UCL Minds


Transcript 5

Talking to Titans Podcast Episode 5 - Dame Nicola Brewer

Hello, this is talking to Titans, a new podcast from University College London. With me Cathy Giangrande, UCL Alumna, art historian and conservation scientist,

And me Gudrun Moore professor of molecular genetics at the UCLA Institute of Child Health.

We're opening up some much-needed conversations about the realities of carving out a successful career in academia as a woman. over seven episodes good run and myself will be quizzing, discussing with academics who have achieved incredible things in their careers.

Over the past 50 years, there have been huge improvements to gender equality. But you know, and we know there's still a lot of work to do. There are increasing numbers of women doing PhDs, holding lecture ships and becoming professors. But there is still a large imbalance at the top of you UCL 70% of our professors are men and only 30% women. So we want to interview some of those women and talk to them about how they got there. And

Joining us, this episode is Nicola Brewer.

Hi, good, good to be with you. You're the vice provost international at UCL. Can you just explain exactly what your role is at the university?

It means that I'm one of the team of six deputies to the Vice Chancellor, President provost. And I'm kind of in charge of leading UCLA global engagement strategy. So it's all of its international activities. And I know UCL has an enormous number of international students some of the biggest number wise we are hundred and 50 countries, something like that way over 120 it fluctuates slightly from year to year, but something like that,

So you started in UCL in 2014. But you've actually had an incredible career in diplomacy before coming to the university. Can you take us through a brief history role in a civil service?

Gosh, well, um, I kind of joined the civil service for dare. So I was at university doing my PhD and I thought I was going to be an academic when I grew up. And one of my professors said, Have you ever thought about joining the foreign office? And I said, No, I'll cut the story short, because essentially, I got I got back from meeting somebody, he introduced me to went to the careers office as you do at university. And the careers office said all they won't take you, you're a woman, you know, your red brick University. And I thought, I bet, I bet I can get in. And that was sort of a bloody-minded reaction. So I got into the Foreign Office. And then essentially, it was just one amazing, interesting job after another. So I thought about going back to academia lots of times, and then they'd say, do you want to go to Paris? Or how about Mexico or India, and I love writing and change. So I've had an amazing experience, but I've also done a couple of comments outside the Foreign Office. So I've worked in the home Civil Services Department, actually development. And then I worked at the quantum Human Rights Commission. So I guess diplomacy, development and diversity are the three things that press my buttons.

And of those stations, Which one did you enjoy the most?

Everything seemed to come together in South Africa because as head of mission as Ambassador or high commissioner, you get that helicopter view. And I had a fantastic team based across South Africa in five different locations from 10 different government departments. So I could be talking about international development. One day I could be talking about trade. In the afternoon, the next day, I could be working on an international security issue or lobbying the South African government on a UN Security Council resolution. The variety was just amazing.

UCL has its own global strategy. Can you tell us a bit about what you're doing there?

So one of the targets we have in UCLA global engagement strategy is to increase the percentage of our undergraduates who get some experience overseas. Well, the undergraduates with us doesn't have to be wholly away. It doesn't even have to be old term or semester. It could just be a relatively short field trip, say, and provided it's well planned, and it's carefully integrated in their education. You know, they can come back saying it changed my life.

Yeah. Open my eyes. No, it's transformative. You would really recommend that wouldn't Absolutely, yeah.

And there's, there's neat correlation with students who have acquired that sort of experience are more employable. So it's kind of hard. But I think it's, it's, it's, if you like the soft skills, it opens people's eyes to thinking about how to other people live. I know it's maybe not quite so fashionable now as it used to be. But I firmly believe in the concept of being a global citizen. We all share this planet, there isn't another one. And we need to work together. Female professors at UCL are in a minority. And it's good that we can look up to the top of the top of the university and see women they're in serious academic management jobs where they're looking at how the university's run and how Students are treated, I really, really believe you can't be what you can't see. So what I think I've got so many heroines, and I was younger, I guess I would think about it in, in career terms. Now, most of my heroines are people who show a real understanding about how the world works. In the sort of public sphere, I really admire individuals who have a really distinctive personality, and they express themselves in very authentic way. So to kindergarten, Michelle Obama, a whole host of the hundred thousand, and lots of female friends of mine,

This might be a little bit of a controversial question. But what are your thoughts on not having the traditional title of academic?

It's a complicated one. When I was thinking about coming back into the Academy, I talked to obviously lots of people who spent their whole career in academia. And perhaps I was a little bit defensive, because I'd heard somebody say, Well, at least you've got PhD so you understand the lonliness of research. And I swallowed hard and, and thought about that one. And somebody else said to me, Look, you've been working for 30 years. As a diplomat, you learn about new cultures, you learn new languages, you learn to understand what makes a place tick. you analyse the situation, you write reports on it, you make recommendations, you in the brain business too. So I just don't see that huge distinction and diversity teams have to be made of different types of people. Exactly. And I think that when I was quite shocked when I first came back to into the Academy, to find myself once again, occasionally in the meeting that was only men and me. Now that doesn't happen at UCL. Now. I think we have made big strides in the last five years amongst the gender diversity of the top team. And that is really, really welcome. And it means you do have different kinds of voices at the at the table. We still haven't cracked it where ethnicity is concerned. i

I mean, you understand power in the structure of power, don't you? I mean diplomacy and you're in your diplomatic life you encounter that I'm sure.

 I mean, in a sense, I spent 30 years studying to understand not only the formal power structures, but the informal power structures. And so things like learning how to read the room, learning who after meeting which you taught me, by the way, I wish I was there to learn this, you know, you and universities have, they have the overt management structure, but actually all of the informal power structures with all around very powerful, very capable, individual professors who are often male know, and understanding how that acts as a kind of big gatekeeping or role there for the beginning of somebody's career. That's where the academic path starts. Lie. And you have to understand that what would you advise young women going into these situations to do? I mean, find allies, build your support network and look around. For those who have managed to find their way through the parts that you are trying to navigate. ask for advice, ask for help. I would definitely do that. Yeah. And the other thing I think I would advise, which I didn't do myself, but looking back, I can see I had this this, this help. You can ask somebody for advice. You can ask somebody to mentor you, which means when somebody talk with you about things you're struggling with, can they can they tell you about how they navigated those particular obstacles? You can't, I believe, are somebody to sponsor you? Right? Because the big different the sponsor talks about you when you're not in the room. Have you thought about God for that job? She's fantastic. No, and often children might not even know this is going on, but she must impress the person who's saying that Her potential or how much she's delivering? Yeah. And I think most successful careers, people have had sponsors. And I know I have, but I often didn't know what to do I know now I can look back, right? I didn't know at the time.

How do how would you find a mentor, for instance?

Well, mentors are much, much more straightforward. Because you can either join a scheme and UCLA has some of those. Or you can simply say to somebody you admire, would you have time to have a cup of coffee with me wants to turn. So you keep the Ask quite small. But both sides have to recognize what's going on and appreciate it because you're giving somebody your time.

Yes, absolutely. Well, we go mentor, yeah, nothing I came into.

Yeah, technically. What are your thoughts about women adopting traditionally male behaviours, to gain respect?

That is tricky, because when I joined the Foreign Office back in the dark ages, you absolutely have to do some of them. So I learned never ever to write. I feel Always my assessment is or I judge. So you tone you dial down on the feeling side of things, and I think too much. And you do eight ways of speaking, tone of speech, all of that sort of thing in order kind of to fit in. But then you will always stand out because you're one of a minority. So you have to walk that tightrope all the time. And you know, things like dress dress code, yes. Always dress codes, and I think I rather I rather slavish Lee followed them for a while I didn't quite go down the totally Navy route. But it took me quite a while to get high, bright colours. I'm gonna wear orange or red. And you know, you you choose what you're comfortable with

What stage of your career was the toughest?

I think in practical terms, the toughest was definitely when I had two children under three, and I was doing a job that required me on a bad week to go to bustles for time, so I'd have to get up really early and get back really late in order to avoid staying overnight. That was a real that was a wench every day to go to work. But actually the toughest one, I think it's not practical things. And it's not policy questions or disagreements. It's when you're in a job that you don't feel fits with your values, right? And perhaps it's perhaps it's the job, perhaps it's some of the people you're working with. And it's tough if they're senior to you. But feeling that your values are in tune with what you're doing is really important. How would you deal with that? If? Or did you deal with that in that situation kind of goes back to ask for help and look for allies. You look for allies who approach the issues in the same way you do who have your same value set. And they also if you're doubting yourself, and let's face it, you know, women are really good at doubting themselves. Say, yeah, you're right, I see what you see. So that was the first thing I did. And then after a while, I concluded actually I need to move on to something else. So first call look for allies. Second was, perhaps look for something that's this is a better fit for, you

know, doubting yourself. That's a really big issue, isn't it for women? Why do you think that is we brought up to think we're not good enough.

I've thought about this. I mean, I must admit, if you'd asked me that question 10 or 15 years ago, and if you'd said, Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? I just said, No. It's only relatively more recently to that I realized, absolutely. I do. I think most people do. Yes. I think women are more willing to admit it. I heard a story yesterday and it's quite personal. So I won't go into it. of somebody who I had no idea. He was massively doubting himself at the time. really uncomfortable in the situation he was in I didn't see it. And I've sort of been beating myself up afterwards for missing it. I think it's because men just can't, can't admit it. It's

not a dumb thing. No, no.

I think maybe we as women are able to, and we do. The men around us will see that the consequences of fine didn't lose the job or suddenly find they were demoted in some way. And they then too can say, I don't always get things right, I find this really hard. And this is very easy.

I had an example of that when I was in South Africa. And I'd actually applied for another job, even though I didn't want to leave South Africa. And I didn't get it. And I was very disappointed. And I, I told my senior team about this. And one of them a man in one of these other government departments who I hadn't previously got on very well with, they came up to me and he said, I think that was really brave of you to tell us I really admire you for it. And my male former fellow but and after that, our relationship was transformed. So sometimes sharing something that didn't go well for you can be a real breakthrough.

So in demanding jobs, it's very important to let off steam it's important for absolutely everyone. So a walk or one hot bath with a good book, or finding somebody to laugh with. I think that's that laughter is a great release. Last one. Yeah, I went for a walk yesterday. Today with a friend and we laughed and laughed, and it was I, I felt like had had a holiday. Well, mental health one of my new year's resolutions is to if you see somebody clearly upset, don't walk past.

And the stigma.

Yes, yes. It was still nice break down the stigma that it's okay to go to the center. Here's my phone line start with Yeah, you just pick it up until someone

with your global hat on what do you think the biggest issues we face the global community faces as we move forward?

Besides some of the ones we spoken about or other other ones, how we live with each other, how we treat each other? And how we recognize that working together, whether it's through the UN, whether it's through regional groupings, is absolutely essential.

I mean, you start within the university. Yes. When you say Oh, yeah, yeah, starting Vegas. Everybody can be kind to somebody they see who's upset. No water quotes I love is from Desmond Tutu. And he said, you know, do the little bits of kindness you can where you are. It's those little bits of kindness shows up across the world that make the difference gutter across the world like Eleanor Roosevelt, you know, human rights start at home.

Nicola, thank you so very much for joining us. Great. Thank you.

What I thought was really fascinating is what she made a comment about strategy. And I think she's very strategic. I think being a diplomat you have to be, but she's taken that wonderful ability into her new role at UCL. What did you think of when she wants to really change things, you know, make things better for the global perspective it at UCL and I think she did that in her other jobs and G values are very important to

you. That was that was a more moral compass.

I think if we all had a better moral compass, we would probably have a much a better world a benefit of being simpler than that slightly better working environment. Yes. I mean, the other thing I think that stood out for me about nuclear is she came from a very, I think, academic environment, being a diplomat where she had to make decisions quickly and speak to the world about issues on behalf of the country, and clearly did it extremely well. And then she she walks into, you know, very high profile University in central London, UCL and takes a top job. And there are a lot of men there. And they would be doing their research extremely brilliantly, internationally for a long time and she was trying to help them and I think that she said she doesn't like being called an administration. She certainly isn't. I call her an academic

Thank you very much indeed for joining us in this episode of talking to Titans. In the next episode, we'll be speaking to Stella Bruzzi, Dean of Arts and Humanities.


For more information, please go to www.ucl.ac.uk forward slash UCL dash minds forward slash Titans. If you liked this episode, leave us a review in your podcast app, share it with your friends and tweet at UCL with the hashtag Talking to Titans. The series was a whistle down production