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.


These bring me to the fact that colored women most have been through a lot we are entering a new dawn The fact that a book is being written that focuses on women at Cambridge indicates a pre-existing bias on the question of relevance. The raw data around the lack of women moving up and through organisations, 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.

These bring me to the fact that some coloured women most have been through a lot, we are entering a new dawn a new era of Africa Legacy, will spring into the world, however from my perspective African’s should show more love to humanity start from within their own environment. Africa has too much to still be living on aid when the world can possibly see their flamboyant lifestyle that is truly not necessary when you can you that excess to educate the young once around your horizon. For everyone there’s a great essence. Africa will build one of the best University in the world ‘someday’ We need more love not hate.



Upbringing and schooling

People come to Cambridge having already been exposed to messages about their gender from their parents, schooling and wider society. This is of course true of both men and women. The narratives and quotations in this book express a real range in the gender messages by which people were affected. These run the full gamut from hugely positive and empowering, right the way through to extremely inhibiting and undermining.

Some people talked about having parents who created an expectation that girls and women could do anything they set their minds to. Several women made specific mention of their fathers being particularly keen to challenge stereotypes, and some were described as ‘feminists’ in their own right. In contrast, other parents were uninterested in their daughter’s education because of their gender, disapproved if they took up an apparently less ‘feminine’ subject like engineering and discouraged them from returning to work after having children.

Beyond parents, early formative experiences at school were also mentioned as having an effect on how women viewed the possibilities or limitations of their gender. Some women talked about having had inspirational teachers – both male and female – who saw their potential and pushed them to achieve. Others had less happy experiences that prescribed far more rigidly what girls should and shouldn’t do and presented a very restricted view of the careers that they were capable of pursuing.


When the women described their workplace experiences, there seemed to be a discrepancy between the behaviours that a man could demonstrate without negative consequence – and sometimes even exploit – and those seen as acceptable for women. Outspokenness, assertion and even anger were ways of behaving that seemed to be judged differently when coming from a man. For women, there was the risk of being seen as frightening, aggressive, strident or disruptive when holding a reasoned but determined position.

“I have clearly caused some of my colleagues to feel that I am ‘dangerous’ in ways I have never understood, possibly because I am fairly outspoken and that isn’t consistent with how women are stereotypically meant to behave.”

Athene Donald

Women also talked about how their ‘voice’ was heard – or not – in the various organisations for which they had worked. There was reference to be being described as anything from shrill, stroppy and hysterical through to frivolous and chatty. There were also examples of feeling voiceless in meetings where they were often in a minority to start with: they didn’t get space to speak, colleagues talked over them or a male peer was given credit for a point they had raised. An absence of voice also related to the lack of female representation at certain levels and on particular bodies.

“I miss female colleagues. Many men are now aware of the importance of good working relationships with female colleagues, but there is still the ‘boys’ club’ when it comes to informal collaborations and banter.”

Wendy Pullan

Attached to frustrations around voice were comments about feelings of isolation and fears of tokenism when women found themselves to be a solitary female presence, or in a small minority. This presents something of a challenge to organisations that have real positive intent to increase female representation but find themselves ‘over-asking’ the few women perceived to be suitable candidates for committees or other bodies. In this situation there is merit in querying the selection criteria used, challenging assumptions about the seniority level and background needed to sit on particular groups, as well as considering creative ways of spotting talented women at more junior levels and involving them at an earlier stage. All of this offers the possibility of casting a wider net to engage broader groups of women in larger numbers, especially in the decision-making processes of an organisation.

“Where I am in new situations with male colleagues, it has been presumed that I wouldn’t be the President; you have to deal with situations where you might be the only woman in a key decision-making body, or just regularly getting talked over in committees.”

Rosalyn Old

More broadly, there was irritation expressed at the reduced expectations and assumptions that the women had encountered during their working lives. Some talked about situations where it was automatically assumed they were the most junior person in a meeting, when the opposite was frequently true. Others talked about needing to fight against limiting beliefs relating to being both a parent and having a job – a problem we will discuss in more detail later. On the most basic level, women we spoke to expressed the desire for a starting point where as much would be expected from and of them as from a male peer.

“Some people are rather surprised by your achievements and tenacity, rather than expecting you to do well.”

Abigail Fowden

Some women talked about having limiting traits that they saw as being associated with their gender – such as an innate conservatism, perfectionism, lack of self-confidence, risk aversion or an unwillingness to promote themselves or their achievements. It is important to note that a number of women rejected the idea of gender-based traits outright and saw these instead as personality-based.

“Probably its biggest effect is the high standards I set for myself (verging on perfectionism) and the tendency to wonder if I’m doing enough/could be better. This is a tendency that women/girls are more likely to exhibit.”

Jessie Monck

It was noticeable how much context made a difference to the way women experienced the potential advantages, disadvantages or insignificance of their gender. There was talk of progressive departments, excellent leadership, visible sponsorship and support from those senior to them. All of these led to women feeling more able to bring their talent to the fore and be recognised for doing so. Being able to see a range of varied role models – including women – thriving in their discipline or area also provided a genuine basis on which to be positive about their prospects. Several women talked about feeling accepted and valued in one part of their working lives – perhaps in their team or research group – and far less so in others.

“I have rarely experienced prejudice. However, male academics do occasionally treat me like a secretary, and industrialists and overseas scientists can exhibit some surprisingly unreconstructed attitudes.”

Rachel Oliver

Some participants commented positively about progress made around gender equality, legislation and the educational opportunities available for girls and women. Despite some grounds for optimism, there was little sense of complacency or a feeling that parity had been achieved. Several women talked about the energy it took to challenge, cope with or defy the limiting assumptions attached to their gender. This in itself offers a pressing reason for organisations to be passionately interested in inclusion, as there is a clear impact on performance.

“I often get frustrated with the time and effort it takes to overcome default assumptions. I probably could have done more with my life if I could have used all that time and effort for working, instead of justifying my existence.”

Shima Barakat

Bias, sexism and discrimination

At their worst, gender assumptions manifest themselves as overt sexism or discrimination. Much of what we heard about was at the ‘lower’ level of unconscious bias, but this still affected the weight given to women’s opinions, the opportunities open to them and beliefs about their capabilities. There were, however, specific examples of sexism, sexual harassment and explicit discrimination. These serve as a warning about the importance of robust organisational policies and procedures to identify and tackle sexism and discrimination when it occurs. Just as importantly, these examples point to the value of developing leaders and managers who won’t tolerate such behaviours and who help to create an inclusive culture where it becomes increasingly unlikely that unreconstructed attitudes have any place.

“The academy is very male dominated and the more senior I have become, the more clearly I have understood how deeply gendered it is.”

Sarah Franklin

The practical impact of gender assumptions in a work environment

“I am well aware that serious talent is being wasted in Cambridge and elsewhere by systems that have allowed 50 per cent of the talent pool to occupy fewer than 15 per cent of the senior positions.”

Theresa Marteau

The attitudes described in the paragraphs above were seen to play out in a range of practical ways. They had an effect on who was encouraged to go for promotions, who was invited to apply for jobs, who got asked to do administrative tasks and how important information was used and exchanged between members of what were still often seen to be ‘boys’ clubs’. Given that men still hold the majority of leadership positions in the majority of organisations, they exercise significant sway over the decisions and views that shape their workplaces. It is human nature to be less aware of the biases that don’t personally affect us, or at least not negatively, so it requires specific effort to step back and notice where they may be present. All notions of merit are subjective, and organisations need to question how that subjectivity potentially affects who is seen as successful. A more inclusive definition of success starts to reshape workplaces by enabling them to identify and then reward a broader range of contributions from a more diverse group of individuals.

“As a lecturer and beyond, I have found heads of department will expect more teaching from me than from a man, and expect me to do more committee service and jobs like running courses.”

Anon

These observations emphasise the importance of recognising that gender issues are organisational issues. Recruitment, promotion and performance are all leadership concerns and require leadership attention. The patterns described here are also by no means exclusive to Cambridge, which as an institution reflects the society it is part of. Cambridge cannot ‘solve’ wider gender issues, but it can become increasingly aware of them, take steps to address inequality within the University and also exercise its influence to stimulate debate beyond the University.