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Call For Changes In 'Deep-Seated' Culture Of Workplace

Posted on March 7, 2014 at 5:30 AM

'Above all, women want to have their voices heard, to be respected and to progress based on merit...it's disconcerting to learn that the most difficult career challenge they have faced is the non-supportive culture of the workplace.'

Who is speaking above? Dame Barbara Stocking DBE, president of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, ex-CEO of Oxfam GB. Not a lightweight, you could say. (And for some of us, Murray Edwards still most easily recognised by its old name of New Hall).

Just under 1000 women - college alumnae - took part in research which is published today to mark the College's 60th anniversary year. On this 'non-supportive' workplace culture - "Shockingly, this is just as true for our younger alumnae of women aged 20-29, as for our older age group" says Ms Stocking.

Why am I not surprised ? Because it is clear now - after three years of debating diversity, that Britain has a problem - and it isn't childcare, or the lack of flexible working or that dreaded quest for 'work/life balance.' It's a culture problem. As such, it is taboo to discuss it. We are far more comfortable talking about 'unconscious bias' - a very real thing and worth training everyone in - but also potentially an easy way out of facing some hard truths. Change is resisted because it is change - it is the 'it has worked well for over 100 years, why change it' response.

The fact that this research comes out of one of our oldest, most esteemed universities is excellent news.

Ms Stocking is calling for "a substantial transformation in the culture of the workplace." She says: "it is not just that progress is based on many subtle factors other than merit; it is also that the skills that these highly capable and well-educated women bring are often not recognised. Unless these deep-seated cultures are changed, no matter how hard a college like Murray Edwards tries, it will still be difficult for our women to have the impact they aspire to in the world."(my emphasis).

Ms Stocking was present at a private lunch I attended in Cambridge earlier this week hosted by Professor Jeremy Sanders, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Institutional Affairs at the university to celebrate the launch of the book The Meaning of Success: Insights From Women At Cambridge. More on that in my blog at Forbes. 

It concludes that "the University of Cambridge, and the higher education sector more generally, would benefit from a wider, more inclusive definition of success; one that benefited women as much as it did men.' 

Judging by the quality of the conversation around the table in a Cambridge sparkling with sunshine, it is worth paying attention to this debate. It is not revolution - or perhaps it is, because of where it is coming from.

The historic tension between independent colleges and the broader university is very real, even today. In fact, it may well be heightened by the growing need for the colleges to justify themselves when a diminishing amount of university coffers are boosted by providing undergraduate degrees.

Competition between colleges, and tension between college and university initiatives means that it can be hard to get everyone to sing from the same score at the same time. So it is very good to see two prongs of attack within the same space - fighting for gender equality and progress across business and society. And all on the eve of International Women's Day.

Happy #IWD2014 - with a cartoon for food for thought. 

Report from Murray Edwards Women Today, Women Tomorrow available here

Categories: Women, Behaviour, Scrutiny