Earlier this month Murray Edwards College, one of three all-women Colleges at University of Cambridge, marked the launch of its 60th anniversary celebrations with a research report Women Today, Women Tomorrow. The research, which I wrote about in my previous blog post, explores the lives and careers of our alumnae and reveals that 38% of respondents who report workplace challenges cite some form of gender inequality.
So it was disappointingly timely that last week the hostility often faced by women in positions of seniority or visibility in public life was brought to the fore by the Daily Mail's diary story about the panel of experts invited to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study on Newsnight.
One of the two female scientists in question, Dr Hiranya Peiris, a world-leading expert on the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background, is a Murray Edwards (formerly New Hall) alumna. The other, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, is a renowned space scientist and presenter of The Sky at Night. (Incidentally she is due to speak at a 'women in science symposium' the College is hosting in the autumn as part of our continued 60th anniversary celebrations.)
Not only was the diary piece profoundly insulting to the two female experts concerned, but what struck a chord with me was the language used. To describe one of our leading science communications experts as "giggling" speaks volumes about the different adjectives we use to describe men and women. No man would be referred to as "giggling", in the same way he would not be labelled "aggressive" or "bossy" instead of 'assertive' and 'a strong leader'.
We are fully in support of UCL's open letter to the Daily Mail, which expresses disappointment at the paper's insinuations that the experts were chosen for anything other than their academic qualifications. The original diary story, and the paper's vaguely patronising response (acknowledging that both 'ladies' were highly qualified) to criticism from UCL, were risible.
However, I am increasingly concerned that things are not moving fast enough for gender equality within the workplace and at senior levels of political and public life and I believe that a major culture transformation is needed. The annual women on boards research, due out this week from Cranfield School of Management, shows that while the numbers of women on the Boards FTSE companies is increasing, progress where it really counts - in executive positions - is still lagging way behind.
Indeed this latest media storm perhaps underlines how important it is to ensure there is greater diversity amongst the people at the top of every profession. The sight of two female experts, both from BME backgrounds, should not be so unusual it is deemed something to be remarked upon. Until women are given equal prominence as leaders and experts, then the few who do play a prominent role will feel ever more exposed.