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Leading women

'We have come a long way but we need to continue': Mary Stiasny discusses the Leading Women campaign


Mary Stiasny is the Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and Chief Executive of the University of London’s flexible and distance learning programmes. She is the Chair of our Leading Women campaign which this year celebrates 150 years of women in higher education. We asked Mary about this milestone, her career in education and what the campaign means to her.

Dr Mary Stiasny

This year we celebrated the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. Do you see a relationship between the University of London permitting women to take special examinations in 1868 and some women achieving the right to vote, 50 years later, in 1918? They were both momentous events and together they were part of a continuing, growing consciousness and empowerment of women which saw the development of equality that continues to this very day.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education? I am from a family of educators. I grew up in that environment and I passionately believe in the power of education. It was a really natural path for me to take. I did a degree in sociology and social policy at the London School of Economics and then trained as a secondary school teacher, specialising in teaching social studies. I then taught in a secondary school for a few years before I moved into higher education at Goldsmiths where I was a teacher trainer. When you’re training teachers, you are influencing and empowering people to make a difference to young people’s lives and that’s so important.

You lead the mentoring programme at the University of London – how does this programme help to support women's advancement in the workplace? Mentoring, to my mind, supports the development of both men and women and their advancement in the workplace. I consider mentoring to be a very important programme for any organisation to run because through it we all learn by drawing on each other’s experience. It’s important for both sides, the mentee and the mentor, and it drives individual performance and achievement, impacting positively on the overall performance of the organisation and from within that context, empowering and enabling

What is the best part of your role as Pro-Vice Chancellor (International)? Without a doubt, it is meeting students from such diverse backgrounds, both socially and economically. They come from all over the world, and for many of them, they study in very difficult circumstances.

Studying with us enables them and empowers them to make huge differences to their own lives and in many cases to the lives of those around them – the lives of people in their country. I have always felt linked to the University and immensely proud of its innovative history that goes back to 1836. I’m particularly proud to be part of the University’s commitment to education for anybody who can benefit and of the University’s commitment to education for women. I believe that quality education should be available for all and what the University of London does extremely well is to offer an internationally renowned degree which it protects rigorously in terms of its curriculum and its examinations. I’m pleased to have made a contribution to delivering that.

Could you discuss how the availability of distance and flexible learning, offered by the University of London, is opening up access to women around the world? About 50% of the students we now have on our distance and flexible learning programmes are women, in the 190 countries where we are operating. That’s 50% of 50,000 students around the globe. I think we can be really proud of the strides that women have made in their goals and outcomes.

For women, studying at University of London has often been a way for them to access higher education when they’ve not been able to for social reasons. For a lot of our women students they’re the first in their family to achieve higher education and we have some wonderful examples of women who have been assertive in achieving success in roles that one would have considered impossible for women 50 years ago.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? I think it’s very simple, it is just, stay true to yourself, whoever you are.

Which women inspire you?  I’d have to say the women who fought 100 years ago for us to have the vote – including Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, all of them came together from all sorts of social backgrounds to fight for a common cause, for the vote, and they achieved it against all the odds at the time.

When I was a child my mother would take me to the voting station. She wanted to show me how important it was for her because when she was born women didn’t have the vote, so when I go to vote now, I think of it every time.

What would you like the legacy of the Leading Women campaign to be? I hope the legacy is one of greater awareness- of the need to continue to develop the equality of opportunity for women. That work needs to continue, we’ve come a long way but we know we need to continue to do that and to grow. I think that the legacy must be about growing opportunities for all.


The Leading Women campaign runs until the end of 2018. Find out more about the campaign and related events by visiting our blog.