Cambridge Festival of Ideas examines the current state of gender bias

miniature woman between two large books _Image copyright: Cristina Conti

What’s the real story behind why there are so few women executives in Britain’s top companies? Why are women in danger of being sidelined by the technology revolution? How do we deal with digital violence and hate speech against women? Does it matter how men and women are portrayed in advertising?

These questions and more are set to be explored during this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which runs from 14 – 27 October and features many events on gender-related issues.

Speakers include the economist Dr Victoria Bateman; Professor Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain; author and award-winning campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who wrote the #3 Sunday Times best-selling book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men; and Dr Magdalena Zawisza-Riley, whose new book, Advertising, Gender And Society, examines how men and women are portrayed in advertising.

Despite years of discussion about the alleged advantages of gender diversity only 8.5% of top executives in Britain’s 350 largest companies are women. The reasons for this are often blamed on ‘scientific’ gender difference – women have different brains, wired to do empathy and motherhood rather than leadership – or a lack of ambition and confidence. In Changing the story? Women and leadership (16 Oct), Heide Baumann, a seasoned business executive and multi-disciplinary PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, tells quite a different story.

Speaking ahead of her talk, Baumann said: “Discussions about the scarcity of women leaders are animated by a puzzling range of contradictory facts and fictions. The most popular explanations stand on empirically contested ground, whereas academically rigorous counter-narratives often don’t make it into mainstream awareness. This matters hugely, because stories are pervasively powerful. They serve to justify and shape people’s reality, vision and sense of self. They can keep us stuck in status quo – or lead to rapid change in culture.”

The topic of brains being wired in a certain way is explored in more depth during What do our brains tell us about who we are? (18 Oct). This event is a panel discussion about how the brain adapts to new experiences and how much of what we do changes what we think and who we are. With political neuroscientist and Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College Dr Leor Zmigrod, Professor Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain, David Halpern from the Government's ‘nudge unit’ and Grant Bartley, editor of Philosophy Now. Chaired by philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Rippon said: “We live in a gendered world, where we are bombarded with messages about the differences between girls and boys, women and men. And these messages will change the experiences we have, the attitudes we encounter, the image we have of ourselves – and will change our brains. A gendered world will produce a gendered brain.”

Women and technology are also explored in two key events:

In Invisible women: data bias in a world designed for men (19 Oct), author and award-winning campaigner Caroline Criado Perez and Professor Ann Copestake, Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, discuss whether women are in danger of being excluded by the technology revolution. They reveal how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population, and illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten. In particular, the focus is on AI and the male bias in data that machine learning algorithms are trained on.

In Digital violence against women: finding a solution (23 Oct), academic and activist Dr Lilia Giugni discusses the growing and disturbing issue of digital violence against women. As the online world becomes smaller so do the digital safe spaces for women who face abuse and threats of violence from trolls and bullies hidden behind a monitor. Digital violence can happen as a form of revenge porn for women by a partner or ex-partner; women who are dealing with domestic abuse in the home find it continues online; racist abuse is hurled at MPs, and academics have had their lives threatened for expressing an opinion.

Dr Giugni discusses the current issues women are facing and the innovative solutions that are being devised to deal with the hate and vitriol on social media platforms by faceless beings.

The portrayal of women and men in advertising and whether it actually matters is explored during the talk, Because we are worth it! On changes in advertising, gender and society (26 Oct). Dr Magdalena Zawisza-Riley, Anglia Ruskin University, analyses the representation, effectiveness and effects of gendered ads based on her new book, Advertising, Gender And Society.

Further events related to women and gender include:

  • The rising tide: women at Cambridge (Mon-Fri 14 to 25 Oct, Sat 19 & 26 Oct). Exhibition focused on the fight for equal educational rights at Cambridge and the careers of women who shaped the institution and the world.
  • Rise: inspirational women (14 Oct to 25 OCT, weekdays only). Special pop-up exhibition of the choices made by former and current Cambridge students and staff who nominated a woman associated with the University who inspired them.
  • Creative connections: portraits of women scientists and artists by Anne-Katrin Purkiss (17 Oct). Photographer Anne-Katrin Purkiss shares her experience of photographing female artists and scientists for over 30 years.
  • Women entrepreneurs in 18th-century London: change or continuity? (19 Oct) It is often assumed today that women did not enter the labour force before the 20th century. This talk examines the significance of the discovery that in the 18th century women were not only central to the labour market but also ran businesses.
  • All change please: the Royal Society elects two women scientists for the first time (20 Oct). The Royal Society elected its first women fellows in 1945: Marjory Stephenson and Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. Who were these two female scientists and what has their impact been?
  • Who will look after us in our old age? (21 Oct) Will it be robots, women or will immigration need to rise to deal with the growth in the numbers of elderly people needing care? Panel discussion with affective computing expert Professor Peter Robinson, Sociologist Elif Cetin, economist Victoria Bateman and Dan Holden from the International Longevity Centre. Chaired by BBC Cambridgeshire's Chris Mann.
  • Women in cartography (23 Oct). The role of women in map production and publishing has often been overlooked or trivialised. This event showcases fantastic examples of their output from the 17th century to today and tracks how cartography and attitudes have changed.
  • These four walls: a secret history of women home-workers (25 & 26 Oct). Created by historian Dr Helen McCarthy and artist Leonora Saunders, this fascinating exhibition highlights the complicated and precarious history for women doing paid work at home. Each image reimagines the life of these women, from the Victorian seamstress and Edwardian chain-maker to the post-war child-minder and late 20th century entrepreneur.
  • Curating these four walls (25 Oct). The creators of These Four Walls discuss the subject of women working at home.
  • Are we all thin enough yet? How the thin ideal conquered the world (26 Oct). Prof. Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University, presents a history of the thin ideal of beauty, showing how this ideal – far from being ‘natural’ – has been shaped by culture, politics and patriarchy.
  • Women with ideas that changed the world (26 Oct). Do you know who invented the dishwasher, solar panels or the modern bra? Alison Ainley, Anglian Ruskin University, explores examples of women whose ideas changed the world, why it has taken time to recognise them and how their achievements are being celebrated today.
  • Women at Cambridge university: witnesses and agents of change (26 Oct). Cambridge women discuss their lives of challenge and change as undergraduates, graduates and staff within the University during the 1970s, '80s and '90s. They reflect on how their professorial life compares with Dorothy Garrod’s, the first female professor who was elected 80 years ago. 

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, Heffers, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

 *The programme is available in hard copy around Cambridge and online here. Bookings open at 11am on 23rd September 2019. Follow the Festival on Twitter at and on Facebook at

Image copyrightCristina Conti


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