Framing the debate about gender

We asked women at Cambridge the question, ‘How do you think your gender has affected your working life?’ Based on the responses we received, the majority of the participants read this as an enquiry into whether their gender had been an issue or problem for them in the workplace. Whilst this chapter will endeavour accurately to represent the concerns expressed, it will also look to capture broader insights and observations about how best to realise the talent of women in the workplace.


“Academia, including Cambridge, needs to change to become more inclusive as soon as possible. Otherwise academic institutions will not only continue to squander talent but also become increasingly out of step with a society that is changing and modernising.”

Sarah Teichman

The relevance spectrum

There was significant variance in the extent to which women saw their gender as relevant to them as they pursued their careers. We have described this as a ‘relevance spectrum’, with the poles represented at one end by those who saw their gender as not at all relevant and at the other end by those who felt it was always and inevitably relevant in every situation. There were many women who took up a place between these poles, seeing their gender as somewhat relevant some of the time. Others could be seen as moving along the spectrum, often stimulated by a change in life or job circumstances, or in response to aging. Most noticeable was the shift that took place when women became parents, which tended to move their gender from the background into sharp foreground focus. Across all points of the relevance spectrum there was a consistent desire to be rated based on one’s competence and ability, not based on one’s gender.


“Gender is in the grain of all we do: sometimes it makes one an irritant but it also allows you to contribute fresh experience.”

Gillian Beer


“It would be a lie in my case to say that gender has held me back. But it has sometimes been a case of feeling in a foreign country.”

Mary Beard


“I would say not at all, up until the point at which I got married and had children. Then it was fundamental.”

Sam Lucy


Gender is important, but it should not define you. On the other hand it is quite all right to behave like a woman in committees etc – after all, most men behave like men.”

Alison Smith


“Until a few years ago I thought my gender was entirely irrelevant, but I suspect that may be because actually my youth was a bigger barrier than my gender.”

Nathalie Walker


“I don’t think of myself as ‘a woman’. I think of myself as ‘a person’.”

Jennifer Clack

The fact that a book is being written that focuses on women at Cambridge indicates a pre-existing bias on the question of relevance. The raw data around the lack of women moving up and through organisations, inhabiting leadership positions and securing appropriate recognition for their work leads us to believe that gender needs to be looked at and cannot be totally irrelevant. Gender may not be the most important thing about a person or something they see as having influenced their own career trajectory. But it does not necessarily follow that gender is therefore irrelevant, or that it does not in some way affect how colleagues, or society more broadly, view women. There is no expectation that a reader should share this position – nor would all the women involved in this book. The comments and insights gathered here stand on their own merits and a reader can draw their own conclusions from them.


Upbringing and schooling

People come to Cambridge having already been exposed to messages about their gender from their parents, schooling and wider society. This is of course true of both men and women. The narratives and quotations in this book express a real range in the gender messages by which people were affected. These run the full gamut from hugely positive and empowering, right the way through to extremely inhibiting and undermining.


“I have just begun to realise that a lot of gender inequality becomes embedded at an early stage at school. Therefore it is important that not only all staff, but also all our students are trained in gender equality and best practice as soon as they arrive in our care.”

Val Gibson


Some people talked about having parents who created an expectation that girls and women could do anything they set their minds to. Several women made specific mention of their fathers being particularly keen to challenge stereotypes, and some were described as ‘feminists’ in their own right. In contrast, other parents were uninterested in their daughter’s education because of their gender, disapproved if they took up an apparently less ‘feminine’ subject like engineering and discouraged them from returning to work after having children.


“Having the confidence to ignore prejudices has been crucial, as has a strong belief in my own abilities. I have to thank my solid upbringing for this.”

Nicky Athanassopoulou


Beyond parents, early formative experiences at school were also mentioned as having an effect on how women viewed the possibilities or limitations of their gender. Some women talked about having had inspirational teachers – both male and female – who saw their potential and pushed them to achieve. Others had less happy experiences that prescribed far more rigidly what girls should and shouldn’t do and presented a very restricted view of the careers that they were capable of pursuing.


“School careers advice was terrible. We were not encouraged to plan ahead and map out careers as our male fellow students were.”

Rachel Fogg


Gender assumptions, expectations and stereotypes

Once women joined the workplace, their sense of what was acceptable and unacceptable for them to be and do began to be shaped by their working environment and interactions with colleagues.


“It is usually not acceptable for a woman to be seen to be angry, as she is regarded as hysterical and out of control, whereas a man can get away with it.”

Deborah Howard


When the women described their workplace experiences, there seemed to be a discrepancy between the behaviours that a man could demonstrate without negative consequence – and sometimes even exploit – and those seen as acceptable for women. Outspokenness, assertion and even anger were ways of behaving that seemed to be judged differently when coming from a man. For women, there was the risk of being seen as frightening, aggressive, strident or disruptive when holding a reasoned but determined position.


“I have clearly caused some of my colleagues to feel that I am ‘dangerous’ in ways I have never understood, possibly because I am fairly outspoken and that isn’t consistent with how women are stereotypically meant to behave.”

Athene Donald


Women also talked about how their ‘voice’ was heard – or not – in the various organisations for which they had worked. There was reference to be being described as anything from shrill, stroppy and hysterical through to frivolous and chatty. There were also examples of feeling voiceless in meetings where they were often in a minority to start with: they didn’t get space to speak, colleagues talked over them or a male peer was given credit for a point they had raised. An absence of voice also related to the lack of female representation at certain levels and on particular bodies.


“I miss female colleagues. Many men are now aware of the importance of good working relationships with female colleagues, but there is still the ‘boys’ club’ when it comes to informal collaborations and banter.”

Wendy Pullan


Attached to frustrations around voice were comments about feelings of isolation and fears of tokenism when women found themselves to be a solitary female presence, or in a small minority. This presents something of a challenge to organisations that have real positive intent to increase female representation but find themselves ‘over-asking’ the few women perceived to be suitable candidates for committees or other bodies. In this situation there is merit in querying the selection criteria used, challenging assumptions about the seniority level and background needed to sit on particular groups, as well as considering creative ways of spotting talented women at more junior levels and involving them at an earlier stage. All of this offers the possibility of casting a wider net to engage broader groups of women in larger numbers, especially in the decision-making processes of an organisation.


“Where I am in new situations with male colleagues, it has been presumed that I wouldn’t be the President; you have to deal with situations where you might be the only woman in a key decision-making body, or just regularly getting talked over in committees.”

Rosalyn Old


More broadly, there was irritation expressed at the reduced expectations and assumptions that the women had encountered during their working lives. Some talked about situations where it was automatically assumed they were the most junior person in a meeting, when the opposite was frequently true. Others talked about needing to fight against limiting beliefs relating to being both a parent and having a job – a problem we will discuss in more detail later. On the most basic level, women we spoke to expressed the desire for a starting point where as much would be expected from and of them as from a male peer.


“Some people are rather surprised by your achievements and tenacity, rather than expecting you to do well.”

Abigail Fowden


Some women talked about having limiting traits that they saw as being associated with their gender – such as an innate conservatism, perfectionism, lack of self-confidence, risk aversion or an unwillingness to promote themselves or their achievements. It is important to note that a number of women rejected the idea of gender-based traits outright and saw these instead as personality-based.


“Probably its biggest effect is the high standards I set for myself (verging on perfectionism) and the tendency to wonder if I’m doing enough/could be better. This is a tendency that women/girls are more likely to exhibit.”

Jessie Monck

It was noticeable how much context made a difference to the way women experienced the potential advantages, disadvantages or insignificance of their gender. There was talk of progressive departments, excellent leadership, visible sponsorship and support from those senior to them. All of these led to women feeling more able to bring their talent to the fore and be recognised for doing so. Being able to see a range of varied role models – including women – thriving in their discipline or area also provided a genuine basis on which to be positive about their prospects. Several women talked about feeling accepted and valued in one part of their working lives – perhaps in their team or research group – and far less so in others.


“I have rarely experienced prejudice. However, male academics do occasionally treat me like a secretary, and industrialists and overseas scientists can exhibit some surprisingly unreconstructed attitudes.”

Rachel Oliver


Some participants commented positively about progress made around gender equality, legislation and the educational opportunities available for girls and women. Despite some grounds for optimism, there was little sense of complacency or a feeling that parity had been achieved. Several women talked about the energy it took to challenge, cope with or defy the limiting assumptions attached to their gender. This in itself offers a pressing reason for organisations to be passionately interested in inclusion, as there is a clear impact on performance.


“I often get frustrated with the time and effort it takes to overcome default assumptions. I probably could have done more with my life if I could have used all that time and effort for working, instead of justifying my existence.”

Shima Barakat


Bias, sexism and discrimination

At their worst, gender assumptions manifest themselves as overt sexism or discrimination. Much of what we heard about was at the ‘lower’ level of unconscious bias, but this still affected the weight given to women’s opinions, the opportunities open to them and beliefs about their capabilities. There were, however, specific examples of sexism, sexual harassment and explicit discrimination. These serve as a warning about the importance of robust organisational policies and procedures to identify and tackle sexism and discrimination when it occurs. Just as importantly, these examples point to the value of developing leaders and managers who won’t tolerate such behaviours and who help to create an inclusive culture where it becomes increasingly unlikely that unreconstructed attitudes have any place.


“The academy is very male dominated and the more senior I have become, the more clearly I have understood how deeply gendered it is.”

Sarah Franklin


The practical impact of gender assumptions in a work environment

“I am well aware that serious talent is being wasted in Cambridge and elsewhere by systems that have allowed 50 per cent of the talent pool to occupy fewer than 15 per cent of the senior positions.”

Theresa Marteau

The attitudes described in the paragraphs above were seen to play out in a range of practical ways. They had an effect on who was encouraged to go for promotions, who was invited to apply for jobs, who got asked to do administrative tasks and how important information was used and exchanged between members of what were still often seen to be ‘boys’ clubs’. Given that men still hold the majority of leadership positions in the majority of organisations, they exercise significant sway over the decisions and views that shape their workplaces. It is human nature to be less aware of the biases that don’t personally affect us, or at least not negatively, so it requires specific effort to step back and notice where they may be present. All notions of merit are subjective, and organisations need to question how that subjectivity potentially affects who is seen as successful. A more inclusive definition of success starts to reshape workplaces by enabling them to identify and then reward a broader range of contributions from a more diverse group of individuals.


“As a lecturer and beyond, I have found heads of department will expect more teaching from me than from a man, and expect me to do more committee service and jobs like running courses.”



These observations emphasise the importance of recognising that gender issues are organisational issues. Recruitment, promotion and performance are all leadership concerns and require leadership attention. The patterns described here are also by no means exclusive to Cambridge, which as an institution reflects the society it is part of. Cambridge cannot ‘solve’ wider gender issues, but it can become increasingly aware of them, take steps to address inequality within the University and also exercise its influence to stimulate debate beyond the University.


“In a system that relies on self-promotion, women will continue to hold back.”

Abigail Brundin

Ways that women responded to assumptions and stereotyping

‘Every other independent investigator in the department was a man and a lot of people didn’t seem to realise that a woman could be her own boss. It was very frustrating, but I concentrated on doing the best work I could and eventually people caught on.’

Margaret Robinson

On an individual level, women described a range of responses to the blockers, assumptions and stereotyping they experienced. Many chose to try to counter negative assumptions by concentrating on producing the highest standards of work. This paid dividends in some circumstances, but was insufficient to secure appropriate recognition in others. Some women looked to put themselves in the best possible position for advancement by diversifying their skills and seeking out opportunities to use them. Others, but perhaps too few, talked about the value of securing support from mentors and sponsors to help them navigate their careers. Many made use of good friendships and networks to provide individual support in handling situations, but fewer to connect with other women experiencing similar concerns or to mobilise broader demands for improvement.


“There are sufficient women in the University for us to work together, make a difference and take on challenges. There is no need to feel alone: many women in the University have had similar experiences.”

Abir Al-Tabbaa


Several women in leadership positions had the authority, seniority and political awareness to be able to shape their college, department or discipline. They seemed to feel a personal responsibility for making a difference by improving the circumstances and opportunities for other women. Given that there are relatively few senior women in total, there was some mention of isolation, suggesting the value of creating more natural opportunities for them to collectively exchange insights and amplify their influence.


“It has been important quietly and persistently to challenge language that excludes women and to look out for younger people who can be drawn into positions of influence.”

Gillian Beer


The opportunities of gender

“Perhaps it’s been easier to remember who I am when the rest of the room is predominantly male. So – lucky break?”

Sarah Worthington


Although the women involved in the book talked about the assumptions and stereotyping that came with their gender, many also focused on the potential opportunities too. Some were very open about the fact that there being fewer women at their level, or in their discipline, meant that they were able to stand out in a positive way – even ‘breaking up the tedium’ of a previously all-male environment. Being conspicuous sometimes meant they were able to draw attention to their achievements, were noticed as a conference speaker and were invited to join a particular group or committee. When this was allied with self-confidence, women talked about being able to bring a fresh perspective to a situation, meeting or problem.


“I have been offered opportunities because someone ‘wanted a woman’ to join in, and that has given me chances I would not otherwise have got.”

Athene Donald


The non-linear career paths pursued by many women we spoke to also presented the potential for gathering more diverse experiences that in turn could positively affect the insights and contributions they were able to bring. They also talked about the resilience and flexibility that came with forging a career that deviated from a traditional norm. Some women set their careers within the broader history of women’s rights and talked about their good fortune in being able to access the workplace at all. They were able to appreciate how much had shifted for women during their lifetime, whilst also seeing that more needed to be done.


“I think being female has many advantages – I am more able to ask for support than many colleagues, have a good network of female colleagues I can share lunch and a grumble with, and am better at communicating than many around me.”

Beverley Glover


Whilst some women were uncomfortable with the notion that there were such things as typically female attributes, others claimed a perceived advantage around competencies like communication, collaboration and building relationships. Whether linked to gender or not, these qualities clearly benefit organisations and are features of some of the most effective leaders.


Family and parenthood

Beyond the workplace and how women engaged with it, the most frequently mentioned impact of gender was in relation to family life. There were examples of all sorts of different family models, encompassing divorce, being single, parenting of babies, teenagers and adult children, blended families, caring for elderly parents or siblings, late-in-life marriages – and many more. These family situations were also affected by other conditions such as high or lower incomes, job security or coming from another part of the world. Whatever the particulars of their circumstances, the women involved in this book expressed a desire to nurture healthy family lives along with their careers, even though making this work was described as ‘no picnic’.


“Childcare burdens still fall disproportionately on women and as a society we are not doing nearly enough to change this culture in either our private or public lives.”

Nicola Padfield


Whilst it is important to acknowledge different family types, it is also true that the vast majority of comments made in this area related to the challenges and rewards of having both children and a career. The facts of childbearing, expectations about where the primary responsibility for childcare sits and the perceived viability of having a demanding job as well as being a mother – all had clear implications for women in their working lives.


“As a PhD student I was told quite definitively by a (male) Harvard professor that it was not possible to be a scientist and a mother.”

Gillian Griffiths


The challenges of combining parenting with a job have been touched on in the previous chapter in relation to work volume and handling competing commitments. In addition, there was also specific mention of the sheer exhaustion of having very young children, the practical frustrations associated with breastfeeding, finding meeting places that allowed children and the eye-watering costs of childcare. Some women talked about the guilt associated with not being there for all the school meetings, plays or pick-ups and a sense that other women were somehow coping better than them – although we didn’t hear any evidence to substantiate this belief.


“I have met some incredible women who have left academia, not because they were not passionate about it but because they felt it forced them to choose between a career and their children.”

Genevieve Maul


Lots of women mentioned not being able to attend networking events or conferences that were outside childcare hours and/or involved travel. This led to concerns about the loss of ‘social capital’ and curtailed access to opportunities, which was also seen to lend an advantage to male peers. These worries were accentuated by the fact that having children often coincided with crucial career junctures and promotion points. It seemed that many of the women involved in the book had faced problems getting others to take them and their ambitions seriously as a professional when they had young children.


“Women with children often miss out on networking that occurs outside the hours of childcare.”

Theresa Marteau

The overall picture however, was far from one of gloom, doom and despondency when it came to being a parent. For many this was a fundamental part of their identity and the source of some of their greatest happiness. People talked about the sense of perspective and groundedness that came with having children. They were refreshed by having to step away from the day job to focus instead on their family. This in turn could bring greater discipline and focus to their work. There was a sense of the feedback loop between work and home, which meant that being happy and fulfilled in one sphere made it more likely that they were happy and fulfilled in the other.


“A degree of compromise is necessary, but the children will survive and hopefully appreciate and respect you for your decision in the long term.”

Fiona Gribble

So, is it easy to have children and a demanding job? Clearly not. Can having children bring extraordinary rewards and pleasures? Absolutely. But these are perhaps the wrong questions to focus on. If having children is non-negotiable for the majority of the women involved in the book, then it is more interesting to ask questions about how to make this work most effectively for individuals and their organisations. At an individual level there are choices to be made about which meetings and responsibilities to hold on to and which ones to let go of. Many women described making it work alongside a supportive partner who shared the responsibility of parenting with them. There is also a need to manage expectations and boundaries with colleagues where possible, as well as encouraging simple but significant changes like scheduling a crucial morning meeting fifteen minutes later to allow parents to do the school run.


“I have also accepted that my career trajectory is not a single gradient, but it has to include steps, when other priorities (e.g. children) become important.”

Val Gibson

But the responsibility cannot all be the individual’s. An organisation that wants to retain its women needs to think about making it as easy as possible to be both a parent and a professional. Men and women have children, parent and are involved in childcare – these factors are not exclusive to either gender. Over time, truly progressive work environments will enable both genders to fully access the kind of flexible working that encourages productive home and work lives.


“I feel that it is time to move beyond seeing childcare as a gender issue and consider instead how we support academics, both male and female, who value both time with their children and their careers.”


Gender equity and engaging the support of male colleagues

“It is likely to be enlightened men that help women most in the next ten to twenty years because of the paucity of senior women in every major career path.”

Sharon Peacock

The previous paragraphs further emphasise the importance of shifting the debate away from women’s and mothers’ issues towards discussions about gender equity and enabling parents of both genders to maintain their careers. It is clear that any progress in this area requires the active engagement and support of men if it is to get anywhere.


“Supportive colleagues make the impossible possible, and it can be surprising who that might turn out to be.”

Corinne Roughley


Men are bosses, peers, friends, sponsors, mentors and junior colleagues. They are decision-makers and followers. Strong working relationships exist across the genders, and some of the most powerful advocates for inclusion are men. Women are also by no means universally supportive of other women. Men are therefore integral to almost all work systems and a vital part of the conversation about how to make them more inclusive.


“My husband’s work has paid for me to enjoy the privilege of being able to stay at home with my children, and I would see him as at least as trapped in the stereotypical male gender role as I may seem to be in the female role.”

Rachel Fogg

Much of the gender debate tends to focus on the differences between the sexes – in power, numbers, opportunities available, remuneration or approach. Differences do exist, but perhaps we need to think more about the common territory between colleagues committed to the wellbeing of their institutions, sharing a passion for their work and also a desire to have healthy family lives.