The Lowdown Hub

A gender and achievements debate study from Cambridge University insights and observations.

I just can't start this article without talking about the great Alexander Crummell book. Destiny and Race.

Alexander Crummell

As the son of an illiterate, freed slave, Alexander was a lifelong abolitionist, arriving in England in the 1840s to enlist Britons to the cause.

He stayed to become the first black graduate from Cambridge in the late 1840s, studying at Queens' College. Later becoming a minister, Alexander developed the concept of Pan-Africanism, drawing strongly on his faith to encourage people of African descent to come together in unity and solidarity.

The 2011 film below explains how research by Cambridge academic Dr. Sarah Meer provided new insight into Crummell’s life and studies at Cambridge. Alexander Crummell also features in Dr. Meer’s upcoming book Cousins and Claimants: Transatlantic Notions 1820-1920.

I will say achievements are the building blocks that enable someone to construct a sense of themselves as a success. The achievements that matter most combine to form a version of success that has meaning and substance for the individual. Achievements also provide tangible evidence that colleagues, competitors, and the wider world use to judge a person as more or less successful.

Different people find different evidence compelling, so it is no surprise that there was variance in the achievements that were seen to hold the greatest weight for women at Cambridge. There was also a recognition that achievements could be ephemeral, highly personal, and evolve over time or in relation to context. Nonetheless, clear patterns did emerge. These patterns, which are outlined below, point to potential mismatches between the achievements that are traditionally viewed as markers of success and the ones that participants valued the most. As such they indicate areas that organizations might want to consider if they are interested in developing a more sophisticated and gender-inclusive sense of what it means to be successful.

Academia, from Cambridge, needs to change to become more inclusive as soon as possible. Otherwise, academic institutions will not only continue to squander talent but also become increasingly out of step with a society that is changing and modernizing.

Let's look at the relevance spectrum There was significant variance in the extent to which women saw their gender as relevant to them as they pursued their careers. We have described this as a ‘relevance spectrum’, with the poles represented at one end by those who saw their gender as not at all relevant and at the other end by those who felt it was always and inevitably relevant in every situation. There were many women who took up a place between these poles, seeing their gender as somewhat relevant some of the time. Others could be seen as moving along the spectrum, often stimulated by a change in life or job circumstances, or in response to aging. Most noticeable was the shift that took place when women became parents, which tended to move their gender from the background into sharp foreground focus. Across all points of the relevance spectrum, there was a consistent desire to be rated based on one’s competence and ability, not based on one’s gender.

Focus point

The fact that a book is being written that focuses on women at Cambridge indicate a pre-existing bias on the question of relevance. The raw data around the lack of women moving up and through organizations, inhabiting leadership positions, and securing appropriate recognition for their work leads us to believe that gender needs to be looked at and cannot be totally irrelevant. Gender may not be the most important thing about a person or something they see as having influenced their own career trajectory. But it does not necessarily follow that gender is therefore irrelevant, or that it does not in some way affect how colleagues, or society more broadly, view women. There is no expectation that a reader should share this position – nor would all the women involved in this book. The comments and insights gathered here stand on their own merits and a reader can draw their own conclusions from them.