We Are Essex

Alison's story

Alison Clark in the winter garden of Essex Business School

"I’ve been a feminist for 40 odd years."

I felt happiest when I had my son, which is almost 25 years ago now. At the time I was in another life and I was doing a conversion course from my first degree into law. And I was at the bit when you go to the law college and I was about 2/3 the way through that. Most of that year I was pregnant, and then, just the night before my exams, so Easter 1993, my waters broke. I was 31 weeks pregnant then, that was obviously very early, so they took me to the hospital and they told me: you have to stay. And I said: well, I can’t do that, I have a series of exams to do. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed out, because once your waters break, you can go into labour any time and have a prem baby. So they said: you have to stay here, we have to monitor you. So they let me do the exams there. So I had my own room, I left a note on the door saying: “exams in progress, no one can enter”, and I did all my exams in hospital.

Essex has been fantastic to me. I’m 64 and when I got to my 50’s I found the most amount of age discrimination. I’ve been involved in law for a long time and eventually thought I’ll do a course and of course Essex is just down the road. I did a Masters in Human Rights and Essex accepted me which was delightful and the Human Rights department were just fantastic and very encouraging. Then I did a Frontrunner placement during the summer and I remember thinking at this stage I was in my early 60s and I thought they weren’t going to take me seriously, but they did and they took me and it worked really well. Then I thought I’ll do a PhD and my supervisors were fantastic and encouraged me to apply for funding. Lo and behold I got the funding and just thought, this is meant to be. I feel I’ve got a lot of opportunities through Essex which have been denied to me elsewhere and I’ve never felt even a hint of age discrimination. I’ve had so many good experiences here and it’s turned things around for me and I hope by early next year I’ll have a PhD and that opens a lot of doors I hope. So when people are thinking of retiring I think oh ok I’ll have another career and do something else.

I’ve been a feminist for 40 odd years and as I’ve got older I’ve become more interested in the concepts and philosophy behind some aspects of feminism. It has to be said that when I started doing my PhD I was going to be doing something a lot more mechanical and instrumental than what I’ve ended up doing. When I did my masters dissertation I did that about women on boards, but I did that around quotas, so it was a much more instrumental process of saying if you introduce quotas obviously you get more women. Whether that is a good or a bad thing that is another question but you get the outcome that you want. One of my heroines would be this French writer called Simone de Beauvoir. She was just 30 years ahead of her time, she was philosopher, and some of her stuff is fairly incomprehensible, but she also wrote fiction, she wrote a series of fiction novels actually and her stuff is fantastic, it’s actually very easy to read. But she wrote this other book, called The Second Sex, which is considered to be THE feminist book, and although she didn’t use the terms sex and gender, she was probably one of the first people to infer that we have our biology, but doesn’t necessarily need to make us who we are, that doesn’t dictate our destiny. She identified this distinction that you can have, so we are born with female body or in some cases parts thereof; but our socialisation is very much what makes us become a woman, so her very famous phrase is: One is not born, but becomes a woman; and that’s a lot what my PhD is about.

My PhD is about the gender composition of women on corporate boards, so the fact that there are very few women who sit on the boards of FTSE 100 companies which are the top, 100 companies by value. There's been a mass of material written about this, and it was the reason why it was a good thing to do. Although that’s a bit of a double edge sword, cause sometimes it can just be too much. And I have to admit, I don’t really care that much about women on boards in one sense; it’s just a really useful hook. And because there are lots of data and lots of stats about women, and it’s been traced over quite a few years; you can see what the progress has been, and there has been progress. But I’m looking at it specifically from a corporate point of view, in a sense that corporations tend to use this discourse called: the business case for diversity. So if you look up anybody’s website, in fact, Essex will have it as well, everybody loves diversity and inclusion; and then business case for diversity and inclusion is even more precise because it’s saying: “we need more women on senior levels and on boards, because they have all these qualities: we’re kind, caring, cooperative, as opposed to men who are supposedly assertive, forceful and decisive”. And the rationale is that because women have these certain qualities that they will bring with them to work; which are different to those of men and that will improve the profitability.

My argument is that this is nonsense. And although we have qualities that are socialized, they’re not biological. So, as Simone de Beauvoir would say, we are not determined by our biology. We may be determined by our socialization, but not by our biology. There’s always something else and that’s what I’m interested in is that there is always something else to consider when corporations are pigeonholing women and men.


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