Astrea conference 2014 – Culture Shift 50:50
By Irrum Ali, on 8 December 2014
UCL Astrea held its inaugural conference on Tuesday 2 December – a day of celebration and support for professional services women in the higher education sector and beyond.
‘Culture Shift 50:50’ was a lively and engaging day packed with talks, activities and networking hosted at the prestigious British Library Conference Centre with more than 200 women from UCL, and other institutions, in attendance.
The Astrea network was founded only a year or so ago by Alice Chilver and Emma Todd, two colleagues in The Bartlett, UCL’s faculty of the built environment. Noticing that there was a gap in the ready availability of support and networking for UCL professional services women, Astrea has been established to:
“…empower women. And by doing so, to get women to realise their potential. We plan to do this by building a network where women can learn from each other; where our members can find mentors and role models; where they can talk about issues of common concern and where we can discuss what needs to change to reach 50/50 leadership.” (‘Our aims’, Astrea website).
The conference follows on from a year of successful events, many of which focused on key topics that Astrea has identified – career development, resilience, networking techniques – and for which there clearly is an appetite to explore further.
The morning session began earlier than expected for most when Sue Tonks, a leadership and management trainer, captured the attention of the networking delegates and gave a dynamic performance with a highly interactive icebreaker.
Asking delegates to think about the difference between the way that women and men network, she demonstrated useful ways to talk to strangers and potential business contacts.
After scene setting by the co-founders, and a quick in-your-seat networking session, President & Provost Michael Arthur showed support for Astrea with a short speech congratulating the efforts made so far (and what was probably a half-joke about the slight terror of addressing such a formidable, female audience).
Tone set, the morning kicked off with a panel discussion formed of esteemed professional women (you can view the list of speakers on the Astrea website). The topic of discussion was a broad one: will gender equality in the workplace ever be achieved? It was interesting to hear the panel discuss the area with authority, frankness and a healthy dose of statistics.
The value of quotas, the definition of ‘real’ equality and the intersectionality between gender and race, class and sexuality were all explored in-depth, with audience participation via a question and answer segment.
This provided plenty of food for thought in the first of the breakout sessions, with small groups split up throughout the venue and an opportunity to share thoughts over coffee.
Under the guidance of a facilitator, the delegates were encouraged to think about their personal experiences and discuss, from their own career journeys, how they could use the information and advice offered by the panel.
Sitting next to (most likely) strangers and yet also colleagues proved a highlight for many, as a forum for reflection was not something they encountered every day. Others expressed how useful this would prove in the future.
Another opportunity for networking presented itself at lunch when groups were mixed again and encouraged to meet one another and put their now well-used networking skills to use over sandwiches and cake.
Following this, the afternoon session proved to be full of further useful information with many of the abstract ideas discussed (building confidence, mentoring, supporting each other) given a human face. Six UCL staff bravely shared a five-minute snapshot of their career journeys so far, passed on their three key lessons and imparted two pieces of worthwhile advice.
All six women had reached UCL in different ways and it was clear many of the delegates could relate to the stories they heard. Inspiring, engaging and heartfelt – it was the perfect follow-up to the high-powered morning of idea-swapping.
More breakout sessions rounded out the afternoon where delegates, having chosen in advance, took some time out to explore different topics under the leadership of women happy to pass on their wisdom. These interactive sessions encouraged delegates to think differently about their career development, networking skills, taking risks, confidence levels and policy knowledge.
Wrapping up the event was a promise to keep in touch and keep it up – to continue sharing, inspiring and thinking about how to succeed professionally. A last chance to swap details at the drinks reception enabled UCL professional services women to build their own networks and to continue to share ideas and support one another.
Astrea has many more events planned that will no doubt build upon the success of what was a unique and worthwhile conference.
View images from the Astrea conference 2014 – Culture Shift 50:50: