Choosing to challenge gender bias and inequality – Our people

by Alana Walden, 08 March 2021
Members of Cambridge Assessment's Women in Leadership staff network raising their hands in the choose to challenge pose for International Women's Day

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Celebrated annually on March 8, the day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Set up in 2016, Women in Leadership was Cambridge Assessment’s very first diversity and inclusion staff network . Over the past few years, it has been a tradition for the staff network to organise internal events to celebrate International Women’s Day with employees across the organisation. We spoke to the Co-Chairs of the Women in Leadership staff network, Harriet Dean and Natasha Thomson, about their plans this year, the theme for International Women’s Day and the importance of the staff network in challenging bias and inequality in the workplace. We also spoke to two members of Cambridge Assessment’s corporate board, Jill Duffy (OCR Chief Executive) and Fran Woodward (Cambridge Assessment English Chief Executive), who both play an important role as sponsors of the staff network.

Why is the theme for International Women’s Day 2021 important?

Harriet: This year’s theme is to ‘choose to challenge’, which is important as it emphasises the need for society and individuals to challenge biased and unequal behaviour. If we choose to challenge, we are more likely to be able to create a more equal world and society. I also think the theme is really important as it encourages women to stand up for themselves and take control of their lives – historically, data tells us that women feel less confident with this than men, so it’s important women have a sense of empowerment.

Jill: I think ‘choose to challenge’ is important as we are all responsible for our own actions, and when we choose to challenge bias and inequality. I’m sure we’re all aware of little instances of this every day – my current bugbear is people talking about ‘man hours’ – and I think this theme will give people the confidence to challenge.

Fran: International Women’s Day gives a focal point in the year when we can all take time out to celebrate our achievements and share our experiences in the support of improving gender equality.

How is the Women in Leadership network marking International Women’s Day?

Harriet: In the past we would hold an internal event to celebrate the day. Last year our wonderful catering team made some cupcakes with purple icing (the theme colour for International Women’s Day) and they went down very well! Our network sponsors Fran Woodward and Jill Duffy also sat down with Christine Ozden (Chief Executive, Cambridge International) to discuss their inspirations and challenges they have faced in their careers, which we shared in a video.

As much of our organisation is now working remotely due to the pandemic, we’re going to celebrate International Women’s Day slightly differently. We’re holding an online event for our staff and our colleagues at Cambridge University Press and the University of Cambridge’s Women’s Support Network, which we’re really excited about. The event consists of a talk from Patricia Seabright, author of 'She Said!: A guide for millennial women to speaking and being heard', followed by a panel discussion with senior leaders from across Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press. The panel discussion will be facilitated by founder of Cambridge Assessment’s Women in Leadership staff network, Chloe Shaw. Patricia’s talk and the panel discussion will both explore the theme of International Women’s Day and will discuss how we can work towards creating a fairer, more equal society.

Natasha: We’ve also been encouraging colleagues from across Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press to contribute to this special day by sending in selfies demonstrating the International Women’s Day #ChooseToChallenge pose to show that they choose to challenge and call out inequality. It has been great to get involvement from colleagues right across the organisation, including members of our leadership team.

What is the purpose of the Women in Leadership staff network?

Harriet: The network was founded in 2016 as part of the organisation’s EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) work. The network exists to support and help women with their goals and ambitions, whether this be things such as career progression or developing skills. We provide events and training sessions to support and aid our members’ goals. We also work closely with senior leaders across the organisation to influence decision making.

Natasha: The purpose of this network along with the other staff networks is to help create an inclusive environment at work where everyone feels comfortable being themselves and involved in what’s happening. The Women in Leadership network focuses on providing the tools, support and training people need to progress within the company to go wherever they want to go.

Jill: The network provides a safe environment where people can get together to provide mutual support to help women achieve their leadership ambitions. I think it also helps raise awareness of gender issues in the workplace and provides useful learning and development around this. It’s an important network that contributes to equality and diversity in the organisation.

Fran: It’s an opportunity for people to come together to support each other in a collegiate way. Offering advice, ideas, new opportunities and fun ways to develop. In addition to making tangible improvements to gender equality within our organisation in the way we operate but also in the way we serve our customers.

What made you want to become involved with the staff network?

Harriet: Natasha and I have been involved with the network for about two years now. We used to help the previous network chair with various tasks, and when she left the organisation at the end of 2019 we naturally took over as chairs. I wanted to be involved with the network because equality is something that is close to my heart. I have experienced bias in the workplace myself, and I wanted to be part of a group that works hard to prevent bias and unwanted situations from taking place.

Natasha: I became involved with the network shortly after joining the company in 2018, as someone who was right at the start of my career I thought it would be a great network to be involved in while I found my feet and looked to progress in my career. I started getting more involved in the network in 2019 where I would help with events and other projects they were working on. I really enjoyed this and found that it gave me confidence and helped me meet more people within the company. When the opportunity came up to be a co-chair with Harriet I jumped at the chance and so far, have really enjoyed the experience.

Fran: I’ve always informally mentored people and I thought that becoming involved with the Women in Leadership staff network would be a good way of sharing my experience in support of others.

Jill: I have been involved in similar networks throughout my career and therefore wanted to get involved when I joined Cambridge Assessment. I feel strongly that we should embrace diversity and equality issues and provide support to all women especially those aspiring to leadership roles.

What has the Women in Leadership staff network achieved so far?

Natasha: One of the main highlights for me in the last year was the Communications Masterclasses we ran with two external speakers, Dr Ghina Halabi and Dr Judita Vivas. The masterclasses combined theatre skills and storytelling and although they weren’t the fully interactive face-to-face workshop we first planned, Ghina and Judita managed to adapt the workshop to work really well via Zoom. Seeing the lovely feedback about what people got out of the workshops was great!

Harriet: 2020 was a tricky year for us because of the pandemic but we actually achieved quite a lot! We sponsored The Rising Tide exhibition at the University Library which celebrated inspirational women from the University of Cambridge. Our sponsorship enabled us to host a series of Communications Masterclasses, as Natasha mentioned, which had fantastic feedback from attendees. As well as this, we have worked hard with HR and our Learning and Development team to implement unconscious bias training for our employees. We’ve also been supporting our colleagues with the difficulties of lockdown by having an arts and crafts session and by holding a Laughing Yoga workshop, which was great fun!

Find out more about International Women's Day and how you can get involved on the International Women's Day website.

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