As the Years Pass, What’s Changed?

Another year and International Women’s Day (IWD is on March 8th) is fast approaching. In a rather wonderful coincidence this year the date marks exactly 50 years since the Fellowship of Churchill College voted to admit women, the very first of the initially all male Cambridge colleges to do so. To celebrate this event I will be holding a public conversation with Alison Finch, one of the first three women to be admitted as Fellows (and an Emeritus Fellow of the College now), alongside the first intake of female students in 1972. This conversation will be recorded and added to the collection of podcasts and videos of my conversations with outstanding women that can be found here on the Churchill website.

It is, of course, dispiriting that such a day as IWD is still needed, but my goodness it really is. It is dispiriting that some people give no thought to the challenges women around the world face on a daily basis except, just conceivably, on this one day. And it is dispiriting that as a result everything gets crowded into this one day, so that too many people can look the other way on the other 364 days of the year. Yet you don’t have to try very hard to hear about the challenges women face each and every day: the media (social and mainstream) is full of it if you care to look. There is the Chris Cook piece today about the unchanging face of bullying in Parliament (not, of course, just women being bullied and men doing the bullying, but that would appear to be the dominant aspect of it); there is the story of the US neuroscientist whose tenure seems to have evaporated in the face of her whistleblowing about harassment; economists study why there are so few women in their field, but the imbalance persists year on year; one of the few well-known female economists Christine Lagarde spoke up this week for the boost the economy could receive if more women were in the workplace and not overlooked or driven out by sexism; and workplace sexism is indeed endemic, with women in senior positions disliked and challenged even when they get there if they behave more like men. And that is before one starts on #MeToo or #EverydaySexism.

Of course myths abound about women’s intrinsic abilities – I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Gina Rippon’s recent book The Gendered Brain to put alongside the works of Angela Saini and Cordelia Fine. The way the world is set up still sees male as default, a problem as entrenched as ever in the modern world of data overload, as Caroline Criado Perez spells out in her own recent book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. These myths are fed into our cultures so that both young boys and girls grow up believing that women are genetically designed to nurture and that men are the natural risk-takers; that it is as unnatural for men to wish to stay at home with the kids as for a woman to be a boss. Having just been reading The Excellent Dr Blackwell (written by Julia Boyd who just happens to be the wife of a former Churchill Master), the first woman to be awarded an MD back in the 19th century, it is extraordinary to realise just how little movement there has been in some of these myths (and inevitable consequences) in the past 150 years.

If you wonder whether bias is over-rated as a problem, consider the story regarding the transgender biologist Ben (formerly Barbara) Barres which neatly sums it up. After a seminar he gave, the comment was heard ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ (quoted in Nancy Hopkin’s foreword to his autobiography,  written shortly before his death). You can’t seek a clearer example of implicit bias in the world of science than that. Barres was a great advocate for women in science, fighting sexism till the end of his life. We all have to speak up, challenging sexism (and other unattractive –isms) wherever we see it.

I may be a scientist and therefore particularly concerned about science, and making sure young girls aren’t deterred by parents, teachers or our culture from considering careers in science (physical and computer science in particular) and engineering, but if I were a lawyer or a journalist or an economist, I suspect I’d feel the same. Young girls need to aim higher than being a footballer’s wife (or consort); they need to take pride in themselves rather than simply those they associate with. This year, as every year in the recent past, I want to highlight again my handy list of actions that any of us may want to dip into to find out what more we can do to encourage girls and women to stick with science. You can find this list of Just 1 Action for Women in Science elsewhere on these pages.

So as IWD approaches, it is worth considering progress in the years since Churchill College’s momentous decision of 50 years ago, a decision that was taken against the wishes of the then Master Sir William Hawthorne, a story told gleefully to me many times when I first arrived here as how not to be a successful Master. Cambridge University now has essentially equal numbers of men and women at undergraduate level, yet there are still only about 20% of women in the professoriate. Consequently there is still a significant gender pay gap, with a mean value of just under 20% driven by the grade segregation, with fewer women at the top grades.  The numbers of female professors is slowly creeping up, but this cannot be attributed to historical factors any longer; the time when that was a plausible excuse is long past. The University has, in certain subjects, a gender attainment gap with a smaller proportion of women getting 1sts (and 3rds) than men, a situation that is at last receiving some sort of scrutiny alongside the role of ethnicity. Bullying and harassment are now very  much on the agenda, as well as training about our biases for those involved in appointments. Maybe in 5 years we will see a transformation in our culture, but my belief is, if you want to bury your head in the sand  – or worse expect to progress because of, and not despite of, bad behaviour – it is still possible to get away with it. Bullying, arrogance and selfishness – as well as sexism – have not been eradicated yet and possibly never will be.

Celebrate IWD, read my list of #Just1Action4WiS and let us remain optimistic that change is possible, but I fear my own optimism is tempered with pragmatism, frustration and more than a hint of scepticism that equality is not yet just around the corner.

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