The aim of this chapter is to highlight the advice, insights and learning from experience that women at Cambridge identified as most important. A digest of this sort runs the risk of generalisation, especially when working with such a diverse group of women. But despite the individual nature of each person’s contribution, there was no missing the patterns that came through. These ten headlines reflect a strong degree of common understanding about the nature of meaningful success and how to go about achieving it.
The hope is that these insights provide a framework for individuals, or groups, to critically reflect on their own careers. The ten themes are listed below and then explored in more detail throughout the rest of the chapter.
Authenticity and the value of defining success on your own terms
Shaping your career and taking opportunities
The importance of challenging barriers and limiting beliefs
Resilience, risk-taking and coping with failure
Continuous learning and the benefit of feedback
Why integrity is vital
The importance of investing in relationships
Having a family and a career
Maintaining a life beyond work
The need for pragmatism
1. Authenticity and the value of defining success on your own terms
“Everyone’s experience is unique and everyone’s style has to be their own.”
Women at Cambridge talked about the vital importance of knowing what you stand for, the values that drive you and the work you are passionate about. This understanding then allows you to align your behaviour and choices with what really matters to you, as well as generate a definition of success that holds meaning. A focus on authenticity helps you to ask deeper questions about the legacy you want to leave and what you want to be known for.
“Life is a balancing act. You need to figure out what is important to you and work everything else around it.”
More people mentioned this piece of advice than any other, but a cynic may be tempted to dismiss it given the overuse of the term ‘authentic’ in the media and self-help books. Based on what we heard from participants, this would be a mistake. They made the point that an individual cannot view themselves as successful without understanding the values that underpin such a judgement. They can’t realise their talents without knowing what they are. They can’t be passionate about their work without having identified and then committed to doing something that excites them. They can’t rigorously defend space and time for family and friends without fully appreciating the importance of this. Although authenticity was clearly valued by participants, they also indicated that it was not an easy state to maintain, sometimes leaving them feeling exposed, or subject to criticism. Having the support of family, friends and trusted colleagues can make all the difference in giving you the confidence to pursue an authentic approach to your working life.
“You are unlikely to do your best work if it is chosen for expediency, rather than from passion.”
Ann Louise Kinmonth
The women involved in the book seemed to ask questions about authenticity that pushed them to discover their own way of doing things and operated against them imitating others to get by.
Workplaces need difference – of opinion, talent, perspective, gender and expertise – and authenticity is the route to realising the value of that difference.
“I have found it important to work out what I am trying to achieve and to aim with quiet determination to make it happen. It is very important not to get lost in the process and lose sight of the goal.”
2. Shaping your career and taking opportunities
“Don’t wait to be asked – do what you believe in with a passion and determination, and don’t let indifference get in the way.”
This point could best be summarised as ‘instigate, don’t wait’. There was a warning against passivity and hoping that someone will just notice the good work you are doing. The women at Cambridge were keen to encourage well-judged risk-taking and an appetite for seeking out, and grabbing, opportunities. There was an underlying recognition that career paths don’t follow a pre-ordained route, and require an ability to respond to inevitable changes in circumstance. Whilst some people relied on structured planning and goal-setting, others were comfortable with a more emergent approach, but in both instances there was recognition of the need to take personal responsibility for shaping one’s career.
“If you need a new challenge in your life, don’t be afraid to change the direction of your career.”
Finally, there was an encouragement to tell people about yourself and your achievements. This is not an uncomplicated piece of advice given some of the distaste participants expressed about self-aggrandising behaviour. Whilst reward systems may need to evolve, so that the loudest voices don’t get a disproportionate amount of attention, there still remains personal responsibility for speaking up. There is value – even necessity – in finding a way of talking positively about oneself, one’s team and one’s achievements in order to avoid the risk of being overlooked.
“Being self-propelled and interacting with the people around you is more important than waiting for sage advice, since no one will know what is better for you than yourself.”
3. The importance of challenging barriers and limiting beliefs
“When someone says ‘it is impossible to do that’, do not believe them but simply prove them wrong.”
Related to the point above is the encouragement not to let your own limiting beliefs, or those of others, stand in the way of the working life you want. Attitudes about what women are capable of, the viability of having a family as well as a career and the effectiveness of women as leaders can all be subject to negative bias.
“Believe in yourself and what you can achieve. Because a man says ‘you’ll never manage to do that’ doesn’t make it true.”
It was recognised that parents, school and work environments combine to send messages that either limit aspirations or encourage them. Most people had experienced a blend of both positive and negative reinforcement, so saw the need for developing ways of filtering out and challenging those beliefs that have the potential to sabotage one’s career. Simply put, this insight was about not letting others tell you what you can and can’t do, but instead developing the capacity to define this for yourself.
“Follow your passion, whatever it may be. Don’t listen to the doom merchants and don’t give in to pressure to conform to someone else’s idea of what you should or should not do/be.”
4. Resilience, risk-taking and coping with failure
“Take risks, small ones to start with. Don’t be afraid of failure, otherwise you will not achieve anything.”
One of the few things that can be guaranteed is that everyone will experience failures in their career – and the women involved in the book were candid about this reality. They underlined the importance of developing the kind of resilience that enabled someone to tolerate setbacks, learn from rejections and be able to move on without wasting too much energy on regret. They also talked about increasing the capacity to be able to handle a negative situation constructively, so that you can plot a way around it or come up with a ‘plan B’.
“The best advice I’ve had in Cambridge was ‘hold your nerve’.”
Whilst it is important to take steps to shape your own career where you can, it was also seen as sensible to be able to acknowledge that, at times, things may be beyond your control, or you may simply make a mistake. In these situations, it is less about what has happened and more about how you handle it.
“If things become too difficult then you need to look at a different strategy, so you need to be open to new ideas.”
Without the capacity to cope with failure, you won’t be in a position to take the kind of risks that could accelerate your career, give you access to the people or opportunities that you might find most stimulating or even help you to maintain your integrity in the face of opposition.
“Try to look forward, rather than back with regret. This is especially important for women, whose careers may have pauses and interruptions.”
5. Continuous learning and the benefit of feedback
“Be observant of others around you – watch what people do well, be a magpie learner.”
Given Cambridge’s reputation as a leading academic institution, it is little wonder that the value, and thrill, of learning was very evident. This advice was a reminder to others to savour the learning they experienced, irrespective of the normal daily frustrations associated with doing any job. There was also an encouragement to learn from other people and be inspired by their approach, for example in the way they worked with a team or navigated a tricky situation.
“Accept that you will make mistakes and do not dwell on them; instead, regard them as part of a learning curve.”
Women at Cambridge talked about the importance of actively seeking out feedback, even if it wasn’t always easy to hear. We all have blind spots, talents we may have overlooked or flaws we are unaware of, so it was seen as important to have access to regular, honest feedback. This feedback also needed to come from diverse sources, not just natural allies, and was particularly essential as one became more senior.
“I have valued collaborative work more than anything and the pleasure of learning from others with different skills.”
6. Why integrity is vital
“Being respected is more important than being popular.”
Having a well-earned reputation for integrity was viewed as the cornerstone of achieving success with substance and meaning. Whilst many of the women talked about making well-judged compromises in many areas, it was seen as vital not to compromise one’s integrity. Integrity manifested itself in everything from the routine behaviours of treating people with decency, irrespective of status, through to knowing when to fight battles of principle or swim against the tide of popular opinion. Integrity meant acting in accordance with one’s own values but not in a way that was naive. Many of the women could be seen to be guided by a blend of political awareness and integrity when making their decisions.
“Compromise and diplomacy are important in leadership roles, but never at the expense of integrity. Stand up for your convictions.”
Having integrity wasn’t about doing the right thing merely to get on, but doing the right thing based on conviction. That said, integrity did seem to be associated with those women who had achieved significant influence and seniority, so it might be seen to have had some impact on their success. One might assume that the behaviours associated with integrity, such as giving credit where it’s due and treating others with courtesy, could also engender loyalty and support.
“Never be rude to people. Appreciate their input and say thank you (frequently) to all those that help you, from the cleaner to the Head of Department.”
7. The importance of investing in relationships
“The greatest satisfaction comes from interactions – so develop your own mentoring skills, celebrate your team’s successes.”
Women at Cambridge were emphatic that one of the most important ingredients for a successful working life is having a breadth and depth of positive relationships. The interpersonal way in which they conducted their careers is one of the clearest trends in the whole book.
“It is worth taking the extra time to go that bit further to help someone out when they need it. Generosity is its own reward. I would not be where I am if it were not for the people who have given their time, advice and help when I needed it.”
Despite the reality of heavy workloads, people chose to set aside precious time and energy to nurture important friendships and valuable relationships with colleagues, team members, mentors, sponsors, students and postdocs. There was a clear sense of the mutual benefit that could come from such engagement. People talked about being able to turn to their networks for support and advice, but also about seeing them as a source of fun, ideas, energy, inspiration and collaboration.
“Creating a network of trustworthy colleagues who can also act as mentors brings relief from the relentless competition.”
Many people emphasised the simple pleasure they got from being generous with their own insights, knowledge, labour or skill. Helping others, teaching them or contributing in some way to their progress was integral to being able to view themselves as successful.
8. Having a family and a career
“You don’t have to chose between having children and a career – you can have both.”
Family life means different things to different people, but the comments made about this point specifically related to having children whilst also pursuing a career. Many of the women we spoke to strongly rejected the idea that you could have either a successful career or children but not both. Some flat out refused to accept the premise that this was even a choice, given that being a parent and having a career were both fundamental to their identity.
Having children and a career took many different forms, including part-time work, maternity leave, job sharing, working unusual hours and taking significant career breaks. There wasn’t one recipe that suited everyone, but there was a shared belief that it was possible.
“You have to try to enjoy and be good at what you are doing right at the moment, i.e. enjoy being at the park with the kids, not be stressed that you didn’t finish a piece of work.”
No one was blasé about how easy this was, and people talked about the need to make compromises, as well as the reality of having periods where they missed out on networking, conferences or travel. Many described the effort and thought that had gone into putting in place the necessary support systems for this situation to be viable. They talked about seeking help when needed and, if possible, finding a partner who was as committed to making this work as they were.
“You CAN do research and have a family. If you decide to go down this route, make sure you have understanding and support in place from your partner/family/childcare etc.”
9. Maintaining a life beyond work
“It is important to maintain friendships, interests etc, that take one out of the academic bubble and remind one that there is a larger world out there.”
Cambridge can be a very intense and sometimes insular working environment. The women we spoke to were clearly very invested in their jobs but not synonymous with them. They advised making an effort to spend time on other people and other interests beyond Cambridge. This tended not to be about taking up a relaxing hobby but more to do with paying attention to other important parts of one’s personality or passions. One person talked about being as proud of their garden as their publications, another described needing to maintain her creativity through photography, whilst a third was an avid traveller. Having this kind of hinterland meant that they could bring a greater sense of perspective to the question of what it meant to be successful.
“Life really is too short. All that matters is being happy and healthy and looking after yourself. You are then in a better position to help others.”
Some women – although interestingly not the majority – also talked about how imperative it was to take care of one’s wellbeing. The basics of sleep, exercise and eating well were mentioned, as was maintaining the boundaries necessary to do so.
10. The need for pragmatism
“I try to concentrate on what I feel is most important and not to worry too much about things like how my house looks.”
This relatively understated but nonetheless powerful insight came up time and time again. It makes the point that unrelenting perfectionism and an inability to know when to compromise have the potential to derail a successful, long-term career. Instead, there was a wise reminder about the importance of knowing when to give yourself a break, to let things go and to accept ‘good enough’.
“Like many others, I never have enough time to do things ‘properly’. I have learnt to accept that sometimes ‘good enough’ will do.”
Realism and developing a healthy sense of perspective also helped to differentiate between a major priority and a distraction. It helped to identify which battles to fight, when to say no and when to prepare for playing the long game. Pragmatism was not seen as the enemy of high performance, but rather as a way of concentrating energy on the things that matter most. It also allows for the development of a more constructive and less punitive internal dialogue that recognises human fallibility. Those women with the most experience were particularly emphatic about this piece of advice, maybe as a result of understanding the attritional nature of a long career. Given the high standards exhibited by so many of the participants in the book, this point seemed to be as much a note to themselves as it was a piece of advice to others.
“Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Ann Louise Kinmonth