Dame Barbara Stocking: president of an all-woman college says token women are a disaster

Oxfam’s former head on glass ceilings, quotas, and the perils of ‘nice’

Forget all that “Lean In” stuff from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to maximise your potential; don’t bother trying to crack the so-called glass ceiling because it doesn’t work. Do what Dame Barbara Stocking, the former chief executive of Oxfam, did when she wanted a top job – she found a different ladder to the top.

Instead of going with the cosy “male and pale” network, Dame Barbara by-passed them all, landing on her feet instead as an academic. Her new job is to be the fifth president of Murray Edwards, one of Cambridge University’s three female-only colleges. She got the job in the same way she arrived at Oxfam – by replying to the advert – although being one of the college’s most distinguished alumna and having studied natural sciences there as an under-graduate, can’t have gone amiss.

Dame Barbara is over the moon with her new role but cross that it’s still tougher than she thought it would be for women to reach the top. “I was brought up to believe I could do anything, go anywhere and Cambridge reinforced that. So it was a shock to discover sex – and class – discrimination at work.”

It’s not what I expect from a dame who has run one of the world’s biggest anti-poverty charities for more than a decade and, to boot, is a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office and currently assessing 14 ministers and permanent secretaries on their performance. “But it’s true,” she says. “Whether it was bullying in the NHS [she was one of its most senior executives for years] or being made to feel invisible in job-hunting, there is still huge prejudice. It’s astonishing that women have not advanced more considering all the talk.”

Indeed, when Dame Barbara decided a year or so ago to leave Oxfam and hand over to the next generation, she put out the usual feelers with head-hunters and others to find herself a new job, ideally in international development.

 “It was so annoying. They look at you and think, ah, she’s nice and chatty, but don’t get me. They don’t see behind the labels, don’t look at what I have achieved; that I have been rather good at what I do. Somehow you can’t be nice and competent. Why is it so hard for women? ” 

If her criticism sounds familiar, it’s because this is what Sandberg describes in her book; that if women are nice they are not seen as competent and, if they are competent, they are not seen as nice. Being both is not an option.

Time for a change of approach? Dame Barbara thinks so and she would like to see quotas – for everything and everywhere: “Token women are a disaster – you only get change when you get critical mass. I remember what a difference it made when Virginia Bottomley, then the health secretary, introduced quotas into the NHS. I’m now a convert for quotas in business, government and parliament. Equality means having as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men in top jobs.”

We meet on a Saturday in the exotic gardens of her old college; grounds once owned by the great plantswoman, Nora Barlow, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, and where her plants still grow. Dame Barbara is here for her first garden party to meet and greet other alumni and some of the 400 undergraduates ahead of her formal takeover in July.

But first, there was a trip to Ede and Ravenscroft for a gown-fitting: “I disapproved of the way we got the automatic Masters title so I never went to collect mine. But I can’t become president without it.” She hasn’t lost her spirit.

 Top of her presidential agenda is to raise more money for the college.  Even with the spectacular £30m gift from another natural science alumna, Ros Edwards, the college needs more. It was after Ros, and her husband Steve Edwards, who made £700m from selling their software company, Geneva Technology, gave the donation that the college founded as New Hall in 1954  was given its new name. Mrs Edwards wanted the money to be used to help recruit students from working-class backgrounds, something which the state-educated girl from Rugby is determined to continue.

“It was a great gift and we have about £45m capital invested. But the college is only just washing its face after the money we get from fees and we need another £1m or so a year to tick over.”

If anyone can persuade people to part with their money, it’s Dame Barbara after her success at Oxfam. Under her leadership the charity saw revenues rise from £187.3m to £385.5m last year and she is most pleased by the way companies such as Unilever and Marks & Spencer now work alongside the charity on improving the supply chains.

Erasing poverty is still the biggest challenge, she says. Once you’ve seen the impact of natural disasters and war: “you can no longer be gender neutral”. More than 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women, many whom are victims of war. “One of the best things the UN has ever done is to adopt resolution 1325 which insists that women are involved in the peace process.”

What she misses most about Oxfam, which she left in February, is the buzz from being an insider to the big geo-political events. “When the Kenyan elections took place recently, I wanted to know what was actually happening. We always got all the local intelligence and I do miss that. And the laughing and dancing – I dance and laugh more in Africa than here in the UK.”  

Sounds to me as though Dame Barbara left a bit of her heart there too. But she’s going to stay closely in touch with her contacts, determined to keep Oxfam’s work alive in promoting “ethical capitalism” and hopes soon to be joining advisory boards on international development. 

Working more closely with business is something she hopes to encourage at Murray Edwards too. “This college has always had unusual girls who have gone on to be successful. Many of them are well-known so I hope they will work with us – in debates, internships, that sort of thing. I want this to be a hub of thinking, and to encourage young women to study the sciences and engineering more.”

In which case, isn’t a women-only college anachronistic; that equality would be better achieved if the two sexes mixed more not less? Her reply is tart: “It’s not a convent, you know. The girls are with the men at tutorials and lectures. Half the fellows are men. What this college does is to give confidence; to empower the girls.”

But, she adds quickly: “It’s too big an upheaval to think about now. Things change and we will look at it again.”

 The sky has clouded over and we go inside the beautiful college building – something between an Italian villa and a modernist minaret – to the vast domed dining room. Hanging above high table are two paintings by Maggi Hambling; the Gulf Women Prepare for War canvas from the Iran-Iraq war showing black-veiled women loading rocket-launchers and Hebe and Her Serpent, an equally menacing painting as the phallic-shaped snake clearly has his eye on the young Greek goddess. Both are magnificent but neither is easy on the eye and you wonder what the young ladies who munch their cornflakes think of Hambling’s message: arm yourself or be victim?

So what will Dame Barbara say to her new students when sitting at the table come October? “They can have it all but not all of it all of the time.” The three third-year students I chat to afterwards – an economist, mathematician and engineer – disagree; they said they will do it all.

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