Our history

We were the first higher education institute in England to admit women on an equal basis to men. Find out more about key women in our history and gender equality today.

Our history of gender equality

Founded in 1876, as University College Bristol, we were the first higher education institute in England to admit women on an equal basis to men. Now, women make up 55% of our workforce and female students outnumber male students.

First woman lecturer

Our first woman lecturer, Mary Paley, taught classes at University College Bristol until 1881. She was the wife of Alfred Marshall, a ground-breaking economist and Principal of the College. Her fee for teaching was deducted from her husband’s salary.

Women suffrage activity reaches Bristol

During the campaign for women’s suffrage in the 19th and 20th century, people across the country took sides both for and against and Bristol was no different. In 1913 suffragettes carried out an arson attack on the Coombe Dingle pavilion. Students from the University retaliated with an assault on the suffragette shop on Park Street.

Women gain more roles at the university

Despite opposing attitudes to women’s rights nationally, we had several female students. Many women also had jobs in academic and administrative roles. Hannah Lowery, Archivist and Special Collections Manager, writes about these women in a special blog post.

Between the first and second world wars, women began to play a greater role in the University.

In 1919, Helen Wodehouse became Professor of Education and the first female Chair in the University. With this appointment, she was one of the first women in any British university to hold such a post. She held the post until 1931, when she became Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

In 1928 Miss Winifred Shapland was appointed as Secretary of the University. In 1931, she became the first woman Registrar of any British university.

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin was named as the University’s fifth Chancellor from 1970 to 1988. She was a pioneer in the field of protein crystallography and was the first British woman to win a Nobel Prize, receiving it for Chemistry in 1964.

In the late 1980s, Jean Golding founded the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Also known as Children of the 90s, it is now a world-leading birth cohort study. Decisions made by Jean Golding on what data was useful to collect led to it being used for genetic and epigenetic research worldwide. In 2016, we established the Jean Golding Institute as a central hub for data science and data-intensive research at the University of Bristol

In 2004, Right Honourable the Baroness Hale of Richmond was installed as Bristol’s seventh Chancellor. Lady Hale was the first woman ever to be appointed to the Law Commission.

She is the first and only woman to be one of the UK’s 12 Law Lords. When the House of Lords transitioned to the Supreme Court in 2009, Lady Hale was among the first cohort of justices, and once again the only woman.

Since then, she has been appointed as President of the Supreme Court. Once again, the first woman to hold the position. She has adjudicated in a wide range of cases, garnering a reputation for her strong stance on human rights and social justice.

One of the first Universities to receive the Athena Swan Bronze Award

Fast-forward to the 21st Century and we’re proud to have been one of the first universities to receive the Athena SWAN Bronze Award.

This award recognises initiatives and actions in recruiting and promoting women, and actions to transform gender equality within Higher Education and Research. We are aiming to increase the number of Faculties and Schools who achieve Athena Swan awards.

Gender equality today

We have several groups and teams working to create an inclusive working environment. One of these groups is the Swan Implementation Group. The Swan Implementation Group provides a forum to discuss gender equality issues and potential solutions.

Together we’re working to develop practical solutions in relation to gender with other intersections. We're also working to address issues or underrepresentation of women at senior levels, as well as occupational and discipline-based segregation.

In January 2020, we were the first university in the UK to sign a Collective Agreement outlining the key actions which will be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap.

History was made in September 2022 when Bristol welcomed its first female Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch.

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