Towards a gender-balanced community

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

Delve into the historic records of any public institution and you’re likely to find a familiar pattern of gender inequality. Thankfully, recent trends show an encouraging move towards greater inclusivity.

While a great deal of work still remains to be done, and indeed underpins our commitment to redressing the balance across the University and the HE sector, it’s illuminating to look back so that in planning for the future, we’re both inspired and motivated to do better.

Professor Judith Squires holding a photo of Winifred Shapland – the first female Registrar of any British university.

You may have seen our recent Vote 100 campaign in which we honoured the lives of notable female figures who not only shaped the history of the University, but of the world. If you missed it, I invite you to take a look at this remarkable and long overdue celebration of activists, pioneers and researchers without whom, society would undoubtedly be lacking.

It’s a legacy that we’re determinedly building upon. In fact, Bristol has strong roots from which to grow – we were the first higher education institute in England to admit women on an equal basis to men and we’re one of the founder members of the Royal Society Athena SWAN Charter, which recognises the sector’s commitment to advancing and promoting women’s careers.

Senior female leaders gather to mark International Women’s Day 2019

I’m proud to be able to say that I am among a growing number of female appointees at the University of Bristol. Today, we make up over half (55%) of the University’s total workforce and women account for a third of the senior team.

This is testament to the work we’ve been doing to build a diverse and inclusive environment in which talented individuals from all backgrounds, heritages and gender are supported and promoted to thrive.

This week, as part of the celebrations for International Women’s Day, I attended the second launch event of our Women’s Mentoring Network through which we plan to extend the influence of our female workforce.

It’s heartening that more than 250 female members of staff have already signed up to be part of the Network. They will be instrumental to shaping the future of the project, which in the spirit of equal opportunity, we intend to open to men as well. In these early stages though, our focus is on developing a strong platform where individual peer support and group mentoring can support people’s ambitions and ensure that as a University, we’re providing the right opportunities.

Staff at the University gather with Registrar Lucinda Parr for International Women’s Day 2019

That means ensuring that everyone, of all backgrounds, has access to those opportunities, which is why we’re also piloting a Bristol version of the Aurora leadership development programme. Run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the programme is open to all people who identify as a woman, and aims to enable more women to develop the skills they need to climb the proverbial ladder and so address the underrepresentation of women at senior levels in the HE sector.

I’m glad to say that the programme has attracted so much attention that we’ve decided to fund a parallel scheme to ensure that no-one misses out. Our Female Leadership Initiative serves the same purpose as the Aurora programme – and adds to the growing list of initiatives through which we’re actively driving for gender balance in the sector and across the world.

It’s initiatives like these that nurture talent and a strong sense of community, which demonstrate how much the momentum is building to change the professional landscape for the better.

Thanks to a strong legacy and the growing pool of talented and ambitious people in our midst, we’re making huge strides towards becoming a more gender balanced institution. By working together, and by adding our voice to those of millions of others around the world as part of International Women’s Day, we’ve every reason to believe that we can go even further.

The Women Who Built Bristol (University)

Guest blog by Jane Duffus (MA 2008), author of The Women Who Built Bristol, for International Women’s Day 2019

Jane Duffus. Credit Jon Craig Photos

When asked to share some stories of amazing university women who make up some of the 250 entries in my book The Women Who Built Bristol, I was spoiled for choice. Which is a great problem to have. So rather than share some of the better known stories (of women such as Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, registrar Winifred Shapland, or the university’s first female chair Helen Wodehouse), I’ve picked some women who are maybe a little more obscure… although no less magnificent.

Alongside Marian Pease and Emily Pakeman, Amy Bell was one of the first three women to earn a scholarship to the then-new University College, Bristol in 1876. Thanks to her university education, Amy went on to become a stockbroker. And while her sex made it impossible for her to work inside the London Stock Exchange, Amy set up an office close by and operated successfully from there.

Alongside Amy, was 17-year-old Marian Pease who, in the spring of 1876 had been due to sit the London University Women’s entrance exams… but an attack of scarlet fever got in the way. In compensation, her parents allowed her to apply for one of the three scholarships to Bristol. Describing her commute to the university, Marian wrote: “I left home a few minutes after eight o’clock carrying my heavy bag of books – there were no lockers there – walked across Durdham Down, met Amy Bell who came in a cab from Stoke Bishop and then we took the horse tram from the bottom of Blackboy Hill to the top of Park Street … The journey had its difficulties on dark, wet and windy winter mornings and afternoons.”

Marian later became Mistress of Method at the Day Training College on Berkeley Square. She took a keen interest in the girls she tutored and one wrote of her: “She was to us a new kind of person. Everything seemed turned upside-down as there unfolded before our astonished eyes a new and larger world of mind and spirit than any we could have imagined.”

Mary Paley Marshall. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Marshall Librarian.

Marian was inspired by Mary Paley Marshall, who was the first female lecturer at the University of Bristol in 1878 and co-founded the economics department with her fiancé Alfred Marshall; the progressive couple agreed to remove the word “obey” from their marriage vows to show their equality. Mary had already proved herself academically by being one of the first five students to study at the all-female Newnham College at Cambridge… although being a woman she was unable to graduate. However, this didn’t stop Newnham from later enlisting Mary as its first-ever female lecturer.

The Fry family were big players in Bristol owing to their successful chocolate factories, and Norah Fry was born into this dynasty. She went on to be one of the first female Cambridge scholars to graduate with the equivalent of a double first, and would become a founder member of the University of Bristol’s Council in 1909. However, Norah used her combined powers of wealth and education for good, and became a lifelong campaigner for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. The Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Bristol was established in 1988.

For more than 40 years, Dr Vicky Tryon cycled around Bristol doing her rounds. Vicky had been born in Bristol and attended the University of Bristol, where she became Woman President of the Union in 1919. However, she was far from a demure character. This is one description of a degree ceremony Vicky attended: “Singing and shouting interrupted the proceedings and on one occasion a hen was let loose to fly over the heads of the assembled students and dignitaries.”

Like other women who were attempting to forge careers in medicine in the early 1920s, Vicky was met with misogyny upon graduation. After applying for the post of House Surgeon at the General Hospital, Vicky was only offered the job if she promised to call one of the male doctors if there was any difficulty. It took 24 hours of hand-wringing before she reluctantly agreed. However, Vicky was to prove herself so capable and skilled in the role that the hospital then made a point of only appointing women to that position in the future.

You can buy The Women Who Built Bristol on Jane’s website. Volume two will be published in October 2019.

What does it mean to be a woman today?


Today’s guest blog is by students May Mundt-Leach and Erandi Barrera Moreno, founders of the newly formed Women Talk Back! group.

Every week on a Sunday evening, the Multifaith Chaplaincy is filled with women from across Bristol. The atmosphere is light-hearted but quietly expectant as we close the door and settle down together with a cup of tea and a piece (or several…) of homemade cake.

Women Talk Back! was inspired by bell hooks’ Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black and is a new and exciting space for women at the University of Bristol to talk about our lives and experiences in a relaxed and confidential setting. We may come from different courses, countries and backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common – the desire to discuss what it means to be a woman today. We use the long-standing, grassroots method of feminist ‘consciousness-raising’ to do so.

A central part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain and the US in the 1970s and 80s, consciousness-raising (‘C-R’) attempts to bridge the gap between what we think and what we say. Through C-R, women learn that problems we thought were individual to us are, in fact, widespread political problems which emerge from structural forms of oppression. We realise that systems of power are present in our daily lives and majorly influence how we interact with both others and ourselves.

At Women Talk Back!, we choose a different topic to discuss every week. All women are free to attend as many or as few meetings as they like, with newcomers always welcome. So far, we have explored topics ranging from how it felt to grow up as female, to our feelings about motherhood, to cultural and social expectations that are placed on us around food and eating – all in the first three meetings!

Our programme for this term aims to leave no stone unturned. Pornography, race, sexuality, and body hair are all issues we will be discussing in the near future. We encourage women to suggest topics for us to discuss – and nothing will be deemed too trivial, obscure or off-limits.

The stigma of female body hair, for example, is something that pervades society and heavily influences women’s, particularly young women’s, relationships with our bodies. We’d like to ask why this is. Why do some women face harsher penalisations for their body hair than others? Whose interests does hair removal serve? Can our decision to remove our body hair (if we do) be simply reduced down to ‘choice’, or is the reality more complicated?

Women coming together with other women is a political act. Reserving space for ourselves as women, in light of our similarities and differences, is a political act. Looking each other in the eye and seeing not only her, but also an image of ourselves reflected back at us, can be simultaneously ground-breaking, frightening and exhilarating.  María Lugones, Argentinian philosopher, organiser and educator, describes how “by travelling to [another woman’s] ‘world’ we can understand what it is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes”.

It is only through facing the true nature of the systems of which we are embedded in, that women can begin to piece together what is happening to us. And it is only through recognising the authenticity of our own, discrete experiences that we can begin freeingourselves from such systems. We started Women Talk Back! with one single aim – to provide a space where every woman feels she can speak her truth, and in doing so, reflect on not only her own life but the lives of all other women around her.

So come and join us – and if nothing else, we have cake!

Join the Women Talk Back! group via the Bristol SU website, or follow it on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with meetings, which are held every Sunday at 7pm in the Multifaith Chaplaincy.