Exclusive: Bullying and discrimination are still serious issues for women at work, study of female Cambridge alumnae reveals

Survey shows around 38 per cent of around 1,000 former students of Murray Edwards college, felt gender inequality, discrimination, non-supportive and difficult colleagues and managers, bias, bullying and undervalued work were the most troubling obstacles in their careers

Bullying and discrimination have proved greater career challenges than work-life balance and childcare to graduates of an all-female Cambridge college, according to a unique new study.

Around 1,000 alumnae of Murray Edwards college, aged from their twenties to their seventies, were asked about the biggest problems they had faced in their lifetimes. The college’s most notable graduates since it was founded 60 years ago include scientist Lizzy Hawker, BBC’s Radio 4 presenter Mishal Husain, TV’s Claudia Winkleman and pianist Joanna Macgregor.

Of 824 separate obstacles cited by former students, 38 per cent of them said that gender inequality, discrimination, non-supportive and difficult colleagues and managers, bias, bullying and undervalued work were the most troubling. Most also said they felt they had to over-perform because they are female.

By contrast, less than a quarter of the Murray Edwards alumnae said that balancing work, family life and childcare – traditionally seen as the more difficult obstacle – was an issue.

The new survey, Women Today, Women Tomorrow, was carried out by Murray Edwards to discover how to help future generations. 

Dame Barbara Stocking, herself a former alumna and Murray Edwards president, said: “This is a shocking result. If women say that they are not being treated on merit, then all the arguments against positive discrimination – or quotas in certain areas – fall away. Our survey confirms my belief that the only way to achieve a more equal balance in the workplace is by introducing quotas. Merit is clearly not enough.”

The former head of Oxfam added: “Sadly, our survey also showed that women rarely cited support from their employers as being a positive force.” Instead, the women surveyed said they tackled workplace challenges through their own drive, dedication and hard work as well as the support of partners, family, friends and mentors.

Perhaps surprisingly, more than half said they had managed to combine work and family comfortably. Graduates of most ages identified family life as the single-most important factor in their lives. Those aged between 30 and 49 found maintaining work-life balance most difficult.

Dame Barbara said: “As well as wanting to make a difference to society – which was top of the list of their ambitions – they want to have their voices heard; feel respected and valued in their role; and work with colleagues with whom they connect”

If they were to go back in time, most of the women said they would improve their careers with more leadership coaching, confidence building skills as well as more mentoring and networking. Nearly half said they would also have had more sleep while 72 per cent wanted more time for exercise.

To mark the college’s 60th anniversary this year, Dame Barbara is also hosting two seminars to help current students. “One of the problems that we, and many Cambridge colleges, face is the ‘imposter syndrome.’ This is common in both state and privately educated girls and we are determined to find ways of helping students feel more secure, whether it be through coaching or mentoring.”

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