I wrote the article below for the Maastricht newspaper, Observant, based on an interview with Jennifer Barnes, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
“Feeling insecure is not exclusive to women”
Successful women are not superhuman. They fight to get where they are, fall along the way and battle insecurity like the rest of us. This is a message that Dr Jennifer Barnes would like women to hear. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy at the University of Cambridge will deliver the keynote speech at the Theater aan het Vrijthof on Monday 1 September. She spoke with Observant in Cambridge about opera singing, Dutch women and failure.
“As a woman, you have to accept the mistakes and failures when you make them, and reflect on why they happened. But don’t dwell on them in ways that are destructive to your own sense of self and confidence, because tomorrow you’re going to have to get up and do it all again.”
Hers is not a bio that suggests she is used to failure. An opera singer turned musicologist, Barnes later became the first Group Director of Global Education at BP, one of the world’s largest energy companies. There, she spearheaded investments in higher education worth $250 million per year. Next she became president of Murray Edwards, an all-female college at the University of Cambridge. Now, she is one of five deputies to the Vice-Chancellor, responsible for driving the university’s international strategy. What failures could there possibly be?
“Oh my goodness, too many to mention”, she laughs. “It’s funny, when I’m speaking to young people I always want to write a bio that describes all the things that went wrong, because I think that would be so much more useful.”
“I still remember the shock when I didn’t do at all well during my honours thesis as an undergraduate. I took an unconventional approach to Jane Austen, looking at the impact of the presence or absence of fathers on heroines. The examiners seemed to think I’d profoundly misunderstood Austen and were not happy with it at all.”
“I was reeling with shame; my motives back then had been to seek affirmation from people in authority. But eventually I just decided, no. I was right, they were wrong. And since then a lot of work has been done on Austen which is very similar; that’s the direction the field moved in. So I was momentarily humiliated, but not permanently.”
This sense of resilience developed at a young age. “I grew up in an interesting household”, Barnes explains. “My father, a very distinguished historian, has been blind my entire life. He was a huge role model: intellectually very able and fun, a great musician and actually an excellent athlete. But it was my mother who did all the driving, cutting down trees, fixing the boiler, drawing up plans to build a house …”
Barnes left the opera circuit when she decided she wanted a family of her own. “With that schedule I’d never be able to take care of a baby, much less conceive.” She had also found herself wanting a more intellectual challenge. She returned to academia, taking up a PhD position and later several research posts in London. Today, her neuroimaging findings are reflected in curricula at performing arts institutions worldwide, helping to enhance the performance of singers and dancers. But having two children during her PhD wasn’t easy.
“There were so many days when I thought, this is not going to work for me. I had male friends who were doing their PhDs while their women were at home cooking and looking after the children. And I was thinking, how am I going to compete with these guys? That’s when I realised I’d have to be much tougher than when I was a singer, performing in front of thousands of people. This was really tough: up all night, no contact with your peer group, no sense of when you’re going to get back to work. I had no idea when I was next going to be able to write a paragraph, but I did know I had to feed my child in the next two hours. That required a lot more toughness.”
This is a message Barnes wants women to hear: things won’t be easy, and that’s okay. “I used to be very anxious”, she explains. “I think sometimes women are given the wrong messages about anxiety and insecurity; they see it as something wrong with themselves. What we need to make clear to young women is that feeling uncomfortable and feeling outgunned is not part of being a woman. It’s the way of life. Do you think your male colleagues don’t feel like that? Of course they do. The real trick is what you do with it. I see a lot of young women these days with the attitude: I’m not going to let the environment define who I am; I’m going to define my environment. And that’s what gets me excited about your generation.”
Strong women, Barnes laughs, is also something she associates with the Netherlands. “I think my first taste of Holland was in the early eighties, when some very strong feminists were emerging from there. One evening I went to the cinema with some Dutch friends to see a film called Broken Mirrors, by a feminist director from the Netherlands. It’s still one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, and yet my Dutch friends were so tranquil throughout. That struck me as the height of urbanity and sophistication. And it got me interested in the culture, which I’ve continued to find very interesting.”
So far, Barnes has managed to avoid speaking about women in academia. “I’d like to live gender in academia, but not necessarily have to speak about it. But Martin Paul [president of Maastricht University –Ed.] put the challenge down, and I decided it’s time to face up to it.” In fact, she is looking forward to being in Maastricht. “In the UK it’s known increasingly as a rather prized destination for higher education. It has this wonderful curriculum in English, it’s in the middle of Europe – there are lots of great reasons to be interested in Maastricht.”