When I met Shirley Williams

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that it was through dabbling in the student media while studying at Imperial College that I ended up as a journalist; the opportunities to learn about such things helped me decide that it was that – rather than writing computer software – that I wanted to do for a living.

While tidying up recently, my mother came across a photocopy of an old issue of Felix, the student newspaper at Imperial, which is probably one of the first pieces I had published. It’s dated Friday October 31st 1986, which puts it at the end of my second month there (I learnt how to work the typesetter in my first week!).

It’s a report of a talk to the Women In Science and Technology group that was given by Shirley Williams, which I covered for the newspaper; at the time, only 17% of the students at Imperial were women.

So, although it’s another off-topic post, I thought I’d share it with people here. The scanned text is below the image. It’s interesting to see that some of the same concerns expressed back in 1986 are just as relevant today.

Scanned page from Felix
The article as it appeared in Felix, on October 31st 1986

Williams and WIST

Mrs Shirley Williams, the President of the SDP, addressed a meeting of Women in Science and Technology (WIST) on Tuesday. The main theme of her talk was the changing role of women in society, and in particular the role that she saw for women in scientific subjects, Mrs Williams felt that it was up to women to raise questions about the impact of science upon society. She cited examples of ‘prestige‘ projects, in Third World countries where, for example, huge hydro-electric schemes are created, with a consequent loss and erosion of land needed to produce food, and warned that “We cannot afford scientifically illiterate students of humanities and humanistically illiterate students of science”.

On the subject of women as leaders, Mrs Williams noted that successful women leaders have had many of the same qualities as men in the same positions-toughness, ruthlessness, logic and aggression-and proclaimed that “women can be just as good as men are.” Although she admitted that women in power often had masculine qualities, Mrs Williams suggested that a gentler, feminine approach to problems would produce better results in the long term and gave as an example the manner in which Germany was treated after the Second World War, contrasting it, with the treatment after the First, and the subsequent rise of Hitler. Still on the subject of women in positions of power, Mrs Williams did not feel that segregation, for example by the creation of a Women’s Minister, would help. Rather, this would lead to patronisation and help to keep women out of key positions. It would, she suggested, be far better to enforce equality by a system of monitoring to ensure fair practice, or the imposition of Contract Compliance, whereby a company cannot win a contract unless it proves that it treats everyone equally.

Asked by FELIX if she thought that the lack of women in science and technology was due to the standard of teaching and the shortage of science teachers, she replied that teachers were ludicrously badly paid, and that a 10% pay increase in real terms, together with conversion courses, was needed to attract people back in to teaching. Though she felt that co-education was in principle a good thing, Mrs Williams expressed the view that it also reduced the number of women taking science subjects, as they were encouraged towards the more ‘traditional‘ areas. She also felt that the creation of the new Technical Colleges would empty the schools of scientists and make the problem worse.

FELIX asked Mrs Williams for her opinion of the new Unemployment Benefit questionnaire, which may disqualify those, such as students, who are unable to travel to find work. She asserted that this was “An attempt to reduce the number of unemployed before the next election” and said that the SDP would provide a ‘basic benefit’ for students studying after the age of l6, with removal of fees for part time students.

Questioned about the possibility of student loans, Mrs Williams stated that the SDP believed them to be necessary only in the case where the parental contribution is not made, and that they would have to be provided at low interest rates. The SDP has, she said, no plans to replace grants by loans, and would like to remove the need for a parental contribution, though she admitted that this could not be done very quickly. The first priority of Mrs Williams’ party is to increase all higher education by 50%, giving equal emphasis to both humanities and science, rather than boosting science at the expense of humanities.

Nigel Whitfield

One Reply to “When I met Shirley Williams”

  1. Are you **sure* that was written 25 years ago ! Yup, not a lot has changed, but I not the comments about students loans and funding. Now there’s an area that has changed – very much for the worse IMO.

    plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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