversity and overcoming challenges can bring a real sense of achievement, as discussed in the previous chapter. But challenges are not always so neatly linked with a positive sense of accomplishment. There are some aspects of working life that are tough and test one’s character in all sorts of different ways. This section explores those situations that the women of Cambridge found most notably taxing, and indicates some of the ways they were able to access the resilience to cope with them.
Though gender is highly relevant in many instances, in other areas the challenges described are by no means exclusive to women, or to Cambridge as an institution. They illustrate a more general pattern where individuals are likely to be under pressure in a modern working environment. We hope that, in our University context, a willingness to describe and face these challenges will underpin a determination to bring about change, whilst at the same time offering valuable insights for institutions and companies more broadly.
The ‘juggling act’
“Probably the biggest challenge is the one we all face today: balancing all the balls we are juggling, professionally and personally.”
Almost everyone involved in the book talked about the necessity of juggling multiple competing demands, and doing so with varying degrees of proficiency. At times most balls remained in the air; sometimes compromises were made, and at other times balls were dropped.
The most obvious tension in this juggling act was experienced when trying to make sufficient time for both family and work. It would however, be too simplistic to frame ‘family’ as a challenge, given that it was also the source of the greatest pride and sense of achievement for many. For this reason, the choices, difficulties and positives associated with integrating work and family life will be considered in more detail in the next chapter, where the focus is on gender and its implications. For similar reasons, those challenges predominantly associated with gender – such as sexism or negative beliefs about the capabilities of women – will also be addressed in the upcoming chapter.
High expectations and workload
“The expectations here are so high – everything must be done to the highest standard because we are the best academic institution, and that adds to the pressure.”
Working at the University of Cambridge brings with it implicit and explicit expectations of excellence. Added to this, the women who participated in this book tended to have exacting standards for themselves, combined with an unwillingness to compromise the quality of their work, even if it meant doing punishing hours. As a result, we found that considerable commitment, sacrifice and weighty workloads were the norm, not the exception. The pressures associated with organisational and personal excellence sounded at times unrelenting. That said, the passion and enthusiasm expressed in comments made earlier in the book indicates a willingness to invest heavily in jobs that hold significant meaning.
“Inevitably there are always more competing demands than there is time to meet them.”
Sheer volume of work seemed to be exacerbated by women being asked to take on more committee, administrative and college duties than their male peers. Some of this relates to a positive awareness of the need for greater female participation in decision-making bodies and a desire for inclusion. Given the relative scarcity of senior women, this was seen to noticeably impact on them. Other aspects of allocating the administrative burden, however, require further scrutiny and cannot be accounted for by ambitions to achieve greater representation.
There was mention of a ‘tsunami’ of paperwork and a shortfall in the institutional administrative capacity available for women to draw on and provide, whatever their role. Several people talked about needing to develop a greater capacity to say ‘no’, whilst also acknowledging the significant systemic pressure to say ‘yes’. Those who were more senior, longer in post or more aware of the broader political context found it easier, or safer, to be robust in declining certain tasks. That said, relying on women to say ‘no’ risks putting all the responsibility on them for managing the way in which projects, and particularly administrative tasks, are allocated. There is merit in an organisation being able to reflect critically on who gets asked to do what, so it can pick up on any potential unconscious bias and ensure that roles are fairly shared amongst colleagues. It is also vital that women who aspire to contribute to the bigger picture of organisational governance or policy can access such developmental opportunities regardless of their academic, administrative or academic-related roles.
The consequences of having very full work and home lives ranged from a lack of sleep and an inability to take part in networking through to not being able to make sufficient time for other important interests such as sport, volunteering, photography or gardening. A few people referenced the negative impact of heavy workloads on their health. There was a tendency for some women to simply work harder and longer, rather than addressing underlying issues relating to work allocation, managing boundaries or the need to identify priorities to focus on.
Those who seemed most at ease with the realities of this kind of work pressure expressed a pragmatism that allowed them to realise when ‘good enough’ was sufficient. There was a broad acceptance that, at times, something just has to give. These people were better able to let go of their own shortcomings, rather than holding on to guilt. Some sought out flexible working options to enable them to manage the juggling act, for example by pursuing part-time roles or adjusting their hours to enable them to pick up children from school before completing their work in the evenings. The women who coped with their workloads most effectively also seemed better equipped to ask for help, having invested some of their time and energy in relationships that could provide them with support when needed.
The complex and demanding work environment of the University
Cambridge is a complex environment, rich in tradition and with all the rules and hierarchies that you might expect from an institution over 800 years old. To a certain extent all organisations are complicated human social systems with unspoken norms, allocations of power and intricate group dynamics – and the University is no exception. But it could be argued that Cambridge is perhaps more opaque and resistant to change than other younger, smaller or simpler environments. For those attempting to navigate their careers at the University, this kind of context presents a range of challenges.
The way Cambridge is structured engenders competition, for example, between schools for resources, researchers for funding and individuals for progression. Having the ability to step back and read the dynamics of such an environment, in order to be able to plot a way through it and exercise influence, is no mean feat. Some of the women involved in the book had clearly spent time and energy understanding how the political system worked, so that they could choose how best to engage with it. Despite this, few had escaped unscathed or avoided conflict entirely, and there was repeated mention of how hard it can be to pursue a career in this sector. Resilience, deciding not to take things personally and a robust support network all helped in this regard.
“Eventually the winds of change started to blow in the right direction and change was accomplished. It took ten years, which I now think was relatively quick for Cambridge.”
Allied with resilience, people talked about needing to have the perseverance and persistence necessary to effect progress. Cambridge was described as a hard place in which to bring about change, so there was talk of the need to be patient enough to play the long game, to build long-term alliances and to generate consistent evidence to support your argument. All of this takes energy, especially in the face of demanding workloads and a desire for a home life, but opting out brings its own dangers. Organisations are not inherently ‘fair’, so there was seen to be real value in being able to anticipate where risks and opportunities may occur. For certain participants, it also sounded as if they believed it was part of their responsibility as leaders to develop political nous and to use their influence to benefit others.
“The hardest things I’ve had to deal with are when I think things are happening that aren’t fair or well considered, or that will have a negative impact on my staff or the organisation I’m working for.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an elite academic institution, the way in which status works at Cambridge can also bring challenges. Some women talked about the difference in perceived value between academics and non-academics, whilst others mentioned being looked down on if they didn’t have a degree, or lacked a degree from the ‘right’ place. Experience garnered outside the University, in another sector, at times could either be underrated or not fully understood.
“Working within complex human structures will always provide interpersonal challenges.”
People talked about vastly differing experiences in the quality of leadership and management that they had come across, from the truly exceptional to very poor. There didn’t seem to be a clear route to developing management capability amongst individuals who may be experts in their field but had little experience of leading people. Participants described examples of less than effective management practice, such as a reluctance to challenge poor behaviour, or patchy efforts at communication. There was also talk of feeling excluded by cliques that seemed to be based around gender. That said, the natural bonding between those who share common backgrounds and interests should not automatically be criticised – indeed, many women talked about valuing this kind of connection themselves. What matters is that important decisions are not taken informally by a group of ‘insiders’ but are made as the result of rigorous processes and good management.
“Under good leadership, openness and open discussion prevails. Not infrequently, however, aggressive and opaque practices prevail without check.”
Many of the women involved in this enquiry held management or leadership responsibility themselves, and some were candid about feeling unprepared to inhabit this kind of role. They expressed a marked preference for working collaboratively, rather than competitively, and for concentrating on good communication. In many cases this had served them well, but there were still plenty of stories about working with difficult, resistant, uncommunicative or unmotivated colleagues and how time-consuming this could be.
When thinking about how to be successful at Cambridge, it seems that it is worth expending effort to try to comprehend the institution’s complexity, as well as to take advantage of any opportunities to develop one’s own leadership and management skills. To become politically astute is also not at odds with retaining one’s integrity, and need not imply collusion or game-playing. To hope that simply being good at doing your job will be enough to get by is to risk ignoring the realities of what it means to work with others.
Job insecurity and funding challenges
“The assumption is that part-time workers are less committed than full-time workers and that we don’t work at the same level as those who work full-time.”
Many of the women we spoke to experienced non-linear career paths that deviated from what might be considered the traditional model of employment more commonly associated with their male peers. There were examples of career breaks, maternity leaves, academia being pursued later in life, returning to work after significant amounts of time out, part-time working, moving between unestablished positions, losing funding for employment and having their careers affected by shifting locations with a partner.
“I experienced the difficult life of a non-tenured postdoctoral researcher. I spent almost two years fighting to secure my career and juggling short-term contracts financed by a variety of different funding streams.”
The participants viewed this non-linear pattern with varying degrees of ease or discomfort, and acceptance or resentment. Some were unsettled by change, felt anxiety around a lack of job security or experienced being undervalued when returning to work. Others saw this work pattern as an inevitable part of being a woman in the workplace and sought to play the game as best they could. There was however, clear room for improvement in the way that a range of different employers accommodated this non-linear pattern. In recruiting for new posts there tended to be assessments that failed to take into account, for example, the impact of maternity leave on the number of articles published and an unwillingness to consider the value of roles taken on outside the workplace, such as being Chair of the School Governors.
“The challenge of returning to work after a long break is that you have no idea how to value your own skills and lack confidence in your own abilities.”
From an academic perspective, there was also the constant pressure to secure funding, along with the spectre of what could happen if they were unable to land grants. The implication of losing funding typically extended beyond the individual, and they felt increased pressure to look after the interests of their teams. There was also the confidence-sapping experience of receiving rejections for funding applications, and many people found it hard not to take this personally.
“Funding is the biggest challenge. At first the challenge was winning fellowships to secure my own career, and now I am faced with winning grant incomes to secure the future of my research team.”
Failures, under-confidence and a sense of ‘falling short’
“I have often felt an outsider (in my science as well as in my gender), and imposter syndrome is never far away.”
The previous points made in this chapter have largely focused on challenges arising from the organisational environment. But each person interacts differently with their context and brings with them their own quirks, uncertainties and personal history. All of this affects the way they experience and respond to challenge.
The vast majority of the women involved in this book were clearly very focused on high performance and delivering work of the best possible quality. There are many upsides to setting such high personal standards, but we also heard about some of the potential downsides. Several of the women talked about having a negative or overly critical internal voice – one that found it hard to celebrate success and was always looking for flaws. There were times when the focus on quality seemed to go into overdrive, with the result that the bar was set unattainably high, which could for example lead to poor boundary-setting and working excessive hours.
“My weakness was not feeling able to ask questions – not wanting to show lack of knowledge or understanding. Developing the confidence to acknowledge this weakness and to ask questions became my biggest strength.”
A number of the women we spoke to were also very honest about feeling doubt and under-confidence at different points in their careers. There was talk of ‘imposter syndrome’, which was characterised by a fear of being exposed as not being good enough. Achieving greater seniority or securing accolades reassured some, but for others it only heightened their worries about being ‘found out’. Some women found that their confidence wobbled when they were surrounded by other high-performers at Cambridge, having been used to being top of their peer group elsewhere. For other women, particularly in support roles, the perceived (or actual) difference in status between academic and non-academic staff stimulated worries about being seen, or being treated, as inferior. Bouts of uncertainty could be brought on by a particular event, like failing to secure a grant or job, or not reaching the level of academic achievement expected. Women talked about receiving, and to an extent internalising, messages about not being able to achieve at the same level as a man, often despite evidence to the contrary.
“Whilst I think it is important to be self-aware, my internal voice can be quite critical.”
One route to diminishing the anxiety, doubt and lack of confidence associated with imposter syndrome was by acknowledging how very commonplace it is, for both women and men. Others found it reassuring to hear other successful people being candid about their own fallibility. Again, tapping into supportive networks to discuss their concerns was often a way of getting a greater sense of perspective and perhaps new insight into what was fuelling their worries.
“I am not as academically confident as many of my colleagues (or, of course, as many of my colleagues appear to be).”
Challenges beyond work
Life beyond work brings profound challenges that encompass bereavement, health issues, caring for others and some of the difficulties associated with aging. Given the career focus of this book, participants shared less detail about these personal areas; nonetheless, it is important to remember that people will inevitably experience life events of the most testing kind. Such experiences are not ones that can be neatly compartmentalised, and they undermine any notion that work and life can ever be completely separated.
People also mentioned the effect of feeling multiple or layered differences alongside their gender, including factors like class, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. Being perceived to be different from a dominant norm in more than one way seemed to risk compounding feelings of isolation.
“Although my career looks very seamless and successful when summarised in a few short sentences, it most certainly had some low points.”
In conclusion, there was not a single participant who sailed through their careers without experiencing a range of challenges, some of which were deeply unpleasant or unsettling. Yet it was often the most trying times that enabled people to develop a robust sense of self-confidence and an evidence-based belief in their own resilience. They might not have sought out such difficult situations, or have been able to connect them with a sense of achievement, but there was still something to be gained from coming out the other side. Withstanding challenge, learning from it, accepting a degree of fallibility and deepening their resilience were qualities that seemed to connect the women in the book, and as such can be linked with an understanding of what it means to be successful.
“Everyone has setbacks: it is how you cope with them that matters.”
Part of continuing to drive progress as an organisation consists of recognising where change is needed. The challenges identified by women at Cambridge give both direct and indirect indicators of where the institution still needs to evolve if it is going to offer women an improved experience and address some of the difficulties highlighted in this enquiry. Having already begun to ask questions of our own culture and practice, we take a degree of reassurance from the fact that there were few surprises and that the areas we have been concentrating on most recently as a University broadly relate to the issues highlighted by participants. That said, we are in no way complacent, and approaches to areas like flexible working, refining our promotion and recruitment processes and ensuring women are able to exercise leadership and influence will continue to attract our efforts. We are also very clear that these are not just ‘women’s issues’. The fact that the drive to progress gender equality in particular is governed by the Gender Equality Group and Gender Equality Champion will hopefully provide assurance that the issues raised by the women in this book are addressed by the University in which they work.