Inspirational Women: A Q&A with women of the University of Cumbria

To celebrate International Women’s Day and inspire the girls and women of Cumbria, we have reached out to our wonderful academic team to hear a few of the inspirational stories that make the University of Cumbria the thriving, supportive community that it is. From women who were told their potential was limited or had to overcome barriers to achieve professional success, our message to you today is that it’s possible and you can do it. Happy International Women’s Day!

Inspirational Women: A Q&A with women of the University of Cumbria

Professor Kaz Stuart, Director of the Centre for Research in Health and Society

Kas stuart , Kas stuart director of the centre of reaseach

Professor Kaz Stuart is a key figure here at the University of Cumbria, respected by colleagues and students. But she wasn’t always on the pathway to professorship. Encouraged to work in the local sewing factory before moving to Turkey to manage a paragliding business, Kaz eventually decided to train to teach primary school. Now, following a successful career, she has taken on the role of Director for the Centre for Research in Health and Society which brings internal and external research agendas together locally, nationally and globally to transform lives 

Tell us about the start of your career.  

I did very badly at school, I wasn’t ready to learn, I was bullied and played truant as I hated school so much. Teachers told me I was only good enough to work in the local sewing factory – I decided I wanted to be a tank driver (!) but was too short to join the army. Instead I retook some exams and finally got to university to train to be a primary school teacher as a first generation student. Whilst my family were very supportive I struggled to shake the belief that I wasn’t really clever enough. 

Kas stuart Quote, a quote from Kas stuart

What stands out as the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?  

Early on in my ‘career’ I took an overseas post as a manager of a paragliding business in Turkey. It was the 1990’s, I was a female manager, and I had purple hair. The local partners in Turkey did not want to work with a ‘strange’ young woman and I had a lot of work to build trust and demonstrate I was capable. This early experience in cultural competence (on my part) and overcoming prejudice (on their part) set me up well for future collaborative work. 

What is your proudest career moment?  

Becoming a professor was the proudest moment in my career – of course the title and accolade itself was wonderful, but it was all the more poignant grounded in my research in inequality and by someone who seemed, from the outset, to be very unlikely to ever work in a university let alone become a professor in one. I am very privileged that a number of people made this possible through their positive influence and role modelling. 

Kas stuart Quote 2, Kas stuart Quote

Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?  

In ‘starting again’ with education I also moved from a Yorkshire comprehensive school to a Kent grammar school. One teacher there told me I could not learn French until I learned to speak English – this prejudice motivated me to prove them wrong. An English teacher, conversely, supported my every step through English literature and helped me start to believe I could be successful. This influenced me to study English Literature alongside Education at university.  

From that point onwards a range of inspiring colleagues have influenced me to continue to be as excellent a participatory researcher as I can be. Distinguished Professor Michelle Fine from the Central University New York is a wonderful, warm, powerhouse. She always creates positive social change from her research and stands out as a guiding light for me to be more activist and outspoken with my research. 

Have you ever experienced gender inequality or have experienced good examples of gender equality? 

Being a woman in the outdoor sector was always an interesting experience, and I often noticed how much harder I had to work to prove myself than male counterparts to gain outdoor instructor tickets and licenses. In contrast, my experience of working at the University of Cumbria has been very positive with ample opportunities to take responsibility and to gain promotion. I think implicit gender inequality is a wider sector issue though, with male academics sometimes presenting their views more forcefully than females and therefore gaining more credence.  

What do you want to see next for women in and/or out of the workplace?  

Opportunities for women have transformed radically throughout my lifetime which is inspiring in and of itself, and there is further to travel. Tackling unconscious or implicit biases will be a key challenge (not just for gender), and it will take much longer to truly dismantle the legacy of patriarchy. Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Sarah Ahmed remain key theoretical figures pushing the next steps forward theoretically, and I hope the next generation will take them forward practically.  

What do you see in our female students and their future? 

Young people are experiencing so many more pressures than the last generations did. Social media challenges are new and powerful, many things once taken for granted are now precarious – work, relationships, pensions, housing. And, global issues threaten the human race from a health and environmental perspective. As traditional ‘care givers’ and now also ‘professionals’ I wonder what additional pressures young women may feel in this new context. 

 Anne Gager, Senior Lecturer within the Institute of Education

Anne Gager, Senior Lecturer within the Institute of Education , Anne Gager, Senior Lecturer within the Institute of Education on international Womans day

Anne Gager is a well-respected senior lecturer who strives to realise the goals of our student teachers. Her career started out with a bang as she found success in a series of roles that were unusual for women to be in. When family crises struck, Anne had to find the balance between caring and career. 

What did you study at university AND/OR What was your first role?  

I trained to teach for four years at King Alfred’s college Winchester where I did a 5th year as sabbatical officer, Vice President of the Students’ union. Sabbatical positions were fairly new at this time and it certainly wasn’t a ‘woman’s world’. I enjoyed the world of working, largely with men and I found the prejudices of being young, female and northern well and truly alive! 

My first teaching job was in a Secondary school where during my Newly Qualified teacher year I became Acting Head of Department, which was extremely unusual. I secured a permanent Head of Department post at another Secondary school in 1984 when I was just 25. My background is in teaching pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

What stands out as the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?  

My biggest challenges have been since I had my family. 

I have four daughters, the eldest one being only 5yrs old when the youngest was born. They are now adults, but having four children has been the backdrop to my career as I have viewed being a mother and in my case, chief carer, as a career too. For this reason, I have worked part time since having children.  

I have worked at the University of Cumbria since 2000. In that time one of my daughters was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy (and still lives at home) and my eldest daughter had her first son, my grandson, who died within an hour of his birth. After the birth of her second child my daughter was seriously ill with perinatal mental health issues and was admitted to hospital. 

Balancing this has been tough as well as having to resist the offers and pressure of becoming full time or seeking positions of greater responsibility. 

What is your proudest career moment?  

Last month a former pupil got in contact with me, I taught him almost 30 years ago. He said I was his "rock when no-one else was looking and you made me the successful business man I am today… You’ll always be that lady that never let me down’ 

 

Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?  

My Mum was my first influence. She was a very intelligent woman who was unable to pursue a university education due to the poverty of her own parents. She had to give up her career in a bank when she got married – you were not allowed to work in the bank once you got married in the 1950s. She made raising her family her career without any (or little) resentment. She used her intelligence and skills in a voluntary capacity with many organisations. I recognised that I wanted to do what she had been unable to do in terms of career, yet I also wanted to be able to give my children what she had given to me and my brothers: stability and stimulation throughout our childhood and teenage years. 

My husband and my children have all supported me in my career. 

Have you experienced good examples of gender equality?  

YES! When I applied in 2000 to St Martin’s (now University of Cumbria), as it was then for the post of Senior Lecturer in Special Educational Needs, the job was advertised as full time. I explained in my application, that I would only be able to work 3 days. However, I was called for interview where I was told by the panel that they had read my application, and that I was being interviewed on an equal basis with all the other candidates. The panel explained that they would appoint the best candidate, irrespective of the hours that they could work. I found that very empowering. It was empowering because they made this explicit to me before the interview. It made me as a woman feel valued and that my choices were being respected. I think this statement gave me confidence for the interview. I went on to get the job and was appointed on the part time basis that I had indicated that I was available for. This was 20 years ago, I hope that the university still operates this kind of flexible policy. 

 What do you want to see next for women in and/or out of the workplace?  

I would like to see opportunities and understanding, just like the ones that I have had. 

 What do you see in our female students and their future? 

I think that there are aspirational differences. I think that women see themselves now as having a career and a career that will not have to cease due to family but one that can continue. 

Dr Tracy Ann HayesLecturer in the Institute of Health

  • Outdoor Learning Deputy Theme Lead in the Learning, Education and Development (LED) research centre. 
  • Member of Centre for Research in Health and Society (CRiHS) and Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas (CNPPA) at the University of Cumbria. 
  • Mmember of UoC’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee (RKEC) and HR Excellence in Research (HREiR) committee.  
  • I am known as a creative and inclusive researcher. 

Tracy Hayes, Tracy Hayes for interaction woman's day blog

Dr Tracy Ann Hayes is prolific in the world of research supporting young people and families. And she has achieved this despite being encouraged to get a job, get married and have children, rather than a careerHer upbringing meant she was unaware of and un-bound by traditional conventions. This gave her the ability and freedom to do things her own way, leading to her research being called innovative and creative, bringing a fresh approach to the field. 

Tell us about yourself: 

External to the university, I am convener of the Nature, Outdoor Learning and Play (Nolap) special interest group (sig) on behalf of British Educational Research Association (BERA) and Conference Officer for the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (GCYFRG) for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). In November 2020, I also joined the RGS’s Social and Cultural Geographies Research Group, following nomination by the chair of the research group, who has asked me to work with them on creative approaches to research. My roles with BERA and RGS involve working with colleagues at national and international levels, evidenced later in my application. 

What did you study at university AND/OR What was your first role?  

My doctoral research was a qualitative study titled, ‘Making Sense of Nature: A Creative Exploration of Young People’s Relationship with the Natural Environment’, which I conducted using an alternative, storied approach. In 2016 I was interviewed about my research for a feature in the i-newspaper, the resulting article included the phrase "It would be fair to describe Hayes as unconventional ..."  

How did I reach this point? 

I do not come from an academic background. My twin sister and I were the first in our family to go to university. Our parents did not believe in higher education for girls, encouraging us instead to get a job, get married and have children – a very traditional approach, that reflects their own experiences. I conformed to expectations and married young at only 19 years of age – I gave birth to my fourth child when I was 26. We grew up together. Barely out of adolescence, I embraced the opportunity to continue playing, to read children’s books and have adventures outside. We made use of outdoor spaces such as gardens, woods, fields and parks to have adventures. Reacting to my own gendered upbringing, I resolved to be different as a parent – and began to challenge expectations. I enrolled with the Open University and 6 years later graduated with BSc in Natural Sciences. 
 Tracy Hayes Quote, Tracy Hayes Quote for International Woman's Day Blog

I carried on studying, completing MA in Youthwork and Community Development and a range of other professional and academic qualifications. It was a real challenge to juggle study with family life, work and volunteering – and I learned (the hard way) the importance of having a supportive, caring network. My youngest child left home for university (all four have completed degrees and two are currently completing postgraduate study whilst parenting young children) and I chose to move to Cumbria to start a PhD. To be honest, I had no idea what this would entail – I didn’t know anyone who had completed study at this level. People started telling me that my approach was innovative, creative, challenging conventions – but I didn’t really understand what the conventions were, so I found this confusing. As I began to understand them, I embraced the challenge – I do think we need to do things differently. 

Part way through my PhD, I started an additional role as a lecturer on BA Working with Children and Families. Combining full time lecturing with study was another challenge – a good one. I love the combination of research and teaching. I successfully completed my PhD and am now known as a transdisciplinarian storytelling lecturer. I no longer feel the need to conform to outdated expectations or to follow somebody else’s rules. I want my work to reflect a wide range of interests and my writing to feel fresh and modern. This approach has enabled me to present my research findings in accessible formats and to reach both academic and non-academic audiences. I want my stories to be aesthetically pleasing, to be well-crafted and have artistic merit; however, more than that, I want them to be useful – to serve the purpose of provoking dialogue about a topic. However, I have not always found it easy to be a creative researcher. I have needed people to support me to convince others that it is legitimate to take a creative approach to research.  

What stands out as the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?  

The biggest challenge has been balancing home, family, work and study - I became proficient at reading whilst cooking dinner, and writing assignments late at night, once my children were asleep. I learnt not to be too proud to ask for help and to accept that sometimes I need to press ‘pause’ and take a break. It really is not easy to do it all and I’m still not sure I’ve got the balance right – something I review on a regular basis.  

What is your proudest career moment?  

My proudest career moment was my PhD graduation – with my husband and best friend at my side. I really felt I’d earned it, and their pride in my achievements was wonderful to see. 

The next proudest moment was volunteering for the National Trust to read Peter Rabbit in the garden at Hill Top, with my face painted as a rabbit, part of the celebrations to mark Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday. A childhood dream come true.  

I was recently described as having the courage to be imperfect and after pausing to reflect on what this means, I feel it is remarkably apt.  I am honest about what I do/do not know and have used this awareness to drive my continuing personal and professional development. This approach has also enabled me to be recognised as an inclusive, creative and playful person, who sees the four strands of practice, teaching, learning and research as of equal value. This is demonstrated by the awards/prizes I have been given for my roles as a researcher and as a practitioner, including: 

  • September 2018: Awarded Anna Craft Creativities in Education Prize by BERA Creativities in Education SIG. 
  • June 2016: Recipient of the 2016 Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Early Career Research Excellence.
  • May 2016:Recognisedas an Explorer of Outdoor Learning by being painted by Freya Pocklington (Image available here http://freyapocklington.com/?ds-gallery=national-trust-portraits) as part of her project 'Women's Work', resulting from a three-month Dorothy Una Radcliffe Fellowship in Spring 2016. The 2016 Fellowship was part of the National Trust's programme of activities celebrating 150 years since Beatrix Potter's birth. This was on public display from 2nd September to 27th November 2016, with an audio recording of me reading a story and links to my research.  

Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?  

Sorry, I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but it’s ME. My determination and resilience have helped – my insecurities and doubts have at times held me back. My children – and now my grandchildren -inspire me to keep going, to do my bit to make things better for them. In a work context, there have been so many others along the way that it seems unfair to single out one – except for Alan Hughes who encouraged me to become a Youthworker, not listening to my excuses and telling me to “Remember the Wizard’s first rule – look at the potential not the problem”. That is one rule I’m happy to follow. 

What do you want to see next for women in and/or out of the workplace?  

I am seeing amazing commitment from UoC students, who are combining their studies with caring responsibilities and work commitments – I am in awe of what they achieve, especially over the last year. I want to see more opportunities for flexible working, regardless of gender, with support and encouragement to ensure that we can take time out for caring responsibilities, without negatively impacting on our careers. 

What do you see in our female students and their future? 

I see some differences from what I experienced as a young woman, but not yet enough. I am concerned that the impact of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic is being disproportionally felt by women – not because men don’t want to do their share, but because there are still way too many structural barriers and entrenched attitudes within society that prevent this. 

More than ever, I feel the need to embrace the IWD 2021 campaign theme: #ChooseToChallenge 

As the organisers say, “A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day... Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.” From challenge comes change, so yes let's all choose to challenge. 

Tracy Hayes Quote 2 , Tracy Hayes I see differences Quote for international Woman's day

Dr Sarah Bonner, Principal Lecturer and Lead for Teaching, Learning and Student Experience. 

Sarah Bonner, Sarah Bonner

Dr Sarah Bonner is passionate about her student's success, taking a lead on Teaching, Learning and Student Experience at the university’s Institute of Arts. This passion to guide others stems from her own learning and career experienceAfter experiencing a mix-up regarding courses when she started university, she found several supportive mentors along her career. A career which began with a one hour each way commute to teach a one-hour lecture, eventually gaining her a second hour of lecturing.   

What did you study at university AND/OR What was your first role?  

I studied human geography and art history at the University of Liverpool. It was not what I had expected to study on arrival (Geography and English) but there had been a mix-up and I was scooped up by the Director of Studies and encouraged to do Geography and Art History. This mix-up set the direction of my career. 

Going to university was probably my biggest challenge at this time. I was the first in my family to go to university and was reluctant to leave home. However, the resolution of the confusion over my studies on my first day indicated the support I felt I had at this time. The Director of Studies, Prof David Thistlewood, was also the Art History tutor and became a mentor to me throughout my time at Liverpool.  

It turned out that I was quite good at Art History and majored in it by final year. In my second year I was offered a place on PhD study and at the end of third year I stayed on for postgraduate study. My time at Liverpool drew to a close when my supervisor and mentor, Prof Thistlewood died; this was a massive blow and I completed my studies with an MPhil qualification. 

My first teaching role was the result of a speculative CV mail out. From this I secured a one-hour-a-week lecture at St Martin’s College in Lancaster. My commute was an hour each way to deliver my art history lecture, but after one year I was offered a second hour. 

What stands out as the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?  

I suppose the incremental building of my teaching hours was an ongoing challenge, but this was more about reputation building and it happened relatively organically across two institutions.  

One challenge that stands out was at a time when I had been working on temporary contracts for some time and a permanent post came available. I had been doing the work necessary to the post and had the experience but lost out to an external scholar with International teaching experience. The feedback I received was that I had performed really badly in interview and that I didn’t have a PhD. So, I went out and got myself a place on PhD study at the University of Manchester with one of the best feminist scholars in the country at that time, Prof. Amelia Jones. 

Being told that my lack of PhD was frustrating for me and this event stands out because the individual who secured the appointment turned out to be unreliable and I was asked, with very short notice, to make up the shortfalls in his teaching workload. This confirmed to me that a reputation for being reliable goes a very long way. 

What is your proudest career moment?  

I feel very proud when my students have epiphanies of learning, or overcome an obstacle, when they push themselves beyond what they thought they could achieve, when they graduate, and when they write to let me know about their new job. 

Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?  

I have been lucky to have met a number of supportive individuals throughout my career. From the first day of university meeting the Prof. David Thistlewood who would encourage me into postgraduate study, the encouragement of Prof. Amelia Jones who suggested for my second conference paper I deliver it in America. Those that have influenced me have been those that have pushed me to step out of my comfort zone, their belief in me has been greater than my own. My husband, whom I met at University has an unerring belief in my ability has been the constant throughout. I suppose influence might be the wrong word, influence suggests that persuasion takes place, I have only been supported and encouraged to achieve the best that I can. 

Have you ever experienced gender inequality?  

The answer to that is ‘probably’, although I have not felt it overtly. As an academic I have felt equal to male counterparts. I took three spells of maternity leave in my thirties but don’t feel this impeded my progress. During this time, I finished my PhD, completed my viva and was awarded my PhD on the day my second baby was born. I returned to work after baby number three and two years later was promoted to Programme Leader.  

Gender inequality is systemic, I am subject to those systems as much as the next woman. In my workplace I do not feel much affected by gender inequality. However, I have of course been affected by gender inequality. If one looks solely at maternity leave, although not explicitly imposed on women, is nevertheless informed by systemic reward systems favouring men. For example, there is a clear instance of gender inequality that can be explained away by systems that financially reward men more than women so women take the maternity leave and the subsequent part-time job that mean that she is less eligible for promotion. There is a lot of work to be done around equality both within and outside of the workplace. 

What do you want to see next for women in and/or out of the workplace?  

Women are gaining a stronger voice both in work and in society, this is important. There are an increasing number of good role models, but these are equalled, if not exceed by role models that perpetuate the belief that women should be looked at, not necessarily listened to. 

I would like to see more women being activated to make change, to lead. To be supported in her choice to have a family or not, not disadvantaged because of her biological abilities. 

I would like to see men and women and all gender identities working together on an equal footing. 

What do you see in our female students and their future? 

It concerns me that the young women I work with are fairly complacent about gender inequality, they are shy of the word feminism and believe that it doesn’t have a place in their lives. For some this will change, but if we want to make change then we need more conversation about inequality with women, men and other gender identities as equal and complicit contributors. It should not be one-sided.  

I would like to see more confidence in our young women, confidence and application. For them not to be distracted, for them to set and achieve goals.