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News > Alumni News > International Women's Day: Catching up with Mary Stiasny

International Women's Day: Catching up with Mary Stiasny

To celebrate International Women's Day 2023 on 8 March, we're shedding a spotlight on female Allanians who have gone on to achieve success in their chosen careers. 
13 Mar 2023
Alumni News

We have caught up with some of our fantastic female Allanians in celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March and found out what inspired them to pursue their different careers.

Mary Stiasny is Pro Vice Chancellor International, Learning and Teaching of the University of London. Throughout her career she has held various roles in education including a secondary school teacher, university lecturer and Director of Education for the British Council before taking up her latest post at the University of London. She attended Dame Allan’s Girls School between 1959-1966.

Tell us about your career and what inspired you to follow this path?

I was the youngest child in my family - by the time I started at Dame Allan’s, everyone in my family had already either established their careers, or were well on their way to doing so! At one point everyone – my parents, brothers, sisters in law, uncles ,aunts and cousins had started out as teachers! They were moving into other related roles – headteachers, lecturers, inspectors, education administration – but they were all in education.

So my family trade was education and I was determined not to become a teacher like all of them, but, as with all such resolutions, when it came to the moment - I was sucked into the family trade! And loved it. 

On leaving university I trained as a secondary school teacher and taught for a few years, and then moved from teaching itself to teacher training in a university, which I loved even more. Over the years, I took opportunities and climbed the ladder in the university world. From being a lecturer in teacher training, to deputy head of the department of education, deputy dean and dean of education. I next made a diversion to the British Council as their Director of Education, then returned to the university world as Pro Director of the Institute of Education, now part of UCL. 

Finally, just as I was about to think of retiring I was asked to take on my current role as Pro Vice Chancellor International, Learning and Teaching of the University of London with responsibility for the massive portfolio of distance learning programmes around the world. And I am still here!

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It is a really special day which gives us a moment every year to celebrate the progress we have made towards gender equity and women’s empowerment. It is also a time when we can reflect on the issues where we have not yet reached real equity. There are still issues such as violence and abuse against women which are all too prevalent, in our own country as well as elsewhere. 

This year I shall be reflecting on the situation of women in Afghanistan who are now banned from higher education, much of secondary education and primary schooling, or the USA where women’s reproductive rights have come under increasing threat. 

I constantly remind colleagues that we haven’t reached our goals of equity yet. But International Women’s Day is also one where we have fun; there is a wonderful festival at the Southbank in London called “Women of the World'' and my university always runs a stand in the circulation area. There, we advise visitors to the stand about educational opportunities open to them. We also have a great time – music, food, conversation, books and time to get to know each other outside the office!

The theme of International Women’s Day 2023 is ‘Embrace Equity.’ How do you embrace equity in your daily life?

I have a very strong personal and professional commitment to equity in all its dimensions - for women, and for all members of society. My university was providing education for anyone who wanted university education regardless of gender, race,class, religion from 1836 onwards, and that is one major reason why I studied there and why I now work there.

Which women inspire you the most? Did any particular female teachers inspire you?

I had some amazing teachers at Dame Allan’s - as I did at my primary school in Gateshead. 

At my primary school, Miss Bourne was young, energetic, enjoyed teaching us and instilled in us a love of learning. At Dame Allan’s, Mrs Damante was my modern languages teacher and I went on to study languages at university. She gave me a love for the German language and literature which was truly inspiring!  

My mother really inspired me too. As a young woman in Wales in the early part of the 20th century she had been unable to train as an accountant which is what she wanted, because society said women should not be accountants! So she became a teacher and on the day she married my father she had to ‘retire’ because married women should not be teachers. At the end of the war she went back to teaching, became chair of the local branch of her political party, studied at evening class and taught me that nothing should stop me becoming whatever I wanted to become. 

Being a woman should not be an impediment to anything was the message she gave me all her life.

How did your schooling at Dame Allan’s influence your career choices?

I was at Dame Allan’s School in the 1960’s when society’s attitudes to girls and education were very different to now. Yet at Dame Allan’s we were taught that we could do anything we set our minds to; and that as girls we had a responsibility to make something of ourselves, and contribute to society. 

When I was growing up there was still a belief among many parts of society that women didn’t need an education, that being a wife and mother was all we needed to plan for!  Dame Allan’s gave us space to have aspirations - and the courage and strength to realise them. 

Our teachers were women who were themselves strong, powerful women. They were examples and role models for us and we learned from them. I remember a science teacher telling us not only could we have our own professions,  that we owed it to ourselves as a matter of self respect. She also said we always needed to remember we might need to work in a profession. She had been widowed as a young woman and had to work to support her family. Many of our teachers were of the generation who had lost their partners or intended partners in the Second World War - they needed to work, or chose to work. They were wonderful role models for us and taught us the importance of being independent young women.

Have you experienced any barriers in the workplace due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes, there were quiet and therefore insidious barriers, as well as louder and obvious ones. Each time, because of the way my family had encouraged and shaped me to be a strong and independent woman, and the culture of Dame Allans, I was simply disappointed and wearied that there was a world out there which didn’t empower women or believe in us. 

Having been surprised and frankly discriminated against, I simply got on with doing things the way I wanted to. Sometimes I know I missed out on posts or positions I wanted because I am a woman, but I didn’t let that define me. I really do have some shocking tales I can tell! 

I decided many years ago to get on with things and so often over the intervening years I have been the only woman on a panel, on a board, in a team. The token woman! Gradually those micro-aggressions and prejudices have faded – even dare I say, disappeared? 

Now I work with many other senior women. But I am sadly aware that the apparent improvements we now experience are fragile, as we have seen in countries around the world all too recently.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

To be true to myself. That has been the best advice and I have tried to hold it as my  guiding light.

If you could invite three inspirational women (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would they be?

I‘d definitely want to invite Jacinda Ardern, who is still at the time of writing this Prime Minister of New Zealand, but who has just announced she will step down from her role in early February. I‘d love her to join me at that dinner so I can hear about her work and the way she has managed to keep humanity and kindness at the core of her approach to her work.

I would also want to invite Katharine G.Johnson who died in 2020 and was an American mathematician whose calculations as a NASA employee were of central importance to the success of the first (and all later) US crewed spaceflights. As an African American and a woman she faced discrimination, prejudice and exclusion with a quiet assertive calm. Her brilliance gradually won her the respect and recognition she deserved. She was one of the three women about whom the film Hidden Figures was made and when she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom President Obama said; “ Katharine G Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach”. 

For my third guest I would like to invite Lady Brenda Hale (Baroness Hale of Richmond). She is a British judge who served as President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from 2017 until she retired in 2020. She is now a member of the House of Lords. She famously wore that spider brooch when she calmly and assertively gave the court’s verdict that the then Prime Minister could not prorogue parliament – that it would be an unlawful act. She was an academic for much of her career and comes from North Yorkshire, and will forever after be dubbed as Spiderwoman! It would be lovely to have her at my dinner table.

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Take the opportunities as they come; believe in yourself, don’t be deterred by others and be true to yourself. And above all, be kind.

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