As I came up through the Cambridge system it was certainly the case that I did not always feel I fitted in with those around me. It is never possible to tell whether such a sensation is gender-related or not, but being in such a male-dominated field as physics it was hard not to think that my gender may at least have been relevant. Back then I would have loved to hear how other women charted a path through the university system and hierarchy, a place where I could feel uncertain, confused and unsupported.
This book is a celebration of the life stories of many remarkable women across the University. It is also a potent reminder that there is no unique path to success; indeed, that success is not a single thing that we can all agree on. Instead, for all these different women – both those who are interviewed at length and those whose voices are heard through selected quotations – what really matters to them is a complex multidimensional set of factors which are frequently different from those commonly ascribed to the successful in life. These factors may even shift over time, but they must always be consistent with the woman's own belief-systems if they are to provide fulfilment. Only then can they ensure the woman herself believes in her 'success'. For these women it is clear that success comes from within at least as much as from any external recognition. This is an important lesson for us all, men and women, to remember.
This book has evolved substantially over its gestation. Starting off as an idea to celebrate and highlight women who might serve as visible role models to those coming after them, it has transformed into something more subtle but, I believe, more powerful. It isn't just a book that may inspire younger women. It is now equally a book that can inform anyone who works with women – in other words, everyone within the University (and beyond). It shows how ensuring that a woman's sense of inner integrity is satisfied generates a powerful driving force for her. Alongside a decent work-life balance, this contributes to her ability to feel successful. In other words we glimpse insights into what success means to each of the individuals represented here.
As I read the stories these women reveal, I was moved and I was excited. Within an academic environment, too often the individual stories and voices are lost. Here we can reclaim a few of these and profit from what we hear. For those setting out, I hope this book will act as an inspiration and give them much food for thought. For those already working their way up the ladder, I hope the messages conveyed will provide both validation of choices they are making or have made as well as an element of recognition of themselves in the stories told so that they feel empowered. For managers and leaders within the University and elsewhere, perhaps particularly but not solely the men, I hope the book will provide a resource for reflection about what really makes the women in their institution tick. This may be not at all what they assumed or what works for them personally. Difference and diversity matter. Success has many faces, and supporting those whose meaning of success is not necessarily the same as one's own is a crucial part of good leadership.
Having risen through the ranks I feel an obligation to contribute towards making life that bit easier for the next generations of women. I should like to think that the work the University is now doing, and my own role as Gender Equality Champion, are starting to transform our working environment. By opening up dialogues about what matters to each of us, about our working culture and about what is going right and what is going wrong, I hope that everyone, male and female, will feel better able to achieve their potential and to do so without compromising their own integrity. There will always, for the academics amongst us, be hard-core metrics, such as grants or prizes won and books and papers published, that matter. But there is more to life than these (or their equivalents for other tracks), and this book is a powerful reminder of that fact.
The Meaning of Success is part of ongoing gender-related activities in Cambridge. The University has changed massively since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. Some of this has come about through overall societal changes, but many small internal changes I trust are opening up a much more equal world for all our employees and students. These include support for those applying for promotion, and slight shifts in emphasis in promotion criteria and opportunities for academic-related staff to 'act up' to gain experience. Much more formalised equality training has been introduced for all involved in recruitment, which should bring into the open the pernicious habit we all tend to have of undervaluing women through unconscious bias; and there is now an explicit requirement for appointment committees to carry out active searches to ensure there is an appropriately diverse field of applicants. We have most certainly not yet achieved all we must and can do, as the low numbers of women in the highest grades make all too plain, but there is a tangible momentum and statement of intent that has not been present up until recently.
I hope readers of this book, whatever their gender, will feel as enthusiastic and moved as I do as they read the personal stories and grand themes that are covered here. This book is just one small contribution to the conversation we all need to have – with ourselves and with others – to make sure every employee in the University is able to fulfil their potential and to feel comfortable and supported as they do so.
Professor Dame Athene Donald DBE FRS
Gender Equality Champion, University of Cambridge