04/04/2014 10:10 BST | Updated 03/06/2014 06:59 BST

Regaining Focus

The challenges for women in the workplace are being addressed. I am not convinced that that is the only setting where these issues are rife. There are links between university and work and I would like to work out where those lie.

I haven't published a blog for some weeks. University life has certainly lured me away from writing, not to mention the never-ending pile of essays on Stalinism that have been slowly accumulating on my desk. Unashamedly, I have been indulging myself in plays, radio and general debauchery and it is fair to say that my focus has momentarily shifted, not from my academics (despite my supervisors' claims); rather, I forgot my passion for women.

Last night at the Opportunity Now Awards, I regained that focus.

I was attending the awards on behalf of IBM as a shortlisted candidate for the Inspiring the Workforce of the Future Award. Unfortunately, we did not walk away with the delightful Perspex trophy, which would have looked splendid in the foyer of the South Bank office, but that is beside the point.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Really, I'm not.


At dinner, I was sitting next to Jo Bostock, founder of Pause Consultancy and author of "The Meaning of Success; Insights from Women at Cambridge." As an undergraduate at a female college, I had quite a lot to say about this topic.

We discussed the stigma attached to students from all female colleges within the University, the seemingly superficial ethos of the colleges and whether there was even a need for them. All of these discussions were enlightening but one question rang true.

Jo put it to me: What are you going to do with these insights that you have? You have credibility to put your views forward and share them in a meaningful way.

I didn't have an answer. I think I may have made an awkward comment about the main course.

In all honesty, I'm not sure I felt credible until that point. Dare 2B Different was, is and will continue to be a success. But I never felt as if that success was down to me. Perhaps because I was working for IBM and the work I did was for the greater good but also for the greater good of the company. Perhaps because I was 18 and quite frankly I was winging it for a lot of the time and brazenly badgering senior execs in an attempt to understand what the bloody hell was going on.

But now, thanks to Jo's probing question, I realise that I do understand.

I understand that until you make gender diversity and diversity in general a business case, the senior team who have the power to change the environment side-line the issue and put "diversity" in a corner.

And nobody puts "diversity" in a corner.

Corporations have all the marketing spiel about gender diversity. But no-one really does anything about it. Not in a meaningful or measurable way. But now I have moved away from IBM and am at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, ironically, there is a similar culture. There is a lot of rhetoric about promoting the female colleges and providing a platform for women to succeed. Don't get me wrong, the pastoral and academic support is excellent. But the majority of students there don't want to retreat to the ivory tower. They want to use their Cambridge experience and use it in the big wide world without Brompton bikes with baskets.

I'm not sure the infrastructure exists to make that happen.

I want to use my experiences of launching a diversity and careers programme in a corporate setting and apply it to undergraduates. I am not professing to be an expert in diversity with a wealth of CEOs in my little black book that I can lure to Murray Edwards with the promise of a free lunch and a politically friendly photo opportunity. But I can see what's missing and where the opportunities lie.

The issue of gender diversity is beginning to become a business priority. Women make business better. Still, the Opportunity Now Project 28 - 40 Report reveals that 52% of women have experienced bullying in the workplace and feel that their career has been limited, not due to pregnancy and maternity leave, but due to ignorance about the barriers that women face.

We know these attitudes exist and we know that they are damaging.

But, who is asking where these attitudes are born?

I am not convinced that they are the result of a corporate, male dominated environment - yes, I think that is where they develop - but the grass roots of these opinions start much earlier.

At university.

I think we need "Project 18 - 25" and I would like to be a part of that work.

A lot of my male peers regard me as "Little Miss IBM" who "bigwigged it up". It would be refreshing to be known as Helena who worked really hard and did really well and well bloody done to her. I have not and will not let this type of behaviour get to me. But it is expected and accepted. This type of acceptance must influence a working culture and therefore the experience that women have at work. After all, the majority of people you mix with at university are destined for "the workplace". The culture has already started before we get there, the environment has just changed.

The challenges for women in the workplace are being addressed. I am not convinced that that is the only setting where these issues are rife. There are links between university and work and I would like to work out where those lie.

So, thanks, Jo Bostock, for prompting me to think: "What are you going to do with all this stuff?"

I am thinking hard about my response.