Facebook chief inspires gender equality programme for Durham students

SHERYL Sandberg’s global best-seller on gender equality in the workplace, Lean In, is inspiring a new generation of undergraduates studying on traditionally male degree subjects at Durham University.

The Facebook Chief Operating Officer says she is “truly honoured” by the introduction of her book into the engineering curriculum at Durham University, a move believed to be a first for the UK Higher Education sector.

All first year undergraduates on the engineering courses at Durham University – male and female – must study and critically assess Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Essays are assessed as part of their degree course.

The book urges women to take a more proactive approach to progressing their careers – to ‘lean in’ to work or put themselves forward for opportunities – whilst also stressing the importance of men taking a more active and equal role in the home.

The Durham University move is just one initiative intended to address the internationally acknowledged ‘leaky pipeline’ in subjects where women gradually drop out at different stages as their career progresses, for example to have a career break.

Durham University Senior Lecturer in Engineering, Dr Karen Johnson, was so inspired by Sandberg, who previously held senior roles at the US White House and Google, that she had the idea to share the book with her students.

Dr Johnson, who is a mother-of-three, said: “I was really inspired by Lean In; I read the book in a day and I felt I had to share it with others. Engineering and computing sciences are often seen as traditionally male areas, with few women in senior roles, but they don’t have to be.

“By educating new generations of engineers who will acknowledge and try to take into account their unconscious biases, we will hopefully achieve a greater gender balance in the sector at every level.”

First year engineering undergraduate Tamara Barker-Privalova, says: “The majority of women know that according to statistics, they have a lower chance of progression than their male counterparts. Being aware of this negative bias could dissuade a female from going into engineering. This is often made more difficult by the fact that some women feel they have to choose between children and a career.”

Fellow first year engineering undergraduate Francis Gurr says: “I would speculate that one of the main reasons so few women pursue a career in Engineering is because of our society’s painful obsession with dismissing the notion of femininity from success or accomplishment.”

A spokesperson for Lean In, a non-profit organization launched by Sheryl Sandberg to create a global community that encourages women to continue to be active and ambitious in their careers even as they start families, said: “Sheryl is truly honoured to hear that Lean In is now part of the engineering curriculum at Durham University.”

As part of the University’s commitment to the Athena Swan Charter – which recognises the advancement of gender equality, representation, progression and success – the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences will also compare opinions on gender inequalities between year groups who have read Lean In with other students who have not.

The move is one of many initiatives taking place at Durham University to tackle gender equality and diversity. The Dean for Equality and Diversity, Catherine Alexander, is focussing on improving the representation of women in senior academic positions; this has been recognised by the renewal of the University’s Athena SWAN Bronze award.

A number of female researchers or academics go on the ‘Aurora’ women-only leadership course each year. In addition, the Equality and Diversity Team is consulting widely with staff and students to establish how we can further embed the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion to ensure Durham University provides an environment where all of its members feel confident and inspired to fulfil their potential.