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Inspecting the glass ceiling

‘I’m living proof that Cambridge can be different,’ says Pembroke PhD candidate Monica Wirz.

‘I am much older than most graduate students. I’ve already had a successful career. I’m about to become a grandmother. I’m from Brazil and I’m not part of the British class system. But I’ve never been happier than I am here. This is very much my community.’

Monica is keen to make it clear that the University of Cambridge can become home for anyone. This month the local cinemas are showing The Riot Club, a parody of the wealthy all-male Bullingdon Club at the University of Oxford. Monica went to see it and she says, ‘I left feeling quite sad. It presents a paper-thin idea of what Oxbridge is. I just didn’t recognise it. Studying here, do I see lots of kids with privilege? Yes. But they are just one part of the community. What these accounts fail to show is the diversity of the students who come to Cambridge. It makes other people feel that perhaps they wouldn’t belong here but they definitely could.’

Her own experience has been that the collegiate system allows students of all backgrounds to quickly feel at home. She says: ‘From my experience at Pembroke at least, you are made to feel so welcome and people are so warm. That’s a side of Cambridge people don’t always see.’ To celebrate the completion of her PhD, which she handed in earlier this month, she gathered together a diverse collection of her friends from around the College for a tea party. Fellows, students, porters, admin staff and family all joined her for a slice of Brazilian cake, underlining her sense of Pembroke’s community spirit.

Monica (2)

Gaining six degrees

Monica came to study at Pembroke having worked in marketing and strategic planning roles at leading global companies for over 25 years. She has been running her own management consultancy business since 2001. In her own words, she has ‘gone through all of the classic steps you need to follow in order to grow your career’, including obtaining an MBA. Alongside her work she has also raised her family, a juggling act familiar to many twenty-first century women.

‘People often ask me why I wanted to do a PhD,’ she says. ‘I had my job, I had my family, and I already had three degrees, so why go back to university?’ However, working within the allegedly gender-neutral work structures of the corporate world she began to see a discrepancy: ‘I started to feel that I had some questions about gender in the workplace from my own experience of being on the executive track. For example, why – despite recent advances – are women still a significant minority in top corporate posts? Everyone talks about gender equality, but it just doesn’t seem to materialise. Many people are aware of the problems, but they don’t have the language to explain them, so they go unmentioned. It therefore seems like they don’t exist, but they are very real for someone who is in the system.’

Rather than brushing her doubts aside, Monica decided to take them seriously: ‘I realised that the only way to address these issues was to do it properly. I needed to research the issue; I needed to gain the vocabulary to talk about it, which meant studying theories of gender, critical management and social anthropology, among other disciplines.’ In 2005 she returned to university to take a Masters in Gender at the London School of Economics. From there, she joined the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. In 2010 she became the first student of the Centre to graduate with an MPhil, and then the first to register for a PhD.

Finally she was ready to embark on a thesis that attempted to understand and challenge the practical realities of the corporate world. Monica was uniquely well-placed to address the issue with both experience and expertise. She says: ‘Having had first-hand experience in the workplace, it is an absolute privilege to be able to make sense of it with theoretical tools and then go back into the system as a researcher and practitioner. It’s all about theory informing practice and vice-versa.’

Going undercover

Monica spent almost four years as a researcher inside corporations and executive search firms to observe the methods they use to select board members, CEOs and candidates for other senior management positions. All the time she had an eye on issues of diversity and gender parity. Sometimes she felt a bit like an undercover detective: ‘Because I am the same age and have the same background as many of the consultants, I blended in and was able to observe the processes all the way through.’

She also had important insider knowledge: ‘I know how these companies operate, which affected the way I approached the whole project. For example, I couldn’t just conduct a simple series of surveys and interviews. People like me have been so thoroughly media trained that they would know exactly what to say and what not to say. They would always be acting as corporate officers and defending the reputation of their companies. So a standard survey just wouldn’t work. To ask the difficult questions, I had to find other methods.’

By observing interviews, meetings and selection sessions, she gained an exceptional insight into the realities of the executive search processes. She says: ‘It is only in these moments that you start to see that, on an individual basis, people want equality. But there are so many cracks along the way that this ideal gets lost.’ Her thesis concluded that in order for things to change there needs to be an integrated institutional effort. ‘You cannot simply ask for individual families or workplaces to change; it has to be a solution that is integrated from the level of legislation and social policy that then impacts social attitudes, work practices and individual behaviour.’


Monica is a whirlwind of activity. Whilst completing her PhD, she appeared in the media several times to discuss the relationship between parenthood and the working world. She was commissioned by Cambridge Judge Business School to write a report on why there is a gender imbalance in business degree applications. She is also co-ordinating the PemWomen@30 committee. So what is PemWomen@30?

PemWomen@30 med-res logo‘Pembroke is marking 30 years since the arrival of women students at the College with a number of events across the 2014-15 academic year,’ she explains. ‘I think this year of events is really important. We’re not just throwing one party, which would be the easy thing. With a year of different events and activities, we want to start from the perspective of women, but go far beyond that. We want to be inclusive and bring together men and women, current and past students, staff and fellows. It’s a chance to look back and consider how things have changed over the past few decades, be critical and constructive about the present, and also to talk about how we might move forward. In marking this anniversary, we want to both reflect and take action: what do we want Pembroke to look like in 30 years’ time?’

As well as overseeing the PemWomen@30 events, she will be taking a holiday with her husband and then trying to publish some of the research from her PhD. But, most importantly of all, she is heading back into the workplace.

For more about Monica’s work, see her webpage.

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