The women who have participated in this book show the breadth of ways in which excellence can be demonstrated. Their stories and insights offer a tantalising glimpse of what could be possible if many more women were able to participate fully in the workplace. Each and every one was nominated by their peers as a successful individual who made an important positive difference to their working environment. Sometimes this contribution was matched by formal recognition and sometimes not. Amplifying the visibility, seniority and sheer numbers of women who are viewed as successful puts them in a position to contribute their considerable abilities to the University.
In some quarters there remains a pervasive myth that to be inclusive is to accept mediocrity. This does not stand up to scrutiny: real inclusion means insisting on excellence. It is about refusing to accept patchy recruitment processes that fail to reach out to the best talent available; it demands that leaders get the very best out of most, not just some of their people, and it drives high performance by creating highly efficient and effective working environments. If we settle for a status quo that only allows for a few to be truly successful, then the loss is everyone’s: individual, organisational and societal.
Inclusive workplaces that develop a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be successful are not just good for women. Gender equity is about creating situations for men and women to thrive, do their very best work and align it with the other things that matter most to them, including their families. There is a need to reframe the debate so that it moves away from talking about ‘women’s issues’, which require women to be fixed or perhaps to ‘lean in’ and fix themselves. A modern workplace that enables its people to have healthy, high-performing working lives is relevant to everyone and should be a core leadership concern.
Making the many and varied practical steps necessary to move towards becoming a more inclusive workplace is not a simple matter. There are no quick fixes. But progress becomes inevitable when individual will is brought to bear. Organisations change when the individuals within them choose to exercise their influence and leadership to insist on improvement. Progress happens when enough people, in enough parts of an organisation, agree on what is and what is not okay. It happens when people start to have rigorous, provocative and ambitious conversations about the best ways of working together.
This book is just one part of the demanding conversation that Cambridge is having about how to become more inclusive and therefore able to realise the talents of the women and men in its community. It is both a snapshot in time and a bold enquiry into how the University can expect more of itself. The narratives and themes in the book provide a signpost towards the territory that needs to be explored further and the questions that need to be addressed.
But Cambridge exists as part of a wider society and a wider intellectual environment. Media, education and even sport all set up expectations and gender norms for both men and women. As such, the organisational and individual questions identified as worthy of further debate at Cambridge are likely to prove of value beyond the University.
Questions for the organisation to continue to explore
1. To what extent are we genuinely committed to becoming more inclusive?
Unless there is room to ask searching questions about motivation, to express dissent and to interrogate the values that would drive any progress, then that progress will stall. This question stimulates a bold review of how things are currently and how we would like them to be.
Leadership is necessary at all levels, especially in an environment as diffuse and complex as Cambridge, so leaders need to know why and how they intend to lead in this area. They will inevitably encounter cynicism, vested interests and even sabotage, so they have to have a robust understanding of the values that are driving them to commit their time and energy towards encouraging greater inclusion.
If you don’t know why you are doing something, sooner or later you run out of momentum, so it’s worth spending time on coming up with responses to questions like, ‘Do I buy the case that greater inclusion of women will add to, not dilute, excellence? Really? Who doesn’t buy it, and how can I address their challenges?’
2. How can we define, measure and reward success more effectively?
A traditional understanding of success is based almost exclusively on outcomes, such as grants awarded, papers published, reports completed, prizes won, metrics achieved, money saved or departmental systems redesigned. They concentrate on ‘what’ was done, not ‘how’ it was achieved. A positive outcome may well be the product of an effective process, but this is not always the case. For example, a strong research paper may be published to acclaim, but could be based on the work of a badly led and unhappy group, some of whom then choose to leave research for good.
Of course, any organisation needs high-quality outcomes and must reward the people who achieve them. But at the same time it needs to become deeply interested in recognising those who are good at the ‘how’ of achieving such outcomes and valuing and bringing out the best of them is part of what ‘success’ for an organisation must mean.
A more sophisticated and meaningful definition of success would enable an organisation to pick up on and promote people who are excellent at getting the best out of others. It would reward those who demonstrate strong interpersonal skills, set up and run well-balanced, effective teams and prioritise the development of the people for whom they are responsible. It would capture and acknowledge the investment and time that goes into committee work, which strengthens a department or the institution as a whole. There is a tendency to view such qualities as ‘nice to have’ when actually they are an essential part of an effective organisation, as well as some of the core competencies of the best leaders.
3. How can we reframe the debate away from ‘women’s issues’ to talk about effective, modern workplaces?
Both men and women can choose to become parents; both genders have caring responsibilities, important relationships and friendships, as well as an appetite to be more than just their work. There is the potential to focus on a shared agenda, but more often than not it gets positioned as a women’s agenda.
If men and women become equally invested in creating more effective workplaces, then there is the potential to tap into much more energy, imagination and engagement. It is human nature to be interested in the things that are likely to benefit you personally, so men cannot remain on the margins of this work if it is ever to gain traction. As things stand, men also continue to dominate leadership positions, so it is quite simply essential to have both genders actively participating in decision-making.
4. What policies, procedures, training, metrics and systems can we improve in order to accelerate progress?
This may not be the most glamorous of points, but it is vital to look at the specifics of how an organisation is plumbed and where the particular blockages and opportunities lie. This is about identifying the levers that can be pushed and pulled to make sure that ambitions for inclusion become a tangible day-to-day reality.
For example, having clear guidelines about how appointments are publicised, unconscious-bias training for interviewers and a requirement to account for any shortlist that has only one gender represented on it would all help to change how women are recruited into and promoted through an organisation. Setting up robust metrics to run alongside this would capture progress and identify areas to focus on. Similarly, there could be reviews of policies around parental/caring leave, to try to understand how they could be applied to encourage a fairer working environment.
5. How can we encourage the emergence of more diverse, visible role models?
A simple answer to this question is that if you start addressing the four areas identified above, then you are going to begin to see the inevitable emergence of more diverse, visible role models. In the meantime, there is no room for complacency.
Role models send a message about what it is possible to achieve, just as the women in this book set an example of the different ways in which you can be successful. Role models prove what’s possible for those who may share their gender, ethnicity, educational or social background, culture or subject-interest. Giving a platform for such stories is vital, especially when the numbers are currently stacked against particular groups. Panel events, interviews, committee representation, allocation of projects and public-speaking engagements all offer opportunities to vary the faces seen to be associated with success.
Questions for the individual to continue to explore
An organisation is made up of the people in it. To talk about the organisation and its people as being separate is perhaps strange but also necessary to emphasise that the responsibility for change is both collective and individual. An organisation may evolve its policies, structure or recruitment practices, but it is down to the individual to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. The stories in this book are from women, so the questions below are framed for a female audience – but they are also applicable to men who are interested in thinking about how they want to conduct their careers and the impact they want to have.
1. What do I really want from my working life?
Many of the women in the book emphasised the importance of self-reflection and knowing what really mattered to them and why. They talked about pursuing their interests and passions wherever possible, as well as knowing when to compromise and when to hold the line. So this question is really about defining the success that has meaning and value to the individual themselves.
All of the women we spoke to faced a raft of choices, big and small, on a daily basis. They had to choose between competing demands on their time, which jobs to pursue, the relationships to invest in and even which battles to fight. Navigating these choices becomes easier when you have a deeper sense of what you want from your working life. This can change over time and in relation to circumstance, so it is helpful to develop a habit of pausing to step back and critically reflect on where you are headed.
2. What effect does my gender have on my career?
Whilst the book is an amalgam of highly individual voices, there are also shared patterns about what it means to be a woman in the workplace. Many of the participants talked about the impact of being a parent, how it feels to be the only woman around the table, the degree of responsibility felt towards supporting other women and what it takes to move upwards in an organisation. Despite this commonality, there was also some evidence of isolation and a sense of the pressure, or expectation, that can come with being one of relatively few women in a workplace.
Being a woman is not irrelevant to one’s career – and that is not good or bad, it’s just a reality. Society is such that perceptions around gender will affect us whether we like it or not. Thinking about what this means and what we want to do with it presents us with the opportunity to shape circumstances in our favour, rather than be ambushed by them. For those men reading this point, the same question applies: what effect does your gender have on your career? Addressing this question can help to make you more aware of how others treat you, the opportunities or obstacles that come with your gender, as well as of the biases that affect us all.
3. How can I engage with the system most effectively?
Careers don’t just happen to us: they happen because of us, and it is entirely possible to be politically astute whilst also retaining one’s integrity. It is vital to understand how decisions are made, the idiosyncrasies of who holds power and the ways that success gets recognised. You can then spot some of the bear pits, as well as the likely career accelerators. As soon as you understand the system, you are in a position to decide how you wish to engage with it. You have choices about the groups you join, the committees you engage with or avoid and the relationships you foster.
There is no ‘right’ way of engaging with a work system, as we all have different desires and values that affect what we want from our working lives. But there is merit in trying to shape circumstances so they align with our ambitions, whatever they may be.
4. What influence do I have, and how do I want to use it?
Exercising influence is not just the province of those at the very top of an organisation. A work environment is a human social system where we all impact on one another – sometimes intentionally and often unawares. To this extent we are all role models and the question then becomes, ‘What kind of role model do I want to be?’ We send messages all the time about who and what we value most and the behaviours we endorse or disapprove of. When we hold ourselves to account for those messages, we become more aware of our potential to influence others.
On a more practical level, job roles have authority attached to them – for example, to hire people, change a policy or set the working practices for a team. If you identify the scope of your influence, you can then ask yourself what you really want to do with it.
5. What do I want to be known for?
In talking to women for this project, there was a real ease and fluidity in discussing what they admired about their colleagues, both male and female. It’s rarely as easy to describe what we value in ourselves. One way of tapping into this is to imagine overhearing a conversation where others are talking about you. Once you put aside the social awkwardness of the situation, what would you hope they said about you, what adjectives would you be pleased to hear or what achievements remembered? This perspective can shine a light on the sort of legacy we want to leave, the impact we want to have that is bigger than ourselves and perhaps the part we want to play in moving towards a more inclusive workplace.
Notions about success are not only intensely personal, but also shape and are shaped by the organisations within which we live and work. The stories we tell about success send messages about who and what we value. They have the potential to limit what an organisation or individual is capable of or to create the conditions for them to excel.
If organisations and individuals are able to engage in a rigorous, sometimes spiky and deeply ambitious conversation about how they view success, then they create the possibility of developing much more inclusive workplaces where men and women can perform at their best.