Selwyn appoints first female Head Porter

Jane Asford-Thom - News Reporter 1 October 2009

History has been made at Cambridge University 800 years after its foundation. Selwyn College has appointed the first female Head Porter, 48 year old Helen Stephens, a former health service worker.The significance of the appointment has been described by the University as “a lovely story”.

The historic move marks a break with 800 years of men traditionally assuming the role. Miss Stephens told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “It is incredible to think that in this day and age there might still be jobs that women don’t do!”

Miss Stephens was a former Deputy Head Porter at Trinity College, Cambridge and five years ago set another precedent by becoming the first female porter to be employed in the porters’ lodge at Jesus College since they started admitting students in 1496.

The Vice-President for Jesus College Student Union, Phil Haddleton, told TCS: “Helen was a porter at Jesus when I was in my first year and was a welcoming and visible face around college. I think the girls liked having a female porter around – it added a new dimension to the porters’ lodge, and was someone they perhaps felt more comfortable talking to about certain issues.”

“It’s nice to see her breaking the mould and climbing the ladder of a job that has been dominated by males. With more girls coming to study at Cambridge each year, it’s good to see that both men and women are running the porters’ lodges.”

When asked about her time at Trinity, current Trinity JCR President Oli McFarlane told TCS: “Certainly no one in Trinity has ever thought of her as being different for being female.” Former President Joe Farish added “Helen did a great job in her time at Trinity and I’d like to wish her the best for the future.”

Miss Stephens has previously commented that she loves being a university porter and feels she has truly found her niche. However, porters have traditionally been men and the importance of the appointment must be noted.

Miss Stephens told TCS: “It is extraordinary to think that my appointment has made history. Why has it taken so long? In my experience female porters undertake exactly the same duties as their male counterparts and are a valuable addition to the team.”

“I can only think that the ‘security’ aspect of the job might have lacked appeal to women in days of old. Selwyn, however, has had a female porter on its staff for 14 years!”

Regarding her new role and responsibility at Selwyn College, Miss Stephens said: “Selwyn has a long history of friendly, professional and welcoming repartee and we, in the porters’ lodge, will work hard to ensure this tradition continues.”

“I have a 9 strong team of very dedicated and motivated staff and we all look forward to welcoming in the new academic year. Naturally, I am very excited and thrilled to be part of history in the making for Selwyn College and proud to be the first female Head Porter.”

As Miss Stephens has previously pointed out, the role of porters at Cambridge is no longer solely focused on ‘security’. While this remains a strong priority, porters are now responsible for representing front of house for university colleges, meeting and hosting conference guests as well as needing to know when to discipline students.

Being a porter also used to be a family occupation but now porters come from various backgrounds and tend to take up the job later in life. It is perhaps the changing nature of the role that has allowed for this significant transition.

Jane Asford-Thom – News Reporter