Women’s advocate Dame Barbara Stocking on girls and smashing those glass ceilings

“So there’s a man in a car with his son and they’re in an accident. The father is dead on arrival at the nearest hospital. The surgeon claims inability to operate on the boy as it turns out he is the surgeon’s son. How can this be?’

I’m chatting with UK-based academic and women’s issues advocate Dame Barbara Stocking DBE, who  is on a flying visit to Hong Kong to talk about her latest research paper, Collaborating With Men. My mind is racing, an answer is obviously expected, but I can’t quite figure out what it is – didn’t she say the boy’s father was dead?

“Well the surgeon is the boy’s mother,” she concludes.

Of course, the surgeon is a woman. I’m left groaning, consoled only by the fact that women far greater than I have apparently also been caught out.

Subconscious gender bias, it turns out, can happen to anyone.

Dame Stocking is a former graduate of the all-women’s Cambridge University college she now presides over as president, today known as Murray Edwards College but originally New Hall – founded over 60 years ago to address the issue of Cambridge University once having the lowest proportion of women undergraduates of any university in the UK.

She was the first in her family to go on to tertiary education, and as a student she remembers being overwhelmed by the “young men from public (fee-paying) schools, where they had received much better teaching and were pretty confident about it.” She says at the time she expected New Hall to eventually become mixed, but now, 40 years on, agrees a single-sex environment is still required.

“All the research points to girls doing better when they are separated from boys, we’re talking in the teenage years. Not only do they end up taking a wider range of subjects, particularly science and maths, they also have the opportunity to develop their own thinking and opinions. Boys take up a lot of air time. Girls tend to only speak up if they know the answer. They don’t like to risk getting things wrong. Generally, boys don’t mind as much. And when you move into the workplace, the same occurs. In meetings women pipe up for just a third of the time.”

She says that although Murray Edwards is all-female, most of the working day is spent with men as students go about their practical assignments. It’s when they come together for tutorials that the college is able to tailor for an all-female class.

“And when we spoke to teachers at school level, there was a belief that the optimum environment would be a co-ed school with single-sex streaming. We had a conference about this a couple of years ago, and we found that while girls in private single-sex schools were taking a wide range of subjects, in half of all UK state schools not one girls was studying physics.”

Stocking herself graduated with a degree in pharmacology. “I was ‘good’ at science, and girls who are ‘good’ at science are told to pursue it, as if there’s no room for anyone else to get better at a subject,” she says. She subsequently began her career at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. In 1979 she moved to the World Health Organisation in West Africa, and then back to the UK, becoming a regional director for the UK’s National Health Service and responsible for the overall management of healthcare for 8.5 million people. She was awarded a CBE for her achievements in 2000.

In 2001 she took over at Oxfam GB as chief executive officer and during her 12-year tenure revenues rose from GB187 million to GB385 million. In 2008 she was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). In 2013 she was elected as the fifth president of Murray Edwards College.

So why aren’t more girls taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects today. “There’s a lot of reasons. I think the way these subjects are being sold to students has a lot to do with it. Engineering for example, is often typecast as being all about mucky rags and messing around with oil and engines. But in fact that is just one small part of it. Most engineering involves graphic design and computer simulation – something that girls enjoy and are good at. But they’re just not being shown this side of it. The whole thing needs revamping.”

Despite taking science at university, Stocking says her biggest driver is international development. It was her work for Oxfam that also furthered her passion for women’s issues. She says she encountered massive gender imbalances in the developing world. “From women in countries like Afghanistan and The Yemen where they have absolutely no control over their own bodies, to women in conflict zones where rape is rampant, and in Africa where despite women doing all of the farming, the extension services and subsidies are handed out to men. And then moving into the developed world where we’ve laid the groundwork and the legislation, but everything has stalled. There are all these women at university, but you have to ask, how are they actually going to fare in the world of work? Women are still not hitting those top positions.”

The stumbling block of course is often the arrival of children and the sharing of parental responsibilities. Stocking’s own husband, a medical doctor, initially took time out when their own children were born.

“Of course we both wanted to raise our children, to be with them. This role is a shared role, both parents should be equally responsible,” she says. “In a civilised society we know that we want children, and we want those children to be properly raised. Shared parental leave is so important. It’s been proved that if fathers play an integral role in raising their children from an early age, they will take more responsibility for them throughout their development. But although men are doing more these days, it’s still seen as the woman’s responsibility to pick up the slack – if the child is ill and needs a day off school, or needs taking to the doctor and so forth. Businesses have become more flexible, but flexible in that it’s always the woman bending over backwards. There is no reason both men and women can’t take this time off.

“Interestingly when we were researching Collaborating With Men, and we were by no means dealing with misogynists, none of the men could see why women were feeling uncomfortable in the workplace. From subtle put-downs in meetings, to constantly being interrupted, being sidelined from networking opportunities or having a ‘male spin’ put on their ideas, they couldn’t see how women were being worn down by a lack of understanding about these behaviours. And this was ultimately affecting their ability to deliver.”

The researchers received a variety of revealing comments from male employees when they asked if they recognised gender problems at work. “I have seen women in meetings make comments or suggestions in meetings and them being glossed over until a man says exactly the same thing and then everyone goes, “oh yes, good idea,”” admitted one respondent.

“Men get away with being angry,” said another. “Like, the boss had a right go today because someone wasn’t performing. If a woman does that people says she’s having a hissy fit of it’s her time of the month.”

“There is so much for us still to work on,” says Stocking. “Every generation things they are going to crack that glass ceiling, but so far nobody has.”

An interesting concept introduced by Collaborating With Men is reverse mentoring, where young women mentor older, more senior, men. Stocking admits it tends to be the youngest women in the workplace who are more willing to take on this role – “they haven’t had the put-downs that older women have, they’re still fresh and ready to take on the world” – although it does take strength of character to tell senior management where they’re going wrong.

“It’s revealing when we say to men, right, you’ve had a look at the research, you’ve listened to the talk, now where exactly are you going to make the changes? There’s a bit of bluster. But with strong leadership, culture change can happen. Interestingly daughters are making a big impact – that light-bulb moment when men realise the child they have raised is going to fall victim to these biases.”