Nearly 100 people attended the panel discussion, Women Making Waves, which explored the gamut of women’s experience in education, from school and university, through career progression as teachers or academics, to balancing professional and home life in a leadership role.
The speakers, from secondary education and all levels of university, and the chair, Bridget Kendall, the first female Master of Peterhouse, attracted a broad audience including school teachers and heads, careers advisers, university students, lecturers and professional services staff.
The event was part of Trinity’s programme to celebrate of 40 years of women at the College, and was jointly organised with the University of Cambridge’s Equality and Diversity unit.
Following a welcome by Trinity’s Senior Tutor, Professor Catherine Barnard, the chair, Bridget Kendall, formerly the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent, introduced the theme of the event. She said attitudes to women and their ability to pursue whatever career they chose had been transformed since she was told by male colleagues at the BBC in the 1980s that women should not be journalists because their voices were too high.
But while there had been advances, many challenges for women and girls remained in the twenty-first century. Cambridge undergraduate Helena Eccles said she had been told to ‘write like a man’ to succeed in her exams. Such comments reflected the cultural factors affecting women students’ experience at university – and their belief in a level-playing at work. Ms Eccles’ research found that only 42% of female university students felt confident that their gender would have no bearing on their career progression, compared to 72% of male students.
Kate Evans, CEO of Anglia Learning Multi-Academy Trust, which supports future leaders in secondary education, said the seeds of under-confidence were laid early on. Often, girls were less confident than their male peers and more likely to shy away from student leadership roles in schools, or applying to top universities. Mrs Evans said that while 70% of teachers in secondary schools in England were female, only 30% of headteachers were women. Within Cambridgeshire, this figure is 22%.
Dr Rob Wallach, Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Cambridge, echoed the call for more female role models and the need to strengthen women’s belief in themselves. He said gender stereotypes and unconscious bias began early on, was often not taken seriously, and should be challenged immediately and consistently.
To enable women to reach leadership positions, institutions needed to move from ‘compliance to engagement, from counting numbers to making the numbers count,’ said the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at Cambridge Judge Business School, Sucheta Nadkarni. Her research into women leaders in business showed that a holistic approach was essential for gender equality – embracing pay, honours and awards, resource allocation, better maternity benefits and childcare facilities, and greater emphasis on sponsorship rather than mentoring schemes.
On a personal level, Professor Nadkarni said it was important to under your strengths and be yourself – ‘be authentic.’
More information for students, teachers and parents about careers in science was vital to increase the 20% of women taking physics A-level, said Professor Valerie Gibson, Trinity Fellow and Head of High Energy Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. While there had been a step change in women-in-STEM activities at universities and Colleges, including Trinity, more was needed for younger girls, before they took decisions about their GCSEs, she said.
Before and during the discussion people were invited to tweet #40brightideas to improve women’s access to and experience of leading universities, as well as advancing their careers in the sector. A tweet wall showcased the comments and ideas during the panel discussion; Trinity is keen for more ideas – please feel free to tweet @TrinCollCam
Professor Catherine Barnard said:
We are delighted with the response to the event, and the ideas from speakers and the audience, as Trinity celebrates 40 years since the admission of women. We will be following up on the ideas at the College and with the University.