It’s Time to Break the Silence

One of the pleasurable duties of being Master of a Cambridge College is getting a chance to talk to a wide cross section of people across the dinner table. This week it was the College’s Scholars’ Feast, a feast which means what it says: it is our annual thank you to our amazing group of scholars, whose numbers swell each year. They are a stimulating bunch to talk to.

I was struck by being asked the same question by two different young women during the course of the evening, one from the arts and one from the sciences: how different were things for me when I was an undergraduate and did I think things were better now? It is a difficult question to answer for two reasons. I was a student a very long time ago and my memory is inevitably going to be distorted by my experiences since; furthermore I am not a student now, so I can only judge what it is like for a current undergraduate by what might be regarded as external appearances.

Nevertheless I attempted an answer, prefacing it with remarks made to me by a woman a generation older than me when I became pregnant. How difficult it was for my generation, she said, to have to make decisions about how to balance personal and professional matters. For her generation there were no questions. You got married and had a family and (almost inevitably) that put a stop to professional advancement. She, an English scholar married to another academic, had only been able to get back into academia years later, indeed as a Fellow of a new college looking to create a fellowship from scratch (Robinson College, where I was a Fellow for many years). At the time I thought what strange remarks: of course my life was easier, since I could have a family yet keep working. But over time I understand better why she thought the act of having a choice can actually complicate matters. For her, a lack of choice gave her clarity of vision. For my generation onwards, there has been the tricky question of whether and when to start a family as a female academic. However supportive one’s partner is, there are fundamental challenges in attempting this balancing act ­– including the sheer exhaustion a pregnancy can induce which a partner really cannot share!

I think these earlier remarks are relevant because I feel the naivety I clearly had when setting out as a young academic stood me in good stead. I didn’t know what all the complications were going to be because there was no one talking about them. I had clarity of vision because I knew no better. For female early career researchers the challenges are now made so explicit. Additionally, in my early days as a student and researcher I was not surprised to be the only woman in the room and, as a result, to feel isolated, different and often treated as such. It couldn’t be otherwise with such tiny numbers of women in physics.  Now such isolation could be regarded as an inappropriate affront.

In Cambridge, my generation of undergraduates was the last for which there was only a choice of three colleges to attend.  Churchill – along with King’s and Clare – admitted women for the first time the next year and numbers of women in every discipline were inevitably tiny. It was later, when numbers were still hardly any larger in physics despite the much greater choice of college for women, that things felt more depressing and came out into the open in an explicit way. In my day we also clearly did not expect to be treated like the men. We had constraints in the way we could interact, but also different opportunities (for instance I could take my pick of which college choir to join according to what music was on offer each term). No one expected us to keep up with the men in our alcohol consumption; in some cases not even to buy our own drinks, although ‘going Dutch’ was becoming the norm. I suspect we were treated in some ways with more respect, even if it was a rather patronising kind of respect (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

I was pretty naïve about sexual harassment then, but I suspect there was far less student-on-student assault. I certainly never remember hearing of a single incident, although the young gentleman may have been treating their fellow undergraduates with respect and saving their bad habits for the local women. I do not know. But I would certainly not have been surprised to hear of supervisor-on-student predation (although I can’t recall any incidents). I fear that the idea of an older don enjoying some inappropriate flirting – if not worse – with a young female in his care would have seemed entirely to be expected. Certainly I do remember some male members of staff making me feel very uncomfortable as a PhD student, even if it would be hard to put my finger on quite why I felt creeped out.

Times have changed. Mores have changed. Nevertheless it has to be acknowledged that the Cambridge Campaign Breaking the Silence, launched this week is an important step forward within the University. The published statement is completely uncompromising, starting off with

‘There is no place for any form of harassment or sexual misconduct at the University of Cambridge.’

A wide range of materials, advice and detailed procedures are laid out on the new web page. As Barbara Stocking (President of Murray Edwards) spells out

‘In any organisation the starting point must be to have a good complaints system — one where people are listened to, that is fair (to both sides), where investigations take place. Most importantly, though, if day to day working practices are out in the open for all to see, that must reduce unwanted behaviours.’

My own college already has very clear statements and policies around these issues which will act in parallel with the University’s.

Time will tell whether this campaign and call to action wins the support and confidence of our community. By bringing the issues, and all the accompanying grief that many people have suffered out into the open (as exemplified elsewhere in an extreme form by the now discredited and vilified Harvey Weinstein) it is to be hoped not only that victims will feel sufficiently supported to speak up, but that anyone who is aware of harassment will either intervene at the time, offer support to the victim and/or speak up through appropriate channels. Harassment has to stop. Alcohol is no excuse. Victim-blaming is inappropriate.


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2 Responses to It’s Time to Break the Silence

  1. Rachel Segalman says:

    I have recently been thinking that we all expected the world to get a whole lot better a lot faster than it did. As a result, perhaps we led the current generation of female students into having lofty expectations and did not give them the tools and strategies to survive the current reality. That is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to fight injustices and biases, punish harassers, and support victims… but rather that I am wondering if we should also be offering more everyday survival tools to our female students.

    • I sometimes get accused of being too negative, making things harder for some of the ECRs, so I’m not sure I am over-optimistic! Definitely we need to offer tools and strategies, but never go near victim-blaming….

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