As president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, Barbara works towards making it an attractive place for women to study STEM subjects.
Chemistry – a mathematical puzzle
Barbara grew up as an only child in a working class home. At school, her innate interest in maths developed her logical way of thinking which sparked her curiosity in chemistry and science. Barbara’s father was a postman and saw the importance of education.
“I was encouraged to think that anything was possible and that if you had education, you would never be stuck. My father never treated me like a girl, just as a child that could do anything.”
At her state secondary school, it was always assumed that she would go to university but Barbara never thought of going to Cambridge. Following in older girls footsteps, she took the Cambridge entrance exams and secured a place at New Hall, one of only three colleges accepting women at the time, to study natural sciences.
"The school gave good advice that if you could do science, then you really should continue studying it! It was always a toss-up between languages and science but I was told that it’s always easier to learn sciences in a taught environment."
Finding her own pathway
At that time, only one in eight studying at Cambridge University were women and it was a place that Barbara found daunting in her first year.
"It was quite a scary place with many of the girls seeming very sophisticated. Some had a gap year and were very worldly – they knew a lot more about the world in a way that I didn’t."
Regardless of the challenges facing her, Barbara began to find her own pathway within the sciences. Struggling with the huge jump between school and university level physics and maths, she gravitated towards the biological side of chemistry: biochemistry and pharmacology. Unlimited in her choices, Barbara found studying natural sciences useful as she was able to navigate around subjects to develop her own interests.
From school, Barbara had wanted to get into international development and this desire developed into a 12 year career as chief executive of Oxfam. Barbara describes her time at Oxfam as highly pressured but the "best job ever". Not only was she responsible for delivery, media and political lobbying, she was also involved in campaigning for long-term development.
Currently, Barbara is president of Murray Edwards College (previously her old college, New Hall), Cambridge. Having previously worked in passionate organisations, she enjoys working with the fervent students of Murray Edwards.
“I would like the college to be the “go to” college for women, especially in STEM subjects.”
"There aren’t enough women in Cambridge and they don’t do as well as they should. I aim to bond together the college ethos with the fellowship, students, staff and alumnae, to do something special to support their learning."
Advice to others
Science still has a gender imbalance with a culture that assumes girls find it difficult or don’t want to study maths and science. Barbara stresses the importance of finding ways to teach chemistry and science to girls in a way that suits them. Matching this, she further sees the importance of finding good role models that exercise humility to remove stereotypes.
"I’ve experienced prejudice myself but they are often mixed up with other things. Men have both tried to stop me from getting a job but have also supported me and given me some of the biggest opportunities."
Studying chemistry and science doesn’t necessarily lead to a career in research. Barbara has had an extremely successful and varied career applying scientific skills to the world around her.
“I never regretted doing science; I love science but labs weren’t for me.”
"Having an analytical mind-set is helpful for everything. It is helpful to be able to understand the scientific processes and thinking."
She advises others not to worry about getting on the wrong track and to find what suits you.
“It’s terribly hard for young people to know exactly what to do. It’s not a bad idea if you find something that doesn’t suit you. You’ve not failed; it’s all part of exploring life.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images by Nathan Pitt © University of Cambridge
Published February 2015