Woman of substance

December 6, 2002

Alison Richard's climb to the top of academia is truly inspirational, writes Susan Bassnett

Alison Richard's nomination as vice-chancellor of Cambridge University is a big step forward for the academic community at large. The number of women in senior positions in UK universities is paltry, even though women have become vice-chancellors of Bath University and the Open University in the past 12 months.

UK statistics on equal opportunities leave much to be desired: only last week figures showed that the earnings of women in the City were half those of their male counterparts. The number of women professors in fields dominated by female undergraduates remains disturbingly low, an indication of the extent to which women drop off the ladder as they climb upwards.

Hypotheses about why women do not fulfil their promise as they rise up the career ladder abound. We know the difficulties that can result from time taken out to raise children. We know that women, who can be too eager to please, take on more humble, less visible but very onerous administrative tasks in their departments. And we know that in doing these things they can prejudice their promotion chances.

Other problems are less well known. Many women find themselves having to care for elderly relatives at exactly the point in their lives when they might consider going for a senior position - the burden can be as heavy as that of looking after small children.

Then there is university culture. Back in the old days, C. P. Snow wrote about the spite and backbiting in university corridors, where middle-aged men driven by envy and frustration try to hold back anyone with any hint of promise. It isn't easy fighting that kind of attitude, and a woman whose tactics are too overt risks being labelled a hysteric who does not know how to play the game.

And then there is the growing problem of market forces becoming entrenched in university culture, which means that there are other kinds of battles to fight: politicians who waver and change their minds, funding crises, an increasingly intrusive (and ill-informed) government, shifts in public opinion and rival institutions that stop at nothing to manipulate statistics in their favour. Small wonder that many women, particularly if they have battles with teenagers at home and the endless grind of the supermarket run and the lavatory cleaning to do, decide that enough is enough and opt out of the power race. Why go to work to engage in confrontation when you are doing your best to avoid such confrontation everywhere else in your life?

That is why it is so inspirational to see women such as Richard not only hanging in there but rising to the very top. For what all the debates about women in the workplace acknowledge is that the path to success is illuminated by genuine role models, not the odd token "man" who plays the system her own way for her own ends. Ultimately, the best message that young aspirational women can receive is that there are women who have managed to overcome the difficulties that culture strews in their path. Richard is clearly a woman who knows how to fight, but she is also one who understands the broader picture. And she is not driven by that spur that pricks so many of our senior management male figures - the chance of a knighthood or a place in the House of Lords.

Richard has a supportive husband - and it is interesting to note how many times women in positions of power recognise the value of the support they have received along the way, thereby reinforcing the collectivist ethos. Richard has done a great deal at Yale University, and her record on equal opportunities is impressive. I give the last word to my daughter, whose comment on the social skills of her college master four years ago was unprintable. "Wow, Mum," she said, "that's fantastic news. I really, really hope she changes things."

Alison Richard, I and hundreds of other academic women like me raise a glass in your support. We need more role models like you.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.

Feature, page 20

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