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Churchill went coeducational in 1972 — the first college to vote to admit women in Cambridge, and we've never looked back since. As testament to that pioneering spirit and to celebrate International Women's Day we have asked four members from across our community to reflect on different ways in which gender and the College go hand in hand.
It is well known around Cambridge, and the subject of regular jokes amongst students, that Churchill College is a somewhat male-dominated environment, with, on average, about 30% of undergraduates being women. What it less well-known is that the College was also the first all-male Cambridge college to become co-educational, and that although women may be a minority in College today, they are very much an essential, and increasingly visible, part of college life. Whether it is through sports teams at college and university level, on student bodies such as the JCR Committee and our new Equalities & Opportunities Committee, through initiatives by our Feminist Society such as a recent exhibition on ‘Responses to Feminism’ in the College’s Jock Colville Hall, or in discussions and projects involving students and all levels of college administration on topics such as female visibility or the gender attainment gap, women are very much central agents in the College’s move ‘forward’, embraced in its motto.
Throughout a year as JCR women’s officer, I was constantly impressed by how accessible our College’s Master, Senior Tutor, fellows and College staff proved to be, and by their constant willingness to facilitate student-led initiatives on gender equality – and other aspects of equality and diversity. As a result of dialogue between students and administration, the College is currently undertaking a series of projects to encourage more women to apply to College, including a video project, and research on women in science and on the lives of women within College since it became co-educational, in collaboration with the Archives Centre. A more recent forum brought together students and fellows to discuss steps that could be taken within College to address the gender attainment gap still evident in most undergraduate degrees around the University. Where work remains to be done, the new Equalities & Opportunities Committee, voted in by students in recent elections, will hopefully be able to continue the move ‘forward’ by continuing to collaborate with college on questions of diversity and equality – including, but not restricted to, questions of gender equality and overlapping components. Forward, towards better representation, more diversity, more equality, but also towards a new understanding of representation that takes advantage of the College community’s existing diversity and openness to shy away from communitarianism and embrace instead the values of communication and collaboration – a step visible both in the extent to which all parts of the student body, independently of gender, origins, or background, take part in initiatives related to equality and diversity, and in our new student body structure.
As an astrophysicist and first year physics lecturer in Cambridge I am interested in understanding how gender might affect our approach to solving physics problems. At this point I do feel that we should be cautious in generalising, as a wise person once said to me, “there is greater diversity within genders than there is between them.” However, understanding what it means to be a good problem solver and how we may support students in transitioning from school study to university are excellent questions to be asking — after all the UK and World economies rely on physicists and good problem solvers and we need more. Gender and diversity research performed by the Institute of Physics uncovered that young women think that to do physics you have to have talent — hard work just isn’t enough. I, like many others, strongly believe the absolutely opposite — it is useful to have some physical intuition and to have explored and experimented with the real world — but this is very definitely not a requirement and certainly not enough. Just like music and running a marathon, physics and maths takes practice and those that practice can seriously outperform those that have intuition but never apply it.
So why do so many not give Physics and Maths a chance? So often I hear the reply “it’s too hard” or “I just don’t get it” — which sadly often means I don’t want to try. I think playing an instrument is pretty hard but lots of people do it and some just for fun! Somehow for physics and maths the fear of failure is so much greater and the determination to succeed just doesn’t exist in the same way. Admitting that you don’t understand something takes a great deal of confidence and is often seen as a weakness, despite actually being the way to build great strength. I think that (on average) we women are more self-conscious than men (on average) and really take to heart what other people think. This makes us more concerned that we may fail and so we stick with what we know we can do.
We MUST turn this idea of failure on its head — making mistakes is how we learn and if we never make any then we never learn anything or improve. We could stick to playing Twinkle twinkle little star on the trumpet but this would get very boring very fast (for those playing and those listening!). Achievement and satisfaction come from taking a chance, giving things a go and, after all, what’s the worst that can happen? We get it wrong and we have to try again — if when we were learning to walk we stopped trying the first time we fell down we would all be in a very different place. So, ladies and gentlemen, I challenge you on this International Women's Day to give physics a chance — its reputation is unjust and with practice (isaacphysics.org) you will be amazed what you can discover. If you do come to Churchill College, we will help you build upon your strengths, ensure that you feel you 'belong' and most importantly fulfil your potential.
I study human gender development. I want to know how and why boys and girls, and men and women, differ psychologically and behaviourally.
In addition to being a Fellow at Churchill College, I am a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, where I direct the Gender Development Research Centre (GDRC). At the GDRC, we study gender-related behaviour in typically-developing people, as well as in people who have intersex conditions (sometimes called Disorders of Sex Development (DSD)). We study outcomes including gender identity, sexual orientation, physical aggression, occupational and leisure interests, and vulnerability to psychological disorders. Our goal is to optimise life paths for both typically-developing people and people with DSD.
Our theoretical perspective is that of a developmental system. This means that we look at a broad range of factors that influence gender development, and that we are interested in how they interact to influence stability or change over time. This perspective is a step forward from arguments about nature versus nurture, and instead focuses on how to make change or enhance stability in gender-related psychological or behavioural characteristics. The work is broad and it involves interaction with specialists in paediatrics, endocrinology, genetics, neuroimaging, and statistics.
I arrived in Churchill in 1972, the first year the College admitted female undergraduates. I was a twenty-four-year-old glad to get her first post, perhaps a bit unconfident because of that and also because I was one of only three women Fellows. The number stayed around three for years. Sometimes it would rise to four, then drop to three again as one of us left for another post. Some thought that Churchill, after its pioneering vote to go mixed, was resting on its laurels. But the women were welcomed, not just tolerated as they would eventually be in some other reluctant colleges. And though we knew that a few senior Fellows had voted against co-education, we also knew that the vast majority of colleagues in this young college, with its motto “Forward”, had supported the move. There was, inevitably, a bit of sexism and inappropriate behaviour, and when in 1974-75 “The Cambridge Rapist”, as he was called, was at large, one of the Fellows who had done the most to further the cause of women’s admission joked at High Table: “You know why rape is impossible? Because a woman with her skirt up can run faster than a man with his trousers down.” This was a rare lapse, however.
For whatever reason, we women never said a word at Governing Body meetings. When, eventually, we began to pluck up courage and ventured an opinion or two, other Fellows referring back to our remarks tended not to name us. It wasn’t “As Dr Smith said…”, but “As someone said…”. That changed with the arrival in the mid-80s of a few more outspoken women. In about 1990, the then President of the SCR urged all the Fellows to come along to a special dinner of Normandy cuisine, extolling this cuisine on the grounds that it had been compared to an attractively plump woman. One of the female Fellows started booing and the rest of us joined in, which wouldn’t have happened a decade earlier.
I was the first woman Fellow to have a baby (1980). During my pregnancy, the Senior Tutor of the time, Colin Campbell, said over lunch one day, in a kind tone, “Alison, if there’s anything we can do to help, let us know.” I thought he was expressing disbelief that I could cope, and simply replied “Thank you – it’ll be fine.” In fact, I soon found balancing childcare, teaching and research pretty stressful, but felt I couldn’t admit it. The inhibition wasn’t all in my mind. I was invited to a tutor’s student party when my son was about six months old. I couldn’t find a babysitter and brought him along. The (male) tutor throwing the party didn’t say a word, just glared at me. I never again brought him in (nor my daughter when she came along). But a few years later one of the Economics Fellows, Margaret Bray, did appear at lunch with her baby, and I inwardly applauded – another barrier had been breached.
The decision of Churchill to admit women was even more momentous than I realised at the time. It gave a massive impetus to the ideal of egalitarian admissions in Cambridge, and spearheaded a process that would eventually improve standards across the board. We no longer have that long tail of not-so-clever men who once populated Oxbridge as of right, while many bright pupils at my own girls’ school didn’t even think of applying because, before 1972, the chances of getting in were so slim.
As part of International Women’s Day celebrations this year the JCR and the Archives Centre are holding a special reception to celebrate the contribution of women to history of the College.