The new president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, has spoken in support of the “attractive and encouraging” role of all-female colleges in a world where women are “still not equal”.
Dame Barbara Stocking will in July become the fifth president of the college founded as New Hall in 1954, and will be the first to be an alumna. She knew from her teenage years, she said, that she wanted to work in international development and gave Cambridge and the college “quite a lot” of the credit for launching her on a career that eventually led to the position of chief executive of Oxfam GB.
She studied natural sciences, shifting from physics and chemistry towards pharmacology, and continued with a master’s in physiology at the University of Wisconsin. When she discovered “she didn’t really fit in laboratories”, she shifted direction into healthcare research and management, including a period as regional director of the Anglia and Oxford region of the NHS. There she shared responsibility for medical education in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge with the institutions’ vice-chancellors.
Grateful for the analytical skills her science degree gave her, Dame Barbara said that she left Cambridge with “no thought that there was discrimination against women in the world” and it was only afterwards that she encountered “all the glass ceiling stuff”.
Referring to research indicating that “if you put 10 people in a room, the men will always speak for longer than the women”, Dame Barbara recalled many meetings where her contributions “somehow got lost in the conversation of men”.
She added: “It’s remarkable that, given I’ve been pretty near the top of the health service and run a large international organisation, you still find yourself in those sorts of settings.”
Dame Barbara said she was “very clear that women are still not equal in the world. When I talk about girls going into science, there is still [an assumption] they can’t quite do it. Despite a general upward trend, you make some progress, but things slip back again quite easily.”
Although she said she did not claim that all-women colleges were “the model for all time and everybody”, Dame Barbara described studying at New Hall as a “very positive” experience for her and saw a distinctive role for the institution.
“You get the same Cambridge education as everybody else but also a real focus on women’s development,” she said. “If you understand what is happening to women in the world, you might find that particularly attractive and encouraging - that’s what we have to sell.”