High Profiles Careers : The Female Effect

On International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016, we celebrated the progress that has been made in the fight for gender equality. We welcomed Her Excellency, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, High Commissioner for Jamaica, who spoke about the historical challenges women faced less than 100 years ago in this country, when women were not allowed to vote, and many were denied an education. Her Excellency used her own life as testament to the fact that change has been achieved. Women are now offered an education and provided with opportunities to achieve positions such as High Commissioner for Jamaica.

We also see positive examples of women who are achieving equal status with their male peers when we look around school and see our female Heads of Department, our school’s governing body (which boasts an equal representation of women to men) and, most importantly, when we hear the aspirations of our students: they pay no heed to traditional gender stereotypes.

However, as the International Women’s Day 2016 campaign #PledgeForParity highlighted, the work is not yet done, and requires more than a day’s attention each year – “it will take another 81 years for the world to completely lose the economic gender gap”. The campaign calls for us to focus on the areas around the world in which we still have much to achieve before we can claim that girls have the same opportunities as their male counterparts; whether this is the obstacles girls in Pakistan face in pursuing an education, or the lingering unequal representation at Executive Director level in FTSE 100 businesses (10 percent of the FTSE 100 Executive Directors were female in December 2015, up from 5.5 percent in 2011). Moreover, as we approach the referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, and as guardians of girls from across the world who will be presented with different career opportunities on returning home after their time at our school, we must be mindful of the important role that schools such as ours play in developing young women who are free to aspire to whatever they choose, without feeling in any way limited by their gender.


On Monday evening of this week the final instalment of the BBC dramatisation The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story was aired, in which we are reminded of what being a high-achieving working mother in the 90s must have been like. Prosecutor, Marcia Clark, was subject to intense scrutiny for the duration of the case, about her appearance, her custody battle with her ex-husband, and more. One of the most shocking moments of the series, in terms of gender inequality, was her treatment by the media, opposing counsel, and even her own colleagues on the matter of childcare. On one occasion, when the defence introduced a new witness at 6.00pm, Ms Clark informed the court that she wouldn’t be able to stay late due to ‘child-care issues’. Opposing counsel, belittling Ms Clark, exclaimed “are we really going to risk losing this witness because of a babysitting problem?” – the media followed counsel’s lead and ran with the story that led to national criticism of Ms Clark’s commitment to, and ability to manage, the case.

Thankfully, behaviour like this is typically not so brazenly displayed in 2016. School governor, and Professor in the Department of Materials at the University of Cambridge, Judith Driscoll, recently developed some videos to unpack the issues and solutions surrounding gender equality in the work place. Professor Driscoll explained that it has only really been within the last five years that women’s issues have come to the fore and so, in her early career, she was grateful to male superiors who were essential in supporting her, as a woman, in pursuing her ambitions. Judith praised what she sees as a substantial shift in social norms in recent years, with men now finding it acceptable to say, at 5.00pm in a meeting, ‘I’m sorry I have to go to pick up my children’. Judith also commented on how essential it has been to her to have a husband who is willing to give as much as she has to their children. Similarly, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, in her call for part-time and job share teaching options to be made available to enable teachers to return to work more easily after starting a family, claimed that “the only reason I am able to do this job is because my husband is at home with our son”.

But what about the impact of pregnancy itself, and subsequent maternity leave, on women in high-profile careers? We recently heard a lot of negativity around the question of whether female tennis players should be entitled to receive equal pay to their male counterparts. Without wanting to focus on the different length of women and men’s Grand Slam matches (a factor that is not decided by the athletes themselves), or whether Serena Williams’ serve is as exciting to watch as Novak Djokovic’s, I think it is worth us questioning the impact that starting a family has on the careers of female athletes.

Women are the ones who go through pregnancy, at which time their competitive regime is gone. For new mothers who return to training shortly after the birth of their child, international travel is required to compete. Some female tennis greats have achieved this, such as Kim Clijsters, as have male champions such as Djokovic and Federer – but it should be noted that these achievements are more within reach of athletes who have achieved sufficient success prior to having their children to be able to afford to take their families on tour with them. Both sexes sacrifice their time and personal lives in the pursuit of their career goals;


New parents are now entitled to shared parental leave, which is a great accomplishment, better enabling couples in which the mother wishes, or is financially required, to return to work to do so. We are pleased that some of our male members of staff have already taken up this opportunity to share the responsibility and joy of looking after their babies, whilst halving each parent’s time away from their career. Despite this progress though, Professor Driscoll also mentioned in her recent interviews that, since her own children were born, the duration of maternity leave at full pay offered by some establishments seems to have decreased.

Sadly, in some areas where progress has been achieved, reversals are now being seen. One of the concerns about the controversial contracts enforced on Junior Doctors in the UK is the impact on those doctors who are, or wish to be, mothers. Critics have highlighted how the new contracts will affect women more than men, because of changes in pay related to time off, including maternity leave, and unsociable working hours (during which it is more difficult and expensive to find child-care), “enshrining a ‘gender pay gap’ in the medical profession”. From a purely economic stance this may seem logical but, in terms of gender parity, it appears to be a step backwards. Why should women be made to feel that starting a family is to the detriment of their careers, and be financially penalised for doing so?

In our privileged position, being able to tailor our education provision specifically for girls, we prioritise instilling in them the belief that they can achieve whatever they set out to. The Elms was once the family home of classicist Dr Kennedy, who defied the University of Cambridge by tutoring female students for the Tripos examinations some 40 years before women were officially admitted. Our excellent careers provision, illustrated through last week’s Year 10 careers workshop and the broad range of Lower and Upper Sixth work experience opportunities for the summer break, and our commitment to each girl as an individual, allows us to continue Dr Kennedy’s work and inspire our girls to aim high.

But, as a society, we must work to ensure that women who want to start a family don’t have to do so at the expense of their personal career ambitions; instead we must change the rhetoric, for athletes and doctors, politicians and teachers, to show that as a society we cherish the vital role of motherhood – and indeed, fatherhood.


Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s School, Cambridge

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