How Many ‘Firsts’ does it take to Change a System?

As the new academic year starts in Cambridge the University Library is  marking 150 years of women studying here, even if admission to degrees came much later in 1948. Collectively we can also note that for the first time essentially half the colleges have female Heads of House (as the collective noun for Masters, Principals, Provosts etc has it): there are 15 of us now, out of 31 Colleges, but St John’s is currently in an interregnum due to the recent death in office of its Master. This is a radical shift compared even with the time five years ago that I took up the reins at Churchill. At that time there were around 1/3 of the colleges headed by women.

The incoming batch of Heads of House are a remarkable quintet of women: Baroness Sally Morgan (Fitzwilliam); Sonita Alleyne (Jesus) who is the first person of colour to head any college in either Oxford or Cambridge; former diplomats Alison Rose (Newnham) and Catherine Arnold (St Edmund’s); and former Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies (Trinity). As it happens there are no incoming male Heads of House this year.  I attended the installation of Sally Davies on Tuesday, which was done with all appropriate pomp and fantastic, specially-composed-for-the-occasion music echoing around the Chapel. Trinity, like Churchill, is a ‘Regius’ appointment, I believe the only two Cambridge colleges that are. In other words it is technically signed off by the monarch and for Sally this seemed to involve physical letters patent which were formally carried through the college, something which it certainly did not in my case (some Downing Street administrator with an illegible signature signed my letter of appointment). My public conversation with Sally at Churchill a couple of years ago provides a fascinating account of how she reached her present eminence.

I am looking forward to working with the newcomers, interested to see if the vestiges of 800 years of male domination in this ancient university are really disappearing. The University undergraduate student body may be at parity by gender but the professoriat is not (approximately 20% are women currently). The gender pay gap is still real, even if much of this is down to grade segregation. There are far more women in the lowest paid grades, where approximately two thirds of the staff are women whereas there are only one third in the top quartile.

The trouble with celebrating ‘firsts’ – such as the first person of colour to head a house, or the first woman to head Trinity – is that in themselves they do nothing to change systemic problems. The problems are so much deeper. I think prize-winning Guardian science journalist Hannah Devlin hit the nail on the head with this recent exchange with the ironic tweeter ManWhoHasItAll.

Women are still seen as ‘different’ and they need to be singled out – for instance with photoshoots or with reference to their marital or parental status – in ways that would be regarded as extraordinary for men. The academic world, like so many other professional spheres, remains stubbornly male by default.

Whilst one can be simultaneously pleased to see this change in leadership at the top of the Colleges the work to eradicate imbalances is nowhere near over.  I could reel off many more ‘firsts’ within the wider University too. The University Marshal (a role equivalent to head of the university’s ‘constabulary’) has been a woman for the last 18 months. Lucy Marshall not only is the first woman in this role, but previously she was the first female bomb-disposal expert in the UK, although I hope those skills aren’t needed in her current role. In fact the last time I encountered her she was merely advising me where to park my bike at the Vice Chancellor’s house, a much less stressful role.

We do need to keep reminding our community – not to mention the media – that progress is being made on gender equity, even if one can’t yet say the same about race; indeed that conversation is only beginning.  However I believe focusing on firsts is to obscure the reality. A few women reaching the top of their career pyramid does not equate to equality of opportunity all the way through. Women are still told far too often, implicitly if not necessarily explicitly, that they don’t fit the expected mould of postdoc, let alone professor. Perhaps, it’s implied, they’d be better suited to another career. I can still be presented with a list of applications to a university chair that is all male and yet no one had thought to take action before the list was deemed ‘closed’. When I objected that I didn’t think the search committee had done a very good job of looking for a diverse field – as of course I did – it turned out to be perfectly possible to identify in short order some strong women, some of whom (one might say inevitably) went on to make the shortlist.

As I said at the outset, the University is celebrating the progress that has been made. The exhibition opens at the University Library this coming week. Perhaps also inevitably, given I too am labelled with too many ‘firsts’, I will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March, and also in a related event in a couple of weeks as part of the Festival of Ideas. This latter session will include three of the women who made so much difference to starting the dialogue about women in Cambridge once we had reached a point where coeducation had become the norm, but professional advancement for women had not. I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge; I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.


This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.