Be really hungry for success – but be brave enough to know that success can be measured in many different ways.

Nicola Padfield

Why attempt to redefine success?

The way that success is defined shapes our working lives. It affects how organisations perform, who progresses within them and how power is exercised. It is a brutal fact that fewer women than men are recognised as successful based on current standards and value judgements. This book therefore sets out to question our assumptions about what success is and how this impacts on the progression of men and women in the workplace. Our wider ambition is to stimulate a rethink about who and what we value, why and how. This will enable us to imagine and then create more inclusive workplaces, which can in turn influence progress towards a fairer society.

The ideas and insights in the book are based on a series of questionnaires and interviews conducted with women at the University of Cambridge who were identified as successful by their peers. What emerged from this enquiry was a pressing need to broaden and redefine the term success in order for it to be more meaningful, relevant and accessible to women, as well as men. This redefinition is not about lowering standards but actually about enhancing them. A more sophisticated notion of what constitutes success acknowledges the range of behaviours and competencies necessary for the University, and society more broadly, to prosper.

An institution like the University is almost entirely dependent on the quality of its research and teaching for its reputation. It needs highly able people at all levels and in all areas to inspire, stretch, encourage, test, disagree with and support one another in order for the institution to continue to flourish. It also needs a diverse range of visible role models to attract the best new people and to provide tangible evidence of what it’s possible to achieve. Such aspirations require the active participation of both women and men.

A meaningful definition of success that works for the organisation, whilst also being personally engaging for both genders, starts to change the game, rather than tinkering around the edges. In commissioning this book, the University is demonstrating a determination to achieve change on this scale. The book provides a platform for stories by and about successful women at the University, so that they can influence thinking in this area. These insights could also provide encouragement to women looking to shape their own working lives, as well as valuable guidance for those responsible for developing or managing others.

There is an implicit acknowledgement that gender progression across all sectors of the workplace has been achingly slow in recent years. This is despite ample research showing the positive impact that gender diversity has on the performance of organisations. There are also countless cautionary tales that link a lack of diversity with poor risk assessment, wasted talent, limited innovation and poor decision-making.

It seems that the case for gender equity may be compelling, but measures to address it have yet to achieve real traction. With leaders across sectors clamouring to publicly state their support for women coming through the talent pipeline and on to top tables, we might reasonably expect to be seeing radical improvements in the metrics that indicate progression. We’re not. Something isn’t working. Girls are still opting out of STEMM subjects, equal pay seems a distant prospect, the talent pipeline for women is notoriously leaky at mid to senior levels and leadership remains a predominantly male preserve. The rules of the game need to change. Success as it is currently framed around factors such as seniority, remuneration and personal status is neither equally appealing to both genders, nor does it fully recognise or reward their contributions.

We need to challenge some of the myths about meritocracy that put women in a double-bind of wanting to advance based on their competence rather than a quota, whilst at the same time being judged against subjective criteria with an inbuilt gender bias. Unconscious bias can also be detected in the subtleties of who is invited for interview, assessments about readiness for promotion, restricted exposure to stretch assignments and prizing individual attainment over collegiate contribution.

In addition to any talent and performance argument there is also an ethical aspect to making a case for a more inclusive definition of success. At the most basic level, you can only defend a status quo where men statistically dominate the leadership ranks by also buying into the deeply uncomfortable position that they are just better and smarter than women. This is clearly not a view we share, and there is a need to evolve the systems of reward and recognition that result in such an imbalance. Having more women integrated at all levels of organisations is vital, and the book looks to point to ways this can be achieved. It seeks to identify the individual and organisational behaviours that get in the way of an inclusive workplace, as well as the ones that enable diverse talent to thrive.

We know of course that success means many different things to many different people. It may therefore seem futile to attempt to redefine it to give it more meaning and efficacy; but we must try if we are serious about creating more inclusive workplaces. If the way of valuing and promoting others is too narrow then we shall never see the systemic change necessary for real gender equity. A broader, richer definition of success makes it far more likely that diverse talent will be recognised. These talented people –both men and women– can then progress through their organisations and shape them for the better along the way.


Success and its relationship to gender


“Success is measured in many ways – the most important of which is how you feel about yourself.”

Linda King

During the interviews for this book, there was often palpable discomfort when participants heard themselves described as successful women. This discomfort ranged from such remarks as ‘are you sure you have the right person?’ through to an active dislike about what this term might imply about who they were and how they worked. Some expressed fears that they would be viewed as self-aggrandising or arrogant if they were to accept the label ‘successful’. Whilst there were examples of people who were much more at ease with being seen as successful, they were not in the majority.

In accounting for this broad aversion to the notion of success, it would be all too easy to jump to glib conclusions about women having a lack of confidence, feeling a disinclination to promote themselves in a highly competitive environment or perhaps preferring to choose to opt out because of the complexities of combining work and childcare. Based on the actual data emerging from the interviews, this would be to miss the point entirely.


“We don’t all have to aspire to the top job just because we think we ought to; but equally we shouldn’t set our sights too low, just because it’s what other people expect.”

Margaret Robinson


The women who contributed to this book are all members of an elite institution – the University of Cambridge. By some measures, simply being part of the University would have them viewed as success stories. Any one of them could lay claim to several of the following adjectives – smart, eloquent, gutsy, powerful, influential, funny, insightful, pioneering, supportive, demanding and driven. They are also flawed, human and as susceptible to imposter syndrome as the next person. But they are not women who shied away from being seen as successful because they felt ‘less than’. Instead, they just didn’t seem to buy a more traditional interpretation of success forged over centuries in workplaces that were shaped by and for men. There was a general sense that ideas about success had not yet caught up with the societal changes that had brought far more women into the workplace.

The women who participated in the book embraced success, but only when it was reframed to have more relevance and meaning to them. If success was seen to be primarily about status, remuneration, prizes, papers in esteemed journals or the corner office then it was not sufficiently appealing for them. Personal success or acknowledgement was most valued when it came as a by-product or consequence of having got something important done, or as a result of having contributed to others’ achievements. Similarly, influence or power was often embraced, but only in so far as it enabled a person to instigate an important change, conduct an interesting piece of research or set up a new project. The research evidenced no real sense that power, prestige or status had an appeal independent of what one could do with it.


“I have learned to define success on my own terms and to focus my work where possible on the areas where I can make most effective contributions.”

Ruth Cameron


It is also important to say that many of the women interviewed for this book did not directly correlate seniority with success. Traditional career advancement was not the goal for all – indeed many put far greater stock in having the freedom to pursue deeply interesting work for which they felt a real passion.


“I am clearly not successful in the way that most academics set out to succeed and that does not faze me one bit. I am touched that someone nonetheless saw that by some other measure I might be considered successful.”

Terri Apter

A clear theme emerged about the importance of who you were and how you behaved in relation to others, as well as the outcomes you achieved. An ability to work collaboratively was strongly linked with a more meaningful definition of success. There was an interest in having a decent process and doing high-quality work as part of an effective team rather than just getting individual credit. Along with this came a general aversion to jockeying for personal promotion which, whilst laudable in many ways, also carried the risk of being overlooked. There was a clear wish to be viewed as having behaved in a way that was characterised by integrity and healthy working relationships. This naturally leads to an active engagement with others to get the job done. The relational aspect of this evolved definition of success also emerged in the emphasis that participants put on developing those around them. There was a sense of vicarious pleasure in the success of others that often seemed to be more easily embraced than success solely for oneself.


“Not only is my ‘success’ measured by the number of publications I have had that reflect the quality of the work, but also by my willingness to help other scientists where I can.”

Jennifer Hirst


It was notable that the achievements that mattered to participants often had an everyday feel to them, rather than just being show-stopping, big-ticket items. There was clear value in the simple daily practice of engaging constructively with colleagues to do work that was of a high standard and on topics that held a real fascination. This took place in arenas as diverse as running the library, leading a team working on medical research, running the administration for graduate applications or building a major new sports complex.


“If I were to articulate what I’m most proud of, it would be in terms of really small, incremental improvements in my ability to do the various jobs I undertake.”

Corinna Russell

The other dominant theme that came through the various conversations with women at Cambridge was the extent to which they saw themselves as having rounded working lives that encompassed both family, in all sorts of forms, and some kind of hinterland. Being rounded also meant more than family – it related to sporting endeavour, gardening, being a justice of the peace, a school governor, playing in an orchestra or even refurbishing a lifeboat to live on. This all gives a clue that the women of Cambridge have a multi-dimensional rather than one-dimensional sense of what it is to be successful.


“I very much support the notion that ‘success’ has a million definitions.”

Joanna Cheffins


Structure of the book

This book is based on an assumption that there is real value in tuning into interesting stories from a range of women who are viewed by their colleagues as being successful. Its approach is therefore qualitative and looks to describe the phenomenon that is success.

The content is a blend of two main elements. There are five chapters that draw on the questionnaire submissions of 126 women to explore the themes of achievement, challenge, gender, role models and learning from experience. The remainder of the book comprises first-person narratives and full-page photographic portraits. These are based on interviews with twenty-six of the participants, who represent a diverse range of perspectives, ages, backgrounds, levels of seniority and views on their working lives.

Approach and demographics

The Meaning of Success book project is linked to the University of Cambridge’s wider activities and aspirations for gender equity. This work is led by Professor Dame Athene Donald and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Jeremy Sanders, with the active support of the Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

Jo Bostock was working with the University’s Senior Gender Equality Network (SGEN). This group had identified the importance of visible women role models and wanted to explore how success is recognised and rewarded, from a gender perspective. The book project grew from these two starting points and was developed, coordinated and delivered in conjunction with the University’s Equality & Diversity (E&D) team, part of the HR Division.

In order to identify potential participants, senior members of the University were asked to nominate colleagues who they felt to be successful, inspirational women who may have an interesting story to share. From the outset there was a clear intent to involve women from all levels, all grades, all staff groups and from across the whole University. Nominations of women from the lower staff grades and younger in age were particularly encouraged to ensure that the project reflected the wider cohort of women at Cambridge.


Nominated participants were sent an online survey featuring the following questions:

  • What would you point to as the achievements that have mattered most to you, and why? (These can be large or small, personal or professional.)
  • What are some of the challenges you have faced, and how have you handled these?
  • How do you think your gender has affected your working life?
  • Which other woman/women at the University of Cambridge do you admire/inspire you, and why?
  • Having been nominated by colleagues for this project celebrating a diverse range of successful women at Cambridge, what is your best guess about why they rate you in this way?
  • What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to pass on to others?


The responses were reviewed to identify themes and illustrative quotes which form the basis for the chapters of the book. Of the respondents, twenty-six were then invited to participate in a one-to-one interview with the author and a photographic portrait session. These individuals were selected to reflect both the breadth and diversity of the women involved and also their ability to illustrate the strongest themes that emerged from the questionnaires. An advisory team consisting of senior University members involved in the project guided the short-listing process.

In total, 195 women were nominated by their peers, with 126 returning a questionnaire. For those respondents for whom we held demographic information, 2 per cent had disclosed a disability, 15 per cent were of foreign nationality and 15 per cent were of ethnicities other than White-British. The age of participants ranged from the late twenties to the late sixties, with an average age of fifty.