Women fight for equality after 20 years among the King's men

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Twenty years after women were first admitted to King's College, Cambridge, the majestic array of portraits in the dining hall still rankles with some college members: there is not a woman among them. When the college comes to examine the achievements and the failings of its past 20 years, at a conference today, it is perhaps not surprising that women students are planning to cover over the offending paintings.

The central question the conference will address is: 'Is King's still a male college admitting women?' Tess Adkins, senior tutor, thinks not. King's has become, in her view, 'a properly established co-educational college', and while there is no cause for complacency, she believes 20 years of women being there is definitely something to celebrate.

King's, Clare and Churchill were the first Cambridge colleges to admit women undergraduates. This year women make up 47 per cent of King's undergraduates and 50 per cent of its graduates.

Dr Stephen Hugh-Jones, anthropologist and King's Fellow, remembers the college in its pre-women days in the mid-Sixties, when he was a newly- married undergraduate. 'Those were the days when Fellows' wives were only invited in to eat dessert in the minstrels' gallery. I even had to get permission to sleep with my wife in my college room - I was seen as a total anomaly.'

Going mixed, he says, brought about a welcome change in attitudes. 'It's not ideal, even now, but when the college admitted women there was a dramatic change, a change in the spirit of the place. It was realised that people had families, and the college became more normal, more like the outside world. I remember once bringing our baby into the college, plonking it down on the table in the cafeteria and demanding a high chair: now people don't turn a hair if children are brought in to eat.'

But the fact that only 18 per cent of King's Fellows are women remains a cause for dissatisfaction. Although women undergraduates enter the university with comparable qualifications to men, fewer women go on to gain Firsts - 11 per cent of women compared to 20 per cent of men in 1992 - and some tutors are worried that women are losing confidence and not realising their academic potential.

Dr Adkins said: 'I am concerned about this, and we are working at it all the time - for instance, we have recently appointed a women's tutor and an equal opportunities officer. I am very conscious that bright women are much less likely to promote themselves than men, and tend to think they're not good enough. Even when they get a starred First, they say it must have been a fluke.'

A report on women at King's, commissioned by the college and published in 1990, suggested that the often combative, sometimes aggressive, style of teaching at Cambridge contributed to the problems experienced by some women. It recommended 'wider use of encouragement and non-combative modes of teaching and learning'.

Dr Sarah Lummis, a King's Fellow and biochemist, said the fact that some science departments in the university had no permanent women staff meant that women undergraduates often lacked role models. 'When I am accepted in the science community here it is as a pseudo-man, rather than as a woman. I'm probably more pushy in that environment than I would be normally - which does feel slightly unnatural.'

Another reason why many women may be deterred from an academic career is the difficulty of combining it with a family. Cambridge has been, typically, slow to take account of this, but in 1990 the university instituted a scheme to allow more flexible working arrangements for both women and men. So far, however, the scheme has not been widely taken up - perhaps because people need more reassurance that being a part-timer will not count against them. Dr Adkins said King's College was now moving towards introducing a similar policy for college appointments.

But whatever changes King's makes internally, its image, with the imposing chapel and celebrated choirboys, continues to be dramatically male. As Lara McClure, a first year history undergraduate and women's officer for King's student union, put it: 'You walk into this court every morning and you see these big buildings and the chapel, and you can't help thinking, there's a lot of history around here - and it's male history.'

(Photograph omitted)