The Only Woman in the Room

As the Master of a Cambridge College it probably isn’t surprising that I get asked to talk about Leadership, and often more specifically Women in Leadership/as Leaders, but there is nothing that brings out the inner impostor in me faster than such a request. I have, after all, never received any training and yet am expected to deliver wise words on the subject by way of training others. Recently I was asked to provide another such presentation to some international students, with the focus on the importance of diversity in leadership.

The evidence is steadily mounting about the value of not having a bunch of cloned individuals making important decision, and shortly before I gave the talk I had read this article in the MIT Sloan Review highlighting some of the evidence. But, as this review points out, the situation will never be solved by the presence of a single woman on some committee. It is clear that the arguments about the benefits of diverse committee membership apply to far more than company boards and are just as valid in decision-making panels in universities (and no doubt many other spheres too). But it remains the case that the evidence is building up most noticeably in the case of company board membership.

When I was the only (and first) female professor in any of the Physical Sciences in Cambridge I got stuck on far too many committees and soon realised that my lone voice was never going to get me very far. If I spoke up and stuck out I wasn’t going to win ‘friends’ who would support my point of view, and if I didn’t stick out I wasn’t going to win arguments either. I mentioned this to the administrator then in charge of equality issues (this was before the turn of the century) who seemed bemused by my statement that as a singleton I had no influence. Clearly at the time – and this was 20 odd years ago – such a realisation had not dawned on the one person in the University who might have had time to think about the issue. ‘Really?’ was her only comment, as if she didn’t quite believe me, or perhaps didn’t believe I’d been trying hard enough.

The MIT article however articulates the situation well, using a quote from the former Xerox Corp. CEO Anne Mulcahy:

“There are three layers of progress for women. There’s the breaking in part of getting onto boards. Then there is the critical mass part of getting more than one woman on each board. And then there is the influence part of getting women into leadership positions where the real power resides.”

The article goes on to stress that the roles of influence are those where a woman chairs the key committees – finance, audit or the Board itself, rather than HR or safety. But, guess what, where women are chairing committees in companies (or universities), all too often it will be this second layer of ‘softer’ committees. Committees where they won’t be able to effect real change in a culture.

These paragraphs should be read in tandem with the mind-bogglingly inappropriate comments released this week by the Government as part of the Philip Hampton – Helen Alexander Review into (the lack of) women leaders in companies. This current release of information listed the ten ‘worst’ reasons given by firms for not having more women at the top of their companies. You can choose your own favourite from the list. If you consider this particular one on the list:

“We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”

in conjunction with what I’ve just written about my experience of being the only woman in the room, you will see just how damaging such beliefs are.  (My first reaction was that my ‘favourite’ bad reason was ‘All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up’, but I suspect the other example I give is far more pernicious.)

Appoint a single woman and the problem is solved, seems to be the mantra of far too many people. Unfortunately, I believe large numbers – be they in boardrooms or universities – still really believe that ticking a box to say you’ve filled a quota of one will satisfy everyone. Such people clearly have very little comprehension of social dynamics in the 21st century, of ‘privilege’ or how people cling on to power and control working with others like them. Their companies will, I am almost pleased to report, likely not thrive but that fact won’t stop them pocketing huge bonuses for their bad judgement, at least in companies if less so in universities.

And that is only considering gender. There are many other sorts of diversity that could usefully be introduced into the boardroom if good decisions are to be made, a topic which rarely even get a mention. David Lammy would no doubt have something to say about this if he would shift his viewpoint from lambasting Oxford on their BME admissions. (As an aside, these latest admissions’ figures may be shocking, but if he read the analysis done by David Morris for WonkHE in 2016 he might be surprised to learn UCAS data shows

“Oxford and Cambridge are two institutions that do not appear to show systematic or consistent bias against black or less privileged applicants.”

Other universities, with far higher numbers of applications from these communities, actually perform less well when it comes to bias in admissions given their much larger starting pool, although that certainly doesn’t mean Oxbridge shouldn’t work at doing better.)

With respect to women in senior leadership roles in universities, their numbers too remain stubbornly low and no doubt some, if not all, of the ten ‘worst’ reasons Hampton-Alexander identify will be heard muttered in some corridors of university power too.  But then, Philip Hampton’s own credentials aren’t perfect: he has previously said, of the BBC gender pay gap, that the problem is – at least in part – down to the women themselves.

“I suspect they let it happen because they weren’t doing much about it.”

he was quoted as saying, asserting that he had never had a woman come to him to ask for a pay rise. Perhaps those sorts of attitudes can be found too in universities but that says more about the system than the women, something probably true in the BBC too. In my own university the local evidence suggests women are indeed less likely to apply for a market supplement than men (and receive smaller uplifts when they do), a significant contributor to the gender pay gap – but the underlying reasons for this may be down to their circumstances making it harder to play the game of ‘give me an increase in my pay or I’ll leave to take up this offer from Fancy Ivy League University’ in order to receive a pay rise.

For those who really do wield the power and influence, they should look at the Government’s list of bad reasons for not seeking out women for high level committees and leadership roles and reflect. They should recognize that sticking a single woman on a committee will solve little – as I found to my own frustration 20 years ago. And further, that sticking several women on committees which do not actually have much influence is little better. It ‘uses the women up’; it may make those above them feel good and yet it achieves little. Leaders in our universities, male and female, have to think hard and focus on what works and what will lead to effective change.

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3 Responses to The Only Woman in the Room

  1. Monique says:

    What about viewpoint diversity?
    Have you looked into the Heterodox Academy? Or some of the writing published on their platform (

  2. Colin Finlay says:

    It is surprising. Your unscientific inability to face up to the disparity of Male/Female IQ figures at the rarefied level at which you perform your functions is simply what is expected an., of course, enjoyed.

    Well done, anyway.

  3. Dennis says:

    Having a diverse group in charge to make the big decisions is the best way to make plans that benefit everyone. In my workplace, we focus on including everyone in the conversation, even people outside of the company, while always keeping in mind that any decision we make will effect everyone. We hold plenty of webcasts just to keep the conversation open to everyone who has a thought to share. Having women involved is incredibly important to diversifying ideas!

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