THE BLOG

What's All This 'Women in the Workplace' Stuff About Anyway?

11/12/2014 13:41 GMT | Updated 10/02/2015 10:59 GMT

I previously wrote a blog about me "regaining focus" on women.

Cambridge had taken hold of me: I was so engrossed in my studies (kind of), theatre and formal hall that my perspective on diversity issues, in schools, in universities, and in the workplace, had wavered. Considering life outside of "the Bubble" after graduation is pretty challenging and it wasn't until I attended the Opportunity Now Awards in March of this year that I regained that focus. Read all about that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/helena-eccles/regaining-focus_b_5085225.html

Shameless plug over.

In that blog, I said that what women experience at university, be that lad culture, career guidance or bullying, must affect what we experience at work later in life and influence our decision making about our future.

Now, that idea is being taken seriously. Step forward The Students' Aspiration Survey.

On Tuesday 2nd December I swapped by backpack for a briefcase, broke out of the Cambridge Bubble and headed over the Bank of New York Mellon Building in London.

Sorry, lots of "b's" there.

I arrived at BNY and felt right at home. Not because I am a qualified fund manager, not even close. My knowledge of "funds" (or lack of) starts and ends with my ever expanding overdraft. But because I was greeted in the reception by images of Cambridge University's Women's Boat Club (Newton Investment Management are sponsoring the Women's Boat Race). I'm not a rower. I don't have the limbs for it. It did, however, set the tone for the day: the power of women. And not just on ergs.

I was speaking at the 30% Club from "Schoolroom to Boardroom" seminar: an afternoon where new initiatives which target young women, at school, university and early careers, were being launched. Needless to say, I was a small fish in a very big pond. Or, to continue the rowing analogy, a novice in a Blues boat.

I was there to launch the Students' Aspiration Survey.

The Students' Aspiration Survey aims to work out how the university experience impacts our decisions after graduation:

• How crucial are our years at university in determining our future?

• Does the perpetuating university "lad" culture extend to the workplace?

• Are we properly supported and guided in making decisions about our careers?

We do not have definitive answers to these questions. I still don't think we know enough about how our years at university, a key point in our development, impact our ambitions for, and experience of, life after graduation. This is a key piece of information that is missing from our picture of a woman's journey through life. And yes, I understand that university isn't the path that every woman takes and I am not discrediting the alternatives. However, it seems to me that in order to tackle the issues that women face, all women, not just women who have a degree, the work needs to start earlier than in the "workplace".

The Girls' Attitudes Survey conducted by the Girl Guides tells us that three quarters of girls aged 11 - 21 experience sexism in most areas of their lives. The Opportunity Now Project 28 - 40 Survey tells us that 52% of women have experienced some kind of bullying or harassment in the workplace.

We have two ends of the spectrum. Now, let's really look at the bit in between: our university years.

The Students' Aspiration Survey does not replicate the "Speak Out Survey" that's been run by Cambridge University's Student Union or the "Hidden Marks" survey, run by the National Union of Students which both look at sexual harassment and lad culture at universities. Rather, The Students' Aspiration Survey will build on these findings and apply them to workplace culture, not purely to a university one.

I think this work is really important. So that we, women, can perform to our full potential and get ahead in the "workplace", wherever and whatever that may be, we need to be properly informed about the reality of working as a female. We need to be supported in making choices about our careers at university. There is still an ignorance about the barriers that women face at work. Not only do businesses and men need to understand them, but young women do. But more than that, we need to be prepared for them before we arrive at work on day 1.

The Students' Aspiration Survey will pilot in Cambridge in January 2015. At the Women of the World Conference in Cambridge, the initial results of the pilot will be published. Subject to the results, the 30% Club will roll out the survey to other universities across the country.

The Students' Aspiration Survey gives us a real chance to understand whether or not university is a key part of life that shapes behaviour, attitudes and culture in the "workplace". If the answer is "yes", as I anticipate it will be, then begins the real work to work out how we can make the female journey from university to working life as smooth, structured and supported as possible. If "no", then I guess we'll have to keep looking.