Interview: Dame Barbara Stocking

Gwen Jing 3 February 2014

"We still haven’t cracked the equality issue for women in the world” – Cambridge Alumna Dame Barbara Stocking, former Chief Executive of Oxfam and new President of Murray Edwards College, shares her views on gender inequality and international development.

In July, Murray Edwards College appointed an Alumna as President for the first time. Dame Barbara Stocking, who studied Natural Sciences here, became one of the university’s most notable alumnae, having acted as regional director of the National Health Service before becoming Chief Executive of Oxfam GB for twelve years. She was awarded Damehood in 2008.

She talks to The Cambridge Student about her colourful career, the challenges she has faced, and her agenda as President of one of the three remaining female-only colleges.

Sitting comfortably in her modest President’s Suite at Murray Edwards College, Dame Barbara begins: “I love being back here. I feel the college made a big difference in my life – it gave me a lot of confidence. And I’m very keen to support young women in going forward in careers, because we still haven’t cracked the equality issue for women in the world. I thought my generation would do it, and we didn’t. That makes me feel that there is a real purpose to what I’m doing here.”

Since graduating from Cambridge, Dame Barbara has worked in leading positions for major organisations. Outlining her career path, she says: “The thing I really wanted to do was International Development. I was wisely advised at Cambridge that you can’t just get straight in. It took me till I was 28 until I actually got a job in International Development. I got married – my husband was in the UK, so I got another job in the UK. I got sucked completely into Health. Until the Oxfam job came up. Then I got back into my first love, really. But it was obviously not a very direct route.”

When asked what her favourite position has been, she replies without hesitation: “Oh, Oxfam. It’s an incredible organisation with people who are so committed at every level. Seeing them make such a difference – I can’t think of anything that would be more rewarding to have done.” Under her management, Oxfam’s revenues increased from £187.3m to £385.5m in twelve years, which went towards addressing crises across the world. “I went to over 80 countries in my 12 years. My respect for what poor people do in the most difficult circumstances is just huge now, really.”

She also describes Oxfam as “the most equal place I’ve ever worked.” The biggest sense of not being equal, she claims, was at events like Davos, the World Economic Forum which took place last week and where she had annually represented Oxfam. “There are only 15% women there […] I spent so much time having to project myself as someone having something worthwhile to say. And I thought – surely not by now; surely we have changed the world to have your views treated equally without having to prove who you are all the time.”

But did she expect this? “When I left university, I thought there was no problem. So persuading all of you students that it’s still really something to think about because you will hit it later, is quite important. The more senior I got, the more I became concerned about what goes on in the workplace, because there is still huge stereotyping of women. In the health service, at very senior level, there was actually quite a lot of bullying. The view was that 'she’s not tough enough.'”

How did she deal with these challenges? “A lot of it is just resilience. I sort of ignore the opposition. And have a belief in what you’re doing – it’s fundamentally that. In both the health services and Oxfam, I was so driven by the things needed to be done – it carries you through those times.”

Dame Barbara highlights a need for both structural and cultural changes in order to improve career progression for women. But does she believe in quotas? “Interestingly, I’m beginning to believe in quotas. It’s the developing world that has convinced me about quotas. In a number of governments in [Africa], they are setting quotas for women in parliament. That is making a huge difference. If they can do it, and we can’t get there any other way – why can’t we do it? The whole system has been stacked in history against women; women are just as good.”

"I will know we are equal when there are as many mediocre women in top positions as there are men”, she quotes. “I wouldn’t have chosen to get there this way. But after all my lifetime, and seeing it not happen – maybe you’ve just got to do it.”

Coming back to Cambridge – has anything changed? “I think in a funny way it’s somewhat tougher for you students now. The world now feels so overwhelming and competitive. Finding your own way seems to me a harder thing than when I was here.”

Her words of advice to students: “The world is not equal, and you will be challenged by things, but you’ve just got to keep your confidence going through that. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Students put expectations on themselves to be clear where they’re going and exactly the path to get there – but you don’t have to. I don’t think I’ve ever known until the last big, long-terms jobs what I’d be doing in the next three years ahead.”

But Dame Barbara chooses Murray Edwards now. She explains a strong agenda for developing the college further within Cambridge: “I think the university needs Murray Edwards. The things we are doing with women’s development (along with Newnham and Lucy Cavendish) are very important for Cambridge. I’m meeting a lot of people from the university, departments and so on. They need us and we need them and we can make a good partnership.”

So the direction is not towards a mixed college? “Not at the moment at all, no. As I say, I don’t think we’ve cracked it. If you’d have asked me in, say 1985, “would Murray Edwards have gone mixed?”, I would’ve said – of course! But now I feel differently. We have not got there, there is still a big need to work on women’s equality, and therefore I still believe in having a college for women.”