International Women’s Day 2023: interview with Bristol Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch

Prof Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol
Prof Evelyn Welch

To mark International Women’s Day 2023, the University’s first female Vice-Chancellor Professor Evelyn Welch discusses her own career journey, women who have inspired her, and how we can embrace equity and inclusion as a University.  She’s interviewed by Deepshikha Sharma, Co-Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation (DREI).


Evelyn, your appointment to the University of Bristol is a testament that as much as STEM opens a world of opportunities for careers, so does Arts. Simultaneously, it also inspires and guides everyone including the parents and their children, particularly female gender about career choices outside of STEM. Please could you shed a little light on your journey? 

Thank you, and thank you for doing this. It is very important that we celebrate International Women’s Day, recognising that every day, not just one day, belongs to women.  

How do the choices we make – inside or outside STEM – impact on our career choices? Well, I am American in origin and my family were great believers that education was the route to long-term success, whatever you studied. My grandfather was a postman in Galveston Texas and my parents met at Harvard, and I went to Harvard as well. High-quality institutions open doors to many possibilities and opportunities. American universities ask you to take a range of courses in your first year. I went to university expecting to study pre-Med. I expected to study the sciences and expected to have a professional career which was a secure route to employment. Once there, however, I got hooked by the humanities.

This wouldn’t have been possible in the UK which I regret.  You don’t really know necessarily what your passion is when you are 17 or 18. If you close things down too early you miss out on the opportunity to be investigative, curious and explorative. I ended up studying Renaissance History and Literature (not Chemistry) and eventually completed my PhD in the same area at the University of London.  That wouldn’t have been possible if I had been forced to choose between disciplines when I was much younger.  

Is there a woman who has influenced your career path and how? 

A whole range of women have influenced me, from my grandmother to my mother. In my professional career, Professor Lisa Jardine, an extraordinary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, was one of my most important mentors. She was very supportive of female early career academics. She helped me in so many ways. For example, if she couldn’t make a media appearance, conferences or other opportunities, she would pass them onto me and to other women. She used her high profile to help share the ladder rather than pulling the ladder up behind her. Sadly, she passed away of cancer, but not a week goes by without my missing her or thinking of how much she would have enjoyed seeing so many women now in positions where we too can make a difference in academia. 

What career advice have you received that has been particularly valuable to you? 

Lisa gave me two pieces of very practical advice. One was never to arrive at an interview with a bag because you end up looking for a place to put it down as you arrive and settle in your chair. Leave everything behind and walk in with a few notes so you can look everyone in the eye and make that crucial first impression. Secondly, she was often the only woman in the room, before any meeting started, so she would say something to ensure people heard her voice, whether this was asking for a glass of water or to open a window. It ensures people become accustomed to a different tone of voice and your presence. It’s rare now to be the only woman in a room but sometimes it is the simplest things that make a difference! 

What advice would you give to other women seeking to climb the leadership ladder? 

I would offer two or three pieces of basic advice. One is to be a leader wherever you are. Despite the hierarchy of university structure, you can make a positive impact wherever you are. There are some important change-makers who do not have formal leadership positions but are immensely influential. But if you do want to get into formal leadership, learn how to do it properly. Leadership comes in many forms and it is not innate. Learn project management, time management, communication, and presentation skills. The University of Bristol offers fantastic programmes in leadership and I would commend them to anyone who wants to lead or manage at any level. 

Finally,  and a bit more controversial – people talk a lot about work life balance and how to say no. This is very important, but you also have to be open to say yes and, just sometimes, to push yourself to take on that little bit more in order to stretch your skills, abilities and confidence. But if you volunteer for a new task, it is only worth doing once or perhaps twice. If you are asked to do it for a third time, pass the opportunity to learn a new skill onto somebody else. 

This International Women’s Day theme is ‘Embrace equity’. We have come far from the traditional outlook towards women but perceptions of women at work and some business practices make it difficult for women to participate and achieve true inclusion and success.  For example, late evening wine and dine networking events automatically preclude women in the workplace because of parental care, childcare etc. How do you think we can embrace equity and inclusion within the University? 

The key to embracing equity and inclusion is both an appreciation of the benefits of diversity and being thoughtful about the multiplicity of needs everyone has at work and at home. Childcare is predominantly done by women, but not always. Our arrangements for parental and adoption leave need to be as generous as those for maternity leave. It is important to have a range of ways and times of the day and week for social occasions so that we don’t inadvertently exclude anyone from a sense of belonging. It is certainly harder for managers to organise multiple events but it is important to ensure everyone has a voice and feels a part of the community and their contributions are recognised.

I hold a monthly VC surgery; people come and tell me about the most interesting things about their lives at Bristol. One individual described their role, noting that while they made an important contribution to the academic community, they were never invited to Faculty parties or events. This was quickly fixed but it was important to recognise that we may accidentally, rather than deliberately, exclude some colleagues.  

Women in senior and leadership positions is a recent phenomenon, largely viewed as for the few, not the many. Whilst we certainly have made progress, what actions can we take to make senior roles more inclusive? 

Things have really changed since I started in Higher Education. Today just over 25% of the top 200 global institutions listed in the Times Higher are led by women. From next Autumn, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Nottingham, Manchester and Cardiff will all be led by women. But it is important to note that in the United Kingdom we are all white women. Harvard is now led by a Black woman and that gives me great hope that we will not just see greater strides in gender diversity in my lifetime but also in terms of race and ethnicity. We need to use the determination that we are putting into achieving gender equity to ensure that we are similarly supportive of colleagues from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds going forward.    

Deepshikha Sharma
Deepshikha Sharma

A massive thanks to our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch, for this interview. Above all, my takeaway from this interview is that Evelyn embodies the ethos of university and I hope it leaves everyone as it has left me: inspired, refreshed and on a lookout for our own Lisa! She is the epitome of an empowered woman who is dedicated to empowering others, and she does so with grace, elegance and intelligence. We cannot wait to see the new developments we achieve together and under her new leadership. 

By Deepshikha Sharma, Co-Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation (DREI).

International Women’s Day – #BreakTheBias – Zawadi’s Story

As part of International Women’s Day 2022, we are sharing stories of how our colleagues and students have been able to help break gender bias. In this blog, Charity Zawadi Mwambeyu, an undergraduate Civil Engineering student, explains how she is helping to break the gender bias in economics. 

By Charity Zawadi Mwambeyu



1. How do you believe you have helped to break bias either during your education or extra-curricular employment? Please provide as much detail as you feel comfortable sharing.

Last academic year, I was able to contribute to a restructuring of one of my units to include a segment about racism. After questioning the background and perspective of the teaching material in synchronous lectures, I was invited to help devise questions for an interview with the Mayor of Bristol around architecture and racism following the inaugural Race and Housing conference. The impact of this formative experience was twofold. Firstly, I realised the outcomes of challenging myself and others beyond our comfort zone far surpassed my previous horizons. I was later invited to participate in the interview which inspired in me the confidence to be more assertive. Second, this interview was recorded and will form part of the unit for upcoming years. I believe by challenging the western perspective of our approach to teaching design and architecture, I was able to break the bias- creating space at the table for a diversity of viewpoints. I hope that students taking this unit in future are more comfortable leaning into their differences to generate divergent design solutions.


2. What do you hope for the future?

In a mentoring session with Sandi Rhys-Jones OBE FCIOB FWES, I learnt to “never say ‘only’ or ‘just’.” This small lesson, applied reasonably, has changed my approach to communication. Thus, I hope for a future where women feel empowered to speak their mind in collaborate environments, assured that their opinion will be accorded equal merit among their peers, rather than hedging themselves in anticipation of having to assert themselves and defend their contribution. I hope that institutions recognise the existence of this gap in recognition and make efforts to support women on their journeys to counter these limiting beliefs so they can rise to their full potential.


3. What do you pledge for the future – how will you help us to forge women’s equality?

While most of the people I look up to ahead of me are women, a remarkably small proportion of my peers who inspire and mentor me are actually women. It does not escape me that before the women in STEM, there must first be girls in STEM. Representation matters. I pledge to do my best to pay it forward by openly representing the possibilities for women in all the spaces I occupy- whether it be a girl in academia, a girl in STEM or a girl in engineering.


Find out more about our International Women’s Day 2022 celebrations on our website.

In celebration of our ongoing commitment to breaking gender bias, we invite you to watch our Spotlight: IWD series. Hear from champions across our University community, past and present, who are committed to breaking gender bias.

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Lucy Yardley

Prof Lucy Yardley

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Lucy Yardley is a Professor of Health Psychology and SAGE member. She received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last October for her contribution to the COVID-19 response.



Your research has focussed on COVID-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?  

I sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the group tasked with providing scientific advice to aid government decision makers during the pandemic. As co-chair of SPI-B, the sub-group that provide behavioural input to SAGE, I’ve been giving evidence-based advice and expertise, particularly in supporting people to implement measures designed to reduce the impact of the virus. My main research focus is on empowering people to take control and self-manage their health by developing and evaluating digital interventions. I’ve led the development of the ‘Germ Defence’ web app which helps users adopt better infection control in the home and has been adapted to create specific guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?  

Because I have been providing behavioural advice to the government through SAGE and SPI-B the biggest challenge has been trying to work out every morning what is happening with the fast-moving pandemic situation and what we need to do about it! However, it has been very rewarding being part of such a committed and collegiate multidisciplinary team of scientists. 

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?  

Things have changed enormously for women over the time I have been an academic. In the early days it was assume that you must be a secretary (sic) when you walked into an academic meeting such as the exam board. Then there was a period when I always had to be at the front of the stage at graduation to prove there was a female member of the professoriat. Happily, now I can lurk at the back of the stage as there are plenty of women professors and indeed senior managers represented. 

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

I am actually most inspired by the many women (and of course men) that have been part of my digital health research team for the past dozen years – their amazing supportive team spirit and dedication to creating the best digital health interventions we possibly can are what make me enthusiastic to carry on with this work. 

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?  

I think many young people worry terribly about whether they are making the right decisions – but what I have found is that whatever choice you make it can always lead to something good as long as you choose something you that excites you and give it your best effort. 

What are you most proud of?  

My very first piece of research was to develop and trial a ‘Balance Retraining’ booklet that helps people with chronic dizziness to get rid of their symptoms. Many successful clinical trials and a website later, it is still my favourite intervention as it is so simple and works so well! 

Tackling COVID-19: Sophie Chester-Glyn

Sophie Chester-Glyn

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS. 

Sophie Chester-Glyn is a PhD student in the University of Bristol LaSchool and runs part-time the non-profit organisation Co-Produce Care, which supports social care providers in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. 

Your work helping to run Co-Produce Care has focussed on trying to increase vaccine understanding amongst at risk groups and dispel vaccine myths. Could you tell us a little more about why you decided to do this?

I have always been interested in law and social care. I previously worked in social care part time and studied undergraduate law but realised how little I knew about the rights available to people with disabilities and the laws surrounding it. After coming to Bristol to study a PhD focusing on mental health law, I became involved in running the non-profit organisation, Co-Produce Care. My aim was to help inform people in social care, who are often unaware of their rights but who might be affected by changes to policy and law.

In February 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 was gaining momentum in the media, I realised that many of the region’s (Bristol, North Somerset, South Glos) care providers were feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic. To help support them, I decided to set up a weekly call with all the area’s sector leaders so that we could share information from testing to sourcing PPE alongside live updates from Public Health England and local authorities.

By autumn, we had increased our engagement through blogs and social media and noticed hesitancy amongst the social care community around vaccines. It was at this point we decided to conduct our own research. We sent a survey to around 300 of our members to find out specifically what their concerns were.

Our rapid research report, published in December last year, found there was a higher level of vaccine hesitancy amongst people working in social care compared with the general population. The report was shared with local MPs, the Secretary of State and Health Minister but we knew we needed to do more.

At the end of 2020 we reached out to MPs, the University, GP and BAME networks to create a diverse panel of experts for a livestream briefing who could talk and help inform people about the vaccine in live Q&A’s that would be attended by front line social care workers. The Q&As have been a real success with around 2,000 views on YouTube, and the feedback we have received suggests people feel better informed. It is great to know you are making a difference!

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

When the lockdown was announced last year, I was concerned how the region’s social care sector was going to respond. I wanted the sector to be better co-ordinated and really work together in tackling COVID by sharing knowledge, information, and updates on the virus from their perspective. Improving the way that the social care community came together during the pandemic has been a real triumph.

Have there been any times whether you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it being a woman?

Personally, at times I find it hard to get your voice heard. It has been a struggle, you see the other people who do not look like you, who don’t have the experience that you have, get a platform to talk about things that they know, you know more about. I think it is a long road and we have just got to keep the equality, diversity, and inclusion momentum up.

Who has inspired you in your study or in your career so far?

By far, the woman who has inspired me the most in my studies is Dr Foluke Adebisi, a senior lecturer in the Law School and my supervisor. She has been conducting lots of work around decolonising the curriculum and post-colonial research. Each year, she organises a Forever Africa conference inviting academics from all over the world to talk about decolonising the curriculum, law and race, she has really opened my eyes to this.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?

When I was growing up, I just accepted the way things were and never questioned anything so I would tell my 13-year-old self to question everything — ask more questions!

What are you most proud of?

I was asked to be part of an advisory group, to the Department of Health and Social Care’s Social Care Sector COVID-19 Taskforce, chaired by David Pearson, on how COVID-19 is affecting people of colour working in social care, so I’m proud of being able to raise awareness at a national level of the disparities affecting this community.

Perhaps a cliché but I also proud of the balance I am striking with my two sons. They take part in a Sunday school every Sunday where they learn about different African leaders, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X — something I never had when I was at school. I am really proud of being able to diversify their learning around Black History and hope this will inspire them to have inquiring minds!

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Rachael Gooberman-Hill

Prof Rachael Gooberman-Hill

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill is Professor of Health and Anthropology and Director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, which has funded 86 COVID-19 related projects across the University.

You head up the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute which has funded numerous Covid-19 projects, could you tell us a little more about how your own research and that of the EBI research – in how it has contributed towards fighting the pandemic?

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute is proud to bear the name of Dr Elizabeth Backwell, she was born in Bristol and was the first female doctor in the UK. At the Institute we support research in all aspects of health at the University of Bristol. We often take a back-room role by underpinning research and providing structures and support.

We’ve been able to channel funding to 86 COVID-19 projects so far with rapid response funding schemes that brilliantly included support from donors to the University. Alongside this we’ve held events and presentations for internal and external participants over the past year.

I’m particularly impressed by the way in which colleagues across the University refocused their expertise to the pandemic. There are too many brilliant examples to mention; Bristol’s research includes work to develop treatments for COVID-19, to understand aerosols, research ethics, law and domestic abuse. These are just a few areas.

As part of the Institute’s COVID-19 response we ran a survey of over 2,000 people in England to understand what people think of science and scientists. We’ve found that trust is pretty high overall, and that it only dropped slightly between first and second lockdown but that people from certain backgrounds trust science and scientists more than others. We’re working now to interpret this because we think that there is a clear case that understanding who trusts science more or less can help us to consider how to improve trust in the science that’s obviously so important in the effort to deal with the pandemic.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

The pandemic has brought challenges for everyone, and I’m mindful of how varied these have been for people in different circumstances. I count myself very lucky indeed in the circumstances that I have. Personally, I’m a mother, a daughter and a sister. I miss seeing my mum and my brothers and I have to prioritise my children’s wellbeing in light of everything that’s been going on in the pandemic.

In my work, I’ve been astounded by the research effort at Bristol throughout the pandemic. To see how much colleagues have achieved is quite something, and whole teams have been part and parcel of this, everyone has had a part to play.

International Women’s Day this year has led me to think even more than usual about my daughters’ future and what that might hold for them both. I hope that the pandemic will teach us things in society about very real inequalities and that we act on these. I’m generally an optimist and there have been times in the pandemic when I’ve been both bolstered by the response and bravery but also frankly distraught at the inequities that persist and have worsened.

As part of my own development and interest, I’ve recently been reading a book by American medical anthropologist and doctor Paul Farmer (the book is called Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds), it’s largely about his experience in West Africa in 2014 onwards, though he also tackles COVID-19 too. One of his key messages is that the reasons why epidemics take place in the way that they do and why they impact disproportionately is because of inequalities that are borne of history. When we move towards a future of living around COVID-19 (I prefer to say around rather than with) then I really am hoping that the inequalities laid bare through the pandemic are something that we can work to address as a society.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

I love my job, I do interesting work with fascinating people and every day is different. I’m enormously privileged. I do think that every woman in academia has had to address inequality in some way, whether for themselves or others. I see it as my role to raise or challenge inequality when I see it and I try my best to do so, although I’m the first to admit that I still kick myself about the times when I haven’t done so.

My biggest annoyance is the degree to which there are so often attempts to ‘fix’ people who are at a disadvantage, or to ask them to ‘fix’ themselves when in fact the issues are systemic and structural and it’s in the system that we need to act. Things like gender pay gap reporting are really important as they provide the data about the system that we need to make progress. This year, I’ve been disappointed that across the UK as a whole gender pay gap reporting has been delayed, I think that understanding data is absolutely crucial!

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

I’m a mountain lover. Women who inspire me often come from a mountaineering or mountain running background, because of their strength, resilience and focus. I think these are all ‘secret powers’ that translate into any career or work.

Two people that spring to mind immediately are Lizzy Hawker, and also the late Alison Hargreaves. Knowing Lizzy I hope she isn’t embarrassed that I mention her, she’s widely acknowledged to be Britain’s best ever female ultra-distance runner. When I watched her finish (and win) the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc in 2011 something about her presence inspired me to take up mountain running at distance as a way to be in the mountains that would reasonably fit around my then very young family. That running has kept me contented and balanced at work and home.

Alison Hargreaves was a brilliant mountaineer who climbed the Eiger’s north face while six months pregnant and who tragically died on K2 in 1995 when she was only 33-years-old. After her untimely death the media focused on her role as a mother and queried whether it had been appropriate that she undertook mountaineering. It was clear to many that the same would not have been said about a father doing the same things. I remember that time and the media coverage vividly, I was 25-years-old and the whole thing left an impression on me in many ways. Women in the mountains are strong people who pursue their dreams, I think that’s inspirational.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

Get more sleep, you’ll be needing it!

What are you most proud of? 

I’m most proud of the University’s response to this challenging time.

Commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Guest blog by Erandi Barrera Moreno, Secretary of feminist society Women Talk Back!

The Mirabal sisters

On this day in 1960, three sisters – Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal – were assassinated in the Dominican Republic. They had been involved in clandestine activities against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, the country’s president at the time, who ordered their murder. In honour of the sisters, the United Nations General Assembly designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1999.

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it. According to the UN, one in two women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family in 2017; while only one out of 20 men were killed under similar circumstances.

To commemorate this sombre occasion, the University’s Women Talk Back! feminist society will host campaigners who have dedicated their lives to ending male violence against women and girls at a public event on 25 November. ‘Feminist Campaigners Talk Back! at the University of Bristol’ invites both the University community and members of the public to listen to and engage with feminists activists as each speaker focuses on different aspects of the interconnected forms male violence against women and girls takes in our society.

At Women Talk Back!, we are insistent on the fact that ending violence against women and girls cannot be a single day event. Creating a world where women are free from violence permeates everything we do as a feminist student society. Throughout November and December, we are hosting workshops, events and writing articles to raise awareness in our community about this crucial issue.

UN Women is running its 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign between 25 November and 10 December, Human Rights Day. The theme for this year is the urgent need to end the plight of rape.

Artwork for UN Women – Violence Against Women: Facts Everyone Should Know.

At Women Talk Back!, we stand in solidarity with all girls and women who have experienced male violence, including rape and intimate partner violence, today and every day.

In order to raise awareness about this issue, we decided to interview one of our sisters to explore our own experiences on this matter. Her name has been redacted to protect her privacy.

Sara and I met on a Thursday at a local coffee shop near the Bristol city centre. Through the windows, you could see people rushing after the rain started pouring during this Autumn afternoon. We had a lengthy discussion about male violence. She said she came across the term a couple of times as she was growing up, but that nobody really talked about it in her family or among her friends. Here’s her story:

“Come to think of it now, I had a cousin, though; Tammy. She was a promising student. All of a sudden she got married and dropped out of school. A few months later she was pregnant with her first child and that was it! She disappeared from our lives because she was a married woman now. One day when my nephew, Tammy’s son, was about two-years-old, they showed up at our house. It was nobody’s birthday, nor a holiday, nor any other ‘special’ occasion, so I was puzzled. She seemed to have just come randomly.

“My mom said Tammy and her son had come to stay with us for some time. I was quite content as I had missed having Tammy around, for she used to live near our house when she was studying. After two days I was beginning to settle with our new routine. I kissed Tammy and my nephew goodbye before I went to school. When I came back they were gone just as they had come, leaving no trace.

“The only thing my mom ever said was that ‘they had to go’. Time went by and it became apparent that her husband was abusive and that visit to our house was one of her attempts at escape.  I felt deeply sorry and powerless. I didn’t know what to do. When this happened, I was a child and didn’t fully understand. After that, I’ve only seen Tammy twice. But everyone in her immediate circle would say ‘if she really wanted to, she could leave’, implying she was stupid, or ‘mentally unwell’, even a sort of masochist.”

Please continue reading on the Women Talk Back! website.

New book features pioneering women from Bristol’s past

Author Jane Duffus. Credit: Jon Craig Photos

Author and alumna Jane Duffus (MA 2008) has just published the second volume of The Women Who Built Bristol, featuring 250 brand new stories of inspiring females who fought tooth and nail to shape our city and the wider world. Olympians rub shoulders with boot makers; suffragists stand beside grocers; scientists are as one with artists.

Here, Jane share the stories of some of the pioneering women with a link to the University of Bristol. Women from volume one are featured in a special blog for International Women’s Day.



ISOBEL POWELL, 1907-1995

While Isobel Artner was working in Paris, she met Professor Cecil Powell, who was a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. Isobel and Cecil soon fell in love and in 1932 she moved to Bristol to marry him and become his secretary at the University. She later became a microscope scanner in his team. Initially, Isobel was one of only a few microscope scanners (leading a team known as ‘Cecil’s Beauty Chorus’), who checked the plates which had been exposed to cosmic radiation. It was in this way that in 1946 Isobel became responsible for identifying one of the subatomic particles which led to her husband’s 1950 Nobel Prize.

MAY STAVELEY, 1863-1934

When Sir George Wills bought Goldney House in the 1920s as a men’s halls of residence, May Staveley nearly exploded with fury. She was the Tutor to Women Students at the University and the warden of the women’s halls of residence at Clifton Hill, just 16 feet away from Goldney Hall. The risks to her girls’ reputations by having young men sleeping so close by was more than May would stand for, so she threatened to resign. It was purely down to May that there even was a women’s halls of residence in Bristol. The site at Clifton Hill became available in 1909 and, with May’s help, a committee was formed to raise the funds to buy it as a women’s halls of residence.

Alumna Peggy Styles with a photo of Helen Wodehouse


In 1919, Helen Wodehouse came to Bristol where she was the first woman to hold the post of Professor of Education and Head of Department at the University of Bristol. She was also the first woman to hold any professorial chair here. Under her care, the University’s education department became one of the leading education departments in the UK. It is worth noting that, by the time of her death, Helen was still the only woman to have held a professorial chair at the University of Bristol.

Helen features in a series of portraits in the Wills Memorial Building, specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote.


Geraldine Hodgson became head of the women’s secondary teaching training department at Bristol University College in 1902. In 1911, she was among a group of female graduates who formed the Bristol branch of the British Federation of University Women, which campaigned to see women’s achievements in the workplace treated equally. Her shock dismissal from the University in 1916 appears to have been due to disagreements about salary. And she was justified because, in 1911, Geraldine’s annual salary was £200, while a Mr T Foster with the same job title at the same university in the same year was being paid £400, despite not even having her doctorate.

You can buy The Women Who Built Bristol books via Jane’s website

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.

Celebrating our women in the Wills Memorial Building

By Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education

Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education photographed with Winifred Shapland, former Registrar of the University of Bristol

Last night was a historic evening for the University as we unveiled a special series of portraits in the Wills Memorial Building. Never before have women graced the walls of the Great Hall, which has more recently been a space for hanging portraits of our former Vice-Chancellors. 

Although we’ve never had a female Vice-Chancellor, many incredible women have helped to shape the University and, indeed, the world. So, in the year which marks a centenary since the first British women won the vote, we wanted to redress the balance by celebrating these educators, pioneers and activists. 

As we were the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, it’s only fitting that the many visitors to the Great Hall see that the University is proud of the achievements of the inspirational women that have shaped our history and continue to shape our future. 

From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these notable women now take their rightful place on the walls of our most prestigious building. Although the achievements of women such as Lady Hale, Professor Jean Golding and Professor Dorothy Hodgkin have been rightly honoured – both in the University and more widely – in the past, we also wanted to uncover the stories of unsung heroines, whose achievements aren’t as well-known as they should be. 

Current staff, students and alumni whose research, learning or work connects them to these women share their thoughts on their lives, careers and legacies in this online gallery. 

Winifred Shapland, University of Bristol Registrar, 1931 – 1950

I’m photographed holding an image of Winifred Shapland. Not only was Winfred the Registrar here for nearly 20 years (1931 to 1950), she was the first female Registrar of any British university. Winfred held this, the most senior professional services role, at a time when universities were led almost exclusively by men. She was a pioneer in the world of higher education, and I am proud the University of Bristol showed its commitment to gender equality from its earliest days by appointing her to the role.  

Working with our Special Collections Library, we were able to unearth the address given by former Vice-Chancellor, Sir Philip Morris, at her memorial service which gave us an insight into her life, of which she devoted over 40 years to the University. Although she was known to abhor personal recognition and publicity, we feel that marking her legacy in this way is important; reflecting the University’s early and continuing commitment to gender equality and showing generations of women who followed her in higher education that no job is beyond their reach.  

Winifred and the other nine women featured are just a handful of the many remarkable women who have made, and continue to make, Bristol truly great. Featuring them alongside ten women in today’s University community gave us the opportunity to show how their legacy is continuing to inspire our study, teaching and work today, while also showcasing our current pioneers. 

This project will be the first of many initiatives to honour our women in the Wills Memorial Building and more widely across the University, with new permanent artworks to be commissioned every year until 2028: the 100-year anniversary of full suffrage in Britain, when all women over 21 were given the right to vote, not just those over the age of 30 who owned property.  

Much has changed since those brave women fought for their rights and the rights of future generations of women. As a University, we pledge to ensure their legacy lives on and we urge all our students, staff and alumni to work together as we strive further towards equality. Please look at our Vote 100 campaign online and continue to share your thoughts on social media using #BristolUniWomen. 

Equality and diversity in health research

Lauren Curtis, Diversity and Inclusion Champion in the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, blogs about her role, Vote 100 and equality in health research.

Vote 100 marks 100 years since the first women gained the vote in the UK: definitely something to celebrate! When you look back at 100 years of women in medicine there is much to celebrate here too. The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute at the University of Bristol is named after Bristol-born Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school. She was a pioneer instrumental in many campaigns for reform, and launched numerous innovative health schemes, including establishing the first UK medical school for women. A very fitting namesake for the Institute, which exemplifies the spirit of what we are striving to achieve today.

Black and white image of Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

I joined the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research as Diversity and Inclusion Champion in November last year. This unique post, funded by the Wellcome Trust, focuses on identifying barriers, and championing and challenging Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within health and biomedical research communities at the University of Bristol. More broadly EDI is something that the University is dedicated to, and so the work I am doing is very much aligned with the work of the EDI team.

Equality, diversity and inclusion in health research is vital as it encourages a range of solutions to health challenges. Everyone should have equal access to opportunities, feel that they can contribute their ideas, and that each unique perspective is valued.

Since starting in this post, I have seen a lot of people doing fantastic work to address barriers related to EDI at the University and that progress has been made. However, we are not there yet and there is still much to do.

Lauren EDI Champion standing in front of an Elizabeth Blackwell banner
Lauren Curtis, EDI Champion

There are clear benefits to having a diverse range of staff, and in research, having lots of people bringing different ideas to solve problems is important. However, to attract and retain talented researchers everyone needs to feel that this is something that they want to and can be part of and to achieve this we must embed an inclusive culture where everyone can fully participate. EDI needs to be something that we are all involved in and should be threaded through all we do. My role is to help support colleagues in the health and biomedical research community to make this to happen.

I have worked with colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Faculty of Life Sciences to run discussion sessions and listen to staff talk about barriers and challenges they have faced or been aware of. This has enabled me to learn about the lived experiences of staff and, along with other information, has allowed me to identify some priority areas for action and ways in which we can continue to improve things.

“A blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel.”  – Elizabeth Blackwell.

Thankfully much has changed since Elizabeth Blackwell spoke these words, but there is always more that can be done to ensure equality and inclusion for all.

Watch ‘100 Years of Medical Women: The Past, Present & Future’ on YouTube.