Professor Dame Carol Black Talks About Being a Principal of An All-Female College in Cambridge (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 7th November 2016
As we look forward to the Annual Spark 21 Conference on 9 November 2016 at Simmons & Simmons LLP, the First 100 Years Project will be publishing excerpts of speeches from the 2015 Spark21 Conference every Monday, leading up to this year’s conference. Please visit the website for more information on how to attend.


Keynote Speech by Professor Dame Carol Black of Newnham College Cambridge

*We feature excerpts from her conversation with chair, Dame Jenni Murray.

How did you start?

I had a Degree in History and a Diploma in Medical Social Work and I went into medicine at the age of 26. At school, a grammar school, I didn’t really know what a university was, certainly neither did my parents. I had a crush on the history master, which actually, put bluntly, determined that I went into the Sixth Form History. I did ‘A’ Levels in English, Geography and History, and decided to go to university to read History, which I hated.

I mean I discovered quite quickly, once I got to Bristol, that I thought it would be about people, because I’d always really been interested in how people bring about change and make things happen. And I sort of thought that history was about people changing things. And I seemed to spend my whole time thinking about constitutions and wars and I was really very bored.

I was in a hall of residence, on a corridor with a whole lot of medics and scientists. There were only two arts people on that corridor. And I began to think, “well really I think I might like to do medicine.” But it seemed such a long journey, because of course I didn’t have any ‘A’ Levels of the right subjects. And I tried to avoid it for a time. I wanted to work in a hospital, I did know that after a while.

So I then applied to Medical School, in my own university, to do what was called First MBE where in one year you could do the equivalent of your ‘A’ Levels. If you passed that you were allowed to go into the full Medical Degree. And I got a place but I had no money, so I had to go for an interview to my local education authority, which was then Leicestershire. They turned me down.

So I gave up my place in Medicine, because I didn’t have any means of funding myself. And I went on Voluntary Service Overseas, to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the West Pacific, which was fantastic. They paid me a salary, so I saved enough money. I sent a telegram, because that’s all you had in those days, back to Bristol and said, “Can I have my place back? I’d got enough money for one year. And well if I don’t pass one year, you won’t let me into the proper Medical Degree and I [won’t have to] worry about the [money] for next years after that.”

So now that you have responsibility for students, young people and young women [as the Principal in Newnham College, Cambridge], how much do you feel that you have a responsibility to be a [role] model?

Newnham, as I’m sure most of you know, is an all-female college in Cambridge. There are only three [all-female colleges] left in Cambridge. I think my prime responsibility is to provide the environment in which they will succeed as best as they can academically. But I have a huge interest in what I will call providing them, as best as I can, with the skills that will help them as they go out into life. And I think that is something we’ve really got to map in to anything we do academically.

And my observations are that many young women, when they get to university, often don’t feel as confident as they would like to feel. So we do quite a lot now to try and build their confidence. I don’t think they’re particularly good risk takers. I, without any research, would say, I observe that men are better at risk taking than the women. So I want them to be a bit more able to take risks.

How do you build their confidence and encourage them to take risks?

We’ve got two things that are happening at Newnham.

We’ve got a weekly session, it’s only an hour. We do it on a Monday nights. We call it a Life Skills course. The young women choose all the topics that they think would be important for them going forward.

So far this term we’ve done resilience and wellbeing. That was the first thing they wanted to do. [Firstly,] they wanted to know how to deal with the media [and] how to deal with having to talk to the press or the media. [Secondly,] they asked how do they deal positively and competently with their money. I was very surprised when that came up about money matters. [Thirdly, they wanted to know] how to deal with failure and criticism? When they get their supervisions back and somebody’s taken a red pen and scribbled all over it, how do you pick yourself up and say, “it’s not so bad, I am going to be okay. I am going to be able to do this.” How do they deal with this and stay motivated. [Fourthly,] they wanted something on how they could learn how to negotiate better, so they would feel more confident. And even in your earlier panel discussion, in a way being able to negotiate might have been quite important in some of those earlier discussions.

And then we have a course which we modi- or has been modified from the BBC. Remember the BBC had a programme called ‘Springboard’ for women’s development. We have one now called ‘Sprint’ which we do twice a year. Once at the end of this term for two and a half days and once at the beginning of the Lent term. It’s about understanding yourself and then building on that, to really understand how you can present yourself well and develop your confidence. And the people are properly trained to deliver that.

The other thing I’ve found quite useful is what I call Career Seminars. When I take the different careers women might go into and I get a young woman about ten years out [to speak], I found that most useful. Because if you’re still a student, to see somebody right at the top is fine, but that’s a long way away. So I found if somebody is about ten years out, they will really relate very well, and they’ll ask lots of questions as they don’t feel inhibited.

On the question of wellbeing, what sort of things does a young student need to learn about her wellbeing? Suddenly she’s probably exposed to a sex life, for the first time. I’m assuming that 18 is when young people do it these days, I could be wrong. Alcohol. No home cooking anymore, having to look after herself. What does she need to know?

I think in order to get young women to really pay attention to some of those things, I think I would almost put before it, how do I ensure her psychological wellbeing? Because I often think if young women, as they become students, do go out and perhaps drink too much, and do have perhaps some unfortunate and undesirable sexual encounters, I just wonder if they would be better if I could really help them to have a sense of their own mental wellbeing and their psychological wellbeing.

We do have a tutor that will listen to any problems. We have put in a counsellor, and I’ve found that that’s particularly helpful in helping young women sort of navigate some of these things. Not someone you go to because you’re sick, but someone who you can just go along to and say, “I’m pretty confused. I’m maybe in a mess,” without being labelled in any way as having a mental health problem, which I think is crucially important.

I try to [set an example]. I run and they see me running and they see me doing physical exercises. I try to let them know, it’s important to keep physically fit. I eat with them quite a lot. I hope – I like to think I’m a reasonable example personally of, if you like, not drinking too much and eating reasonably.

So I think there’s quite a lot about. Am I a good role model? I try to be.

Just generally, how is the idea of a women’s college regarded in the university as a whole?

In the University of Cambridge, certainly there is no pressure for us to go mixed. Murray Edwards College has a mixed fellowship. We don’t, we’re entirely female. I see it, that at the moment I don’t think there is equality necessarily in every aspect, and we’ve been hearing about it this morning. I think we’re in a mixed university where you can go to all your lectures with men, you have supervisions with men and you socialise with men. You can come home to a very safe environment, where I hope you can try and develop as a woman.

Everything we do in Newnham is run by women, so all committees are chaired by women. Anything we decide to develop or do, actually is done by a woman. We do try very hard to see ourselves as providing that space in which women can become themselves and develop themselves. It’s not right for everyone, absolutely not right for everyone and I wouldn’t advocate it for everyone. But I think there is still room for this type of problem.

I mean my biggest problem in recruiting, is that if you’ve been to an all-girls school, you probably don’t want to come to an all-girls college, unless you come and visit us and see us. If you’ve been to a mixed school, why on earth would you consider an all-women’s institution? So I have to work very hard at showing that we’re not a nunnery, and that we have lots of fun and we’re really keen to see women become powerful women with self confidence.