Transcript of Let’s fix Ringing’s ‘leaky pipeline’

Transcribed by Emily Watts

CATHY: I’m Cathy Booth and today I’m going to be talking to three women who, encouraged by their parents, learned to ring from an early age and have gone on to the higher echelons of ringing. Two of them were part of a working group that found that although women form just under half of all ringers, they are underrepresented in positions of responsibility and ringing of increasing skill and difficulty. They termed this, the leaky pipeline. They investigated why this might be. And I thought you might be interested to hear the perspective of these women, who believe that women’s talents are being underutilized and that it would benefit everyone if women took on more than they do at the moment. 

[Bells ringing rounds]

I’m delighted to have with me three inspirational guests to discuss the topic of women in ringing, Elva Ainsworth, Julia Cater and Tessa Simpson. Their ringing accolades are too numerous to mention in this episode, but here are some of the things that they’ve got in common.

They all learned to ring bells at an early age. They’ve all taken on leadership roles in ringing. For example, Elva was the master of the Bristol University Bell Ringing Society and is on the board of the Ringing World, the bell ringers magazine. Tessa was master of the College Youths in 2015. And Julia is this year’s chief judge for the national 12 bell striking competition.

They’re all also Mums. After interviewing each of them about their experiences, we’ll then learn a bit about the 2020 working group on women in ringing, and then we’ll discuss some of the issues it raised. So Julia I’m going to ask you first. How do you think that being a woman has affected your experience of bell ringing? If at all?

JULIA: Hi Cathy, good to see you. Do you know, I’m not entirely sure that it has, and I think one of the reasons for that when I reflect on it is that actually I learned to ring when I was seven. I was very very young and I realized now that I think my dad actually created quite a lot of opportunities for me, and gave me a sort of platform to shine. And so I had many opportunities available to me and didn’t really have to try and prove myself or anything like that. Nothing was an issue because of my gender or indeed my age. Cause I was like I say, quite young when I learned to ring. So for example he used his contacts to allow me to go up to St Paul’s and ring when I was about, I don’t know, 9 or 10. And I remember that you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. There was so much sort of tension about this young little slip of a thing, a girl at that, who was on a great big pile of boxes on the treble, and was she going to get a first backstroke up for this touch of Steadman Cinques and that opportunity wouldn’t have been available to me at all. But my dad created it. So I had quite a lot of stuff gifted to me quite early on. So I don’t know that actually, my life has been affected by being a woman, to be honest.

CATHY: But what motivates you to take part in women only ringing?

JULIA: I started doing that, also when I was quite young back in the late eighties and there’d been quite a lot of women only peals by then anyway, and a number of them were organized to be quite rebellious actually, just to prove a point. And so quite a number of peals that I got involved with earlier on, were specifically groundbreaking, record breaking, point proving peals. Just to try and dislodge the culture of what ringing was like back then. But more latterly I still do women only peals and there’s definitely a different atmosphere in the ringing room when there’s only women. It’s less ego. It’s more supportive somehow. And it enables people to try things that they wouldn’t perhaps have ordinarily done. So for example I’ve turned the tenor into a peal of ORABS, which is a relatively flash thing to have done. There’s no way on earth that I would have been able to do that in a mixed environment. So it’s just about providing a safe opportunity and a supportive opportunity to try new things. And yeah, it’s a different level of crack in the pub afterwards as well.

CATHY: I didn’t quite catch, you said you turned the tenor in to a?

JULIA: A peal of ORABS, which is five different spliced Maximus methods. So it was, yeah-

ELVA: It’s really hard Cathy. You just need to know that-

JULIA: Sorry. It’s a bit like name dropping, but the point is it was quite complex, and I had that opportunity because it was a female only band, so that’s the point.

CATHY: I’m not a bell ringer but, I found the experience of juggling a career and having a family difficult. And you all have the experience of juggling a career, a family, and ringing. What’s been your experience of that?

JULIA: I had found I couldn’t have a prolific bell ringing career and run my own business, and run two young children in a household and that sort of thing. Yeah, once I started having family, I have to say my ringing took a bit of a backseat. Partly ‘cause I moved out of a main center of ringing, partly because I was living with a non-ringer. But just, life is just too busy by the time you’ve done the school run and, done the gymnastics and the swimming and the football clubs and all of this and cooked tea and sat over reading lessons and your amount of energy you’ve got to then go out to practice might, or whatever is just, yeah. So I have to say when I had a young family, my ringing took a bit of a backseat.

CATHY: When did it come back? 

JULIA: Both girls are in their teens now, but this is going to be slightly strange, but actually I separated from their dad. So I’ve found that 50% of the time when they were with him, I was free. So I actually, I started contacting people again and started ringing a lot more peals and travelling around the country and got back into my ringing and re-identified myself again, as a ringer. And it was literally that unfortunate sort of incident that brought a silver lining to it.

CATHY: How did you find it going back to it? Did you pick up where you left off? Or had your confidence gone at all or?

JULIA: I was ringing still, just not the really high profile difficult stuff. So I was still ringing, when I got more opportunity to go back to some of the level that I was ringing up before, yes I was nervous. And one of the things that I have found is that the level of complexity of methods had moved on. There’s a whole new set of complex methods that have been created in that time when I was taking a little bit of a backseat and for me to get my head around them now it’s really proving quite hard work. Ringing advances and I found that I didn’t keep up right at  the cutting edge. And yeah, I’m finding it quite hard to get back to that cutting edge.

CATHY: I’m going to come back to asking Julia about the working group, but now moving on to Tessa. Tessa, how do you think if at all being a woman has affected your experience of bell ringing?

TESSA: I think I was very lucky and had a similar story to Julia really. In that I was given many opportunities at a very early age. My parents are both bellringers and I was taken up the tower when I was a baby. So I’ve grown up listening to bells and sitting in the corner when I was very young, absorbing what was going on. And when I was 10, I was given the opportunity to learn to ring. And given lots of opportunities because I was learning at a 12 bell tower. I was learning on bells that were very easy to handle, right up to a 30 hundredweight bell. I learnt to ring at Guildford Cathedral. And my tutor, the person that was teaching me to ring was very encouraging, and gave me lots of opportunities. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to ring all the bells in the tower from quite young age and as a teenager, the band that I was learning to ring with were ringing a complete range of method complexities. And so right from rounds and call changes right up to Orion, Bristol, complicated maximus methods. And I was encouraged to try and call some things as well, from an early age, so I think by the time I left home and moved to university, and then, after that moved into London, I had the confidence to, challenge people that didn’t necessarily think I had the ability or the confidence to do things. So if whoever was running the ringing, didn’t give me the opportunities that I thought I deserved or thought I was capable of then I’d ask them too. And they usually responded. So I think in general, I don’t think, I’ve a bad experience of being a woman and ringing, I think I’ve had a very positive experience. But there have been times where I’ve had to say, can I do this or can I do that please? Cause I can probably do a bit more than you think I can.

CATHY: Yes. And I wanted to know Tessa, what role models you’ve had?

TESSA: Is this specifically female role models?

CATHY: No, not necessarily.

TESSA: So I think in the tower I learnt to ring, the person that was teaching me, he was probably a role model in the way that you teach people and the way that you give people opportunities, that had quite a big impact on me I think. When I moved to University I rang quite a lot with  Phil and Jennie Earis. And I found them quite inspiring in terms of the complexity of methods and hand bell ringing and things like that. I found that they set my sights a bit higher than what I previously had in terms of the challenges that bell ringing could bring. 

CATHY: And, I know this is early days because you’ve only got a 10 month old, one 10 month old. But how do you see yourself balancing the demands of having a family and a career and bell ringing.

TESSA: Yeah, it is very early days. And particularly with the pandemic, I don’t feel like we’ve really settled down in that way. I only went back to work last week, so really trying to figure out how to balance it all really, but I think I’m very lucky in that my husband rings. So on a Sunday, we’ll go into London as a family, participate in service ringing and we’ll alternate between who’s ringing in a touch. So that’s working really well and then practice nights so far, we’ve been again, alternating, who’s staying at home with the baby and who’s going in. So yeah, so far it’s working, still managing to participate in lots of ringing. But I imagine as she grows up, things will get a bit more challenging.

CATHY: Okay. On to Elva.

ELVA: Hi. 

CATHY: How do you think that being a woman has affected your experience of bell ringing?

ELVA: It’s super interesting listening to Julia and Tessa, because I would have said the same as them. But, then what happened was, so I learned when I was 12. My Father and Mother rang, but my Mother wasn’t actually ringing at the time when I was 12. My Mother came back to ringing like 10 years after I started ringing. 

My Mother started pointing out all the infuriating things that my Father would do in terms of running practices and allowing women to ring the bigger bells. And to be actually honest with you, I wouldn’t have said that, being a woman that affected my experience at all, until she started querying it and challenging it, and then I started seeing it. And then I saw it everywhere. And so now when I look back, what I see is that I was a 12 year old, my sister was 10 and we learnt on a very heavy ring of six. There were only six bells at Mary’s Amersham when we rang there. 19 hundredweight tenor, really rough. I could only just about cope with the third. I was allowed to ring the fourth sometimes and all that seemed totally fine to me. Why would I want to ring further around the back? It was way too hard. I did have the occasional go, and my Father did encourage me. And I thought I was given exactly same opportunities as everybody else. But there were teenage boys that came along after me and they were really encouraged to have a go on the back bells, like really cajoling them, “Oh, come and have a go” and then joking when they went wrong and it’s a different conversation with them about them experimenting. 

And it was interesting to hear you say how you feel you could try more different things in an all female environment. It was as if the boys were allowed to try these things and it wasn’t quite the same for the girls. And so the whole idea of failure and experimenting, we weren’t really expected to ring the tenor. So we weren’t really encouraged. If we pushed, I’m sure we would’ve been allowed to ring it, obviously I’m sure, but that wasn’t what was going on. So I think my sister and I really were comfortable within the sort of box that we were put in, which was light bell ringers. Even though we also enjoyed an amazing experience at St Paul’s Cathedral, when we turned up in school uniform, I could just honestly, let me say, what were we doing? [Chuckles] 

And we had amazing opportunities. But I wasn’t encouraged to conduct. My Dad would try and talk to me about compositions, but I knew that wasn’t expected. The women in my band, and we’re talking the early seventies, 1970s, there were women in the band, and they never conducted. So why would I? So there was no expectation of me. There was no disappointment, but it was still a box that I was put in and I kept myself there quite comfortably. I didn’t mind, I did actually end up conducting a peal. How I managed to do that is almost beyond my comprehension. So I must’ve been pushing. And I remember everybody being really confused as to why we were even ringing this peal of Royal. I remember Paul Mounsey who was in the band and in the end, I think the calls were getting later and people were putting them in for me. It was a whole strange thing to be doing! There were clearly boundaries. What can I say? And boundaries in terms of standing up to be the ringing master. There were women in the practices, but they weren’t in the peals to the same extent. And they weren’t at the CYs at all because there were no women at all. So of course, that was a huge statement. The fact that the College Youths were seen as the preeminent society, and there were no women at all for such a long time. It had a big impact I think, on the culture of ringing as a whole.  They’re very subtle messages that certainly I received. So yeah. I think it’s complex.

CATHY: Julia did you want to say something?

JULIA: Yeah. I was saying these were some of the assumptions in the seventies, but in preparation for this podcast, I actually asked one of my daughters, on the topic. And she said, “Oh God yeah, it still goes on Mum.” 

And she gave me an example from one of the Ringing World youth competitions a couple of years ago. I was busy because I was judging, so I wasn’t there. But it was up at Pier Head in Liverpool, and all the team waltzed into Pier Head. And she said she desperately wanted to have a good go ringing some of the bigger bells, but was only allowed to ring as far round as the fifth. And she said, some of the other boys who were smaller than her, and some of them younger than her, and the person making the decisions didn’t know who they were from, from anybody or what their ability was. They were all proactively encouraged to ring the big bells and she desperately wanted to, and was withheld back from that. So these just chime so much what Elva was saying about when some of the boys were proactively cajoled into it and here’s a sort of two or three year ago example of the exact same thing.

CATHY: Elva, going back to you about the experience of juggling  ringing, career and having a family. Same question.

ELVA: Yeah. I’ve had children for a long time and Tessa, good luck. That’s all I can say. And how amazing, I have three children and the eldest is 33 and the boys are 17 and 15. So they’ve been going on a long time. So I’ve absolutely had to learn how to juggle those three things. In fact, four things cause my other, and some of the times dominant hobby has been singing. I ran a chamber choir for a while, for instance. So I’ve given up ringing for long periods of time, and just because it didn’t fit with the schedule and just the general challenges and energy, et cetera. But in the main, my approach to it has been to, to use ringing for me if you like, so that it really works for me and my family. Knowing consciously that it won’t necessarily fit what’s expected of me. And this was very obvious with my first daughter. So she was born in 1989 and I’d been a member at St Alban’s Abbey. We used to meet on Sundays and on Tuesdays. Of course, that’s what everybody does. Sunday mornings, Tuesday evenings, no problem. Then I was promoted and – big job. I was also on my own and I had a daughter who was two. And all of a sudden going to practice on Tuesdays was just not really going to happen. Not very often. And Sunday morning. Was only good every other Sunday. I really couldn’t handle it on my own. I didn’t want to either, the weekends were precious with my daughter and I didn’t want to spend it with her being held by someone else in a towel. I just didn’t, that wasn’t the right priority. So I remember talking to the ringing master and saying, look, I really want to continue but can I just come every other Tuesday, every other Sunday morning. And he said, “Nope. You’re going to have to leave the band unless you can ring every Sunday, every Tuesday.” And he took the same line with everyone else. He treated me fairly. He would, so he would justify that absolutely. But it wasn’t in the slightest bit reasonable [chuckles] in my circumstances or necessary. So I stopped ringing there and ended up ringing in central London every other Sunday, and really enjoyed it actually. So what I have enjoyed and I learned my lesson from that, is to be super clear what I need to do and to see if I can find a place which will welcome that. Some ringing masters are more flexible than others. Some can cope with you not being there all the time. And some just can’t, but it’s useful to challenge some of these assumptions. Why do you have to be there every week? Why? It’s not necessary. You might prefer it, but it’s not necessary. Yeah. I’m quite happy to challenge our local ringing masters. I’m sure they’ll agree I do. Even now. 


CATHY: Now you’re a business owner and an author in the HR field. Do you think that the insights that you get through this, affect how you perceive gender issues in the bell ringing world?

ELVA: It’s got to hasn’t it. I talk with female and male senior executives on a regular basis, coaching them on their leadership. I work with them on their reputations. I look at how they’re perceived in the world. So I’m acutely aware of how these things work. What I see is that ringing is simply behind the corporate world. That’s my perception, and it’s not surprising given the demographics of ringing is pretty old. Is it that about 65, 70% are over 50, whereas in the corporate world, it’s not like that, it’s more under 50. So we’re in a bit of a time lag situation here.

There’s definitely been a shift in attitudes over the last few decades for sure. Huge shifts. I find it quite jarring to go into a ringing environment and to be a leader. Very often the ringing ear to a woman’s voice isn’t as powerful as to a man’s voice saying the exact same thing. And this is very hard to discern and to spot, but once you’ve clued into it, it happens all the time, especially from the older ringers, which is again not surprising. But if that is happening and that’s my hypothesis that it is, then it can very easily undermine your confidence.

I was on the Central Council for six years or so, and it was hard. It was really hard at times. And, I now approach conversations about direction and strategy and what should we do about this or that or the other, for instance with the Yorkshire Association, with slightly thicker skin. And with a real determination not to take things personally. So I’ve had to learn how to manage through that. If you can believe that there’s a thing which is stopping girls being pressured to ring the heavier bells, there’s much more than that going on. It’s invisibly affecting how we speak up, how we influence what’s happening, our reputations. All sorts is happening that we’re not very conscious of. 

CATHY: I want to come on to the working group that was set up for women in ringing, and to ask in a nutshell, which is difficult because it was a big project, as I found out, as I’ve read the material getting ready for this podcast, but what was it set up to do? And what were its findings?

JULIA: I set it up, at Simon Linford’s request. Simon Linford is a President of the Central Council. And it came about because he put something out. I can’t actually even remember what it was, but it was a list of about 18 names of people who were going to lead steering groups or something like that. 

I think there was only one woman’s name on there, or maybe there were none, that I can’t remember. But I remember noticing it, reading it, in bed, on a Saturday morning with my cup of tea, virtually spitting the tea out going, “What! What are you doing? Simon” is what I thought. I contacted him and said, “What’s going on here? Where are the women, female names?” 

And he went, “Oh I hadn’t realized.” And it got him thinking. That’s shocking enough in itself that people just don’t clock these things do they? And it got him thinking. So he said, “Okay then Julia, go and find out the reason why, when I’m going around thinking of names of people that can do things, why the women’s names are not coming up. So go and do some research into why is it that although we have, virtually a 50, 50 gender split, at the sort of grassroots level in terms of ringers around the country. Why is it when we get to the more sort of influential or senior, whatever you want to call it, positions there’s fewer women there? Go and find out.” 

Oh, okay. [chuckles] 

There’s me perhaps regretting slightly having contacted him with this. But that’s what the working group was there to do. Is to actually try and get some data around this question of what’s going on, where are the women in senior or influential or high level positions in ringing?

CATHY: And you got together statistics to back that up, didn’t you? That assumption was true. Can you briefly describe..?

JULIA: So yes. I got a team of people, just people that I know who are clever at statistics data and basically Bryn Reinstadler and Dorothy Hall, who were data analysts and mathematicians and statisticians. They just, I don’t even know how they did it.

They use wording that I don’t understand like data scraping and data mining. I don’t even know what that means, but they basically, produced the data that says that there is this thing called a leaky pipeline, which is how we’ve termed it. But it proved that the distribution of gender at the grassroots day to day membership of ringing is roughly 50/50. And then it just drops off as the perceived level of complexity in ringing, or the more level of influence in ringing increases. So as you go through things like participation in quarter peals or in striking competitions or judging in striking competitions, that the level of involvement of women just drops off and it gets worse and worse as you go through.

Conducting, so conducting quarter peals isn’t quite as bad as conducting handbell peals seemingly. And then of course the one where women have least involvement is in composing of peals and things like that. So data has been produced to show that yes, there is indeed this drop-off.

CATHY: And all those statistics you can see on the women in ringing website. So that says that there was an issue. Did you find out why?

JULIA: So what we did then is we wanted to get some more qualitative data behind the things. So Tina Stoecklin, she’s many things, but she’s also web designer. So she put this website together and in it we had a portal where people could submit their stories.

We did a big sort of marketing and media push to try and raise awareness of this. And we got, I don’t know if it was nearly a hundred different stories of people’s experiences, mostly from women, about what was going on to create this drop-off. I think if you had to boil it down to a couple of things, it was about people being given a lack of opportunity, and people lacking in confidence to try things.

So Tessa was talking earlier on. She had the confidence to tackle things and push back. But we were finding that there was quite a lack of, you know, it’s a self-fulfilling thing isn’t it? If you don’t get much opportunity or if you don’t get positive feedback when you try something, or if you get questions like, I remember witnessing someone saying this to my youngest daughter when she asked if she could bring the fifth on the ring of eight and they said, “Are you sure you can manage it?”.

Of course it’s a perfectly valid question from a Tower Captain who doesn’t want a health and safety incident, but to her, it makes her go “Oh, perhaps I can’t manage it.” And it undermines confidence. It is a self-fulfilling cycle. If you don’t get the opportunity, you lose the confidence. If you lose the confidence, you don’t then ask. Or if you get offered something you say, “Oh, oh perhaps I won’t thanks”. And there’s a sort of reticence to try new things which builds in. And so we were getting just lots and lots of stories about this sort of dynamic happening within people’s own psyches and so on.

I think there’s a big thing here as well about, assumptions being made. Elva touched on it earlier and so did I, assumptions being made by the decision-makers about what people can and cannot do, probably driven by some kind of unconscious biases maybe, or just our own cultural norms.

I can give you an example. So a couple of years ago, my daughters and I went on holiday to a fairly remote place in the UK. And we turned up at the practice night. As well as another guy turned up, also a visitor, and between us we made the band up to eight and clearly boosted their level of what they would be able to ring that night. And all the way through the other guy, visitor, the male visitor was asked: Can you conduct this? Can you do this? Can you bring the tenor? Can you do this? And I was a bit amused by this at the start. And then I was a bit bemused. And then I was getting a bit annoyed. So in the end, there was a Bob minor called for, and I got hold of the tenor and said.

“So shall I call this one?” and he came up with this phrase again of, “Oh, can you? Do you think you can?” 

I was like, “Yeah, I think I can.” 

He was just showing, just the sort of normal systemic biases and assumptions about, here’s a man and here’s three women and I’m going to focus all my attention on what the man can do. And he was therefore not utilizing us to our full potential to be able to help him and the band. The stories on the website, bring out a lot of these assumptions as well, that people who, when they’re in positions to be able to make decisions, they’re making these assumptions and it’s unhelpful for the band ultimately at the end of the day.

CATHY: Thank you. As well as the website, there was also a special issue of the Ringing World, ‘Women in ringing’, came out in November 2020, and there were a lot of articles leading up to that. We’re going to put all that on the show notes for this episode. So moving on to our discussion. First of all, what are the benefits of being able to ring a bigger bell?

JULIA: In my local tower here, about four-fifths of the ringers are women and it’s a lumpy hard work. 19 hundredweight ring of eight. So frankly, everyone has to be able to ring all the bells and that’s women as well. So it’s about being able to ring all the bells in your tower and get lots of different experiences of what that feels like. Is my opinion.

CATHY: I’ve talked to a couple of people about this as well, that ringing the bigger bells. Sometimes you can conduct from those and you get the versatility in your ringing. Am I making sense?

ELVA: It’s true, isn’t it?

CATHY: Tessa, what do you think?

TESSA: I think that is a bit of a myth. I think some people prefer calling round the front and some people prefer calling round the back. Compositions are typically written out from the tenor. So sometimes you’ve got a bit more work to do to figure out what’s going on from a different bell. But, on the whole, I think you can call anything from anywhere.

CATHY: Is it? Cause I asked my husband about this and he said, he thought the conducting from the tenor was easier because it’s fixed.

TESSA: It can be, but then if you’re ringing a bell that’s affected by the calls, then you’re a bit closer to the action. Maybe see what’s going on a bit better. So I think it depends what you’re used to, if you’re used to calling from the tenor then it’s potentially a bit more challenging to call from a bell that’s affected by the calls, but I personally prefer to call from a front bell. And I think that’s just because I’m more comfortable ringing the front bell and if I’m ringing a back bell I find it a bit more of a challenge, therefore prefer to concentrate on ringing that back bell rather than calling. So I think it just depends what you’re used to.

CATHY: What’s the relationship between having strength and being able to ring a back bell?

JULIA: Who’s going to take that one? [chuckles] I have quite strong opinions about this. Most of the time it’s perfectly possible to ring virtually any bell there is, without that much strength, is my strong opinion. Many people do ring big bells through strength, but actually you can ring big bells through just frankly good technique. So there should really be not much of a relationship between how strong you are and how big the bell is that you can ring. There are some exceptions to that; the really big bells. I really think I’m talking like over 50 hundredweight, something like that to which is actually only a handful in the country. To ring them for any period of time like an hour or a peal or something like that, I think stamina and strength does become important. But generally speaking for most bells across the country, it doesn’t really matter how strong you are. And it certainly shouldn’t preclude you from ringing big bells.

CATHY: What about your height? Does that affect it at all?

JULIA: No? Again it’s all about technique. You might need some boxes of course, but no it’s all about technique and about utilizing what you’ve got. Frankly,

TESSA: Just to add to that. I would say that, as somebody that’s not particularly tall, I do find that sometimes when you go and ring a back bell, the ropes are shorter. Yeah, so I guess a call out to all steeple keeper’s. Make sure you’re not stopping shorter women from ringing round the back by having too short a rope.

CATHY: Yes. And short men presumably? I know Julia, you’ve given a talk on the technique that you need for ringing bigger bells. Where is that, it’s the?-

JULIA: St Martin’s Guild library.

CATHY: St Martin’s Guild. And we’ll put a link on the show notes for that. You mentioned unconscious bias. What is it? Elva.

ELVA: What is it? So it’s referring to the fact that we make assumptions about people based on facts about them. It could be your age, gender, hair color, eye color, race, all of those sorts of things. And then these judgments affect how you’re perceiving this person, how you’re hearing them, how you’re seeing them in the future. And it becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, similar to the self fulfilling prophecy that Julia was referring to earlier. If you believe, for instance, that a woman is unlikely to ring the back bells, then they become unlikely to ring the back bells. So it feeds on itself.

So that bias feeds on itself. You don’t realize you’re doing it either. They’re super unconscious if they’re culturally inherited and we have centuries of cultural bias that we’ve inherited because gender has been around a long time, a long time. And a huge amount has changed in the whole gender conversation and the role of women.

My Grandmother had to give up work as soon as she got married because that’s what you had to do. So, I mean it’s just extraordinary that we even expect to have the same sort of opportunities. It’s extraordinary really, if you think about it. But yeah, it’s invisible and it’s there and we all have many unconscious biases all the time.

CATHY: And do we have unconscious biases about ourselves as well?

ELVA: Totally. Just as bad if not worse than other people’s because then especially if you don’t know you’ve got them, you’ve made these assumptions about yourself. I know. I would have assumed I couldn’t ring the big bells cause I was too skinny and not heavy enough. I would have made that assumption. And then of course I don’t challenge it. So yeah, we’re the worst. We’re the worst culprits in this matter.

CATHY: What should individuals do when they come across something that they think is due to unconscious bias?

JULIA: I was going to say challenge it. 

ELVA: Absolutely. Speak up somehow. Say something.

TESSA: Yeah absolutely. And I think people these days, if they are challenged, and they’re accused of being sexist or whatever, I think most people would be horrified and respond to it accordingly. So yeah, I would just encourage people to challenge it in a friendly way. 

ELVA: Yeah, you don’t have to be accusatory at all do you.

TESSA: No, not at all. In a friendly way, in a productive way, challenge it.

CATHY: And what should a Tower Captain or Ringing Master be doing?

ELVA: They should be actively encouraging the women, more than they are right now to counteract the cultural pressures and barriers. They should be more conscious than they’ve ever been and put more effort into it. It doesn’t sort itself out naturally because it requires an extra proaction if you like. They should be asking for feedback as well, actually check with people, listen, ask the women what they want to do.

JULIA: And I would love it if a Tower Captain would ask for feedback, but also self-reflect. Any decision that anybody makes: Tower Captain or people in charge of ringing. They can ask themselves, why did I do it that way? And could I have done it a different way? So why did I ask Joe blogs to do this, or Mary Smith to do that? And could I have done it a different way? To self reflect on those questions would be brilliant actually.

TESSA: I think there is a balance between the responsibility of the Tower Captain and the responsibility of their ringers though. I’ve seen men progress faster than women because they’ve organized their own things so they progress themselves. They organize quarters or peals outside of the usual Sunday service practice nights, so that they can have additional opportunities. They’ve volunteered for things. I think there’s also encouragement that could be given to women to do a bit more in that arena.

ELVA: Do the same, yes absolutely.

CATHY: Why do we want women to be leaders?

TESSA: Cause they can be very good at it. Can be excellent at it.

ELVA: They can be better than men in some ways. People managing and managing motivation and organizing things sometimes. And diversity in leadership is proven now in the corporate world to create better results, to create more engaged cultures, more motivated staff. And I think the same thing would probably apply to ringing if we thought about it.

CATHY: So the simple answer to that is that if we encourage more women into leadership positions, then it’s going to benefit bell ringing as a whole. [ELVA: Absolutely ] Yes. So it’ll benefit the men aswell.

ELVA: It will, totally!


CATHY: What abilities does a woman have to be able to be a leader?

ELVA: So yes, that is a very interesting question actually because there are many leadership positions in ringing where your ability to conduct and compose and manage the ringing per se. isn’t really what’s required. What’s required is an ability to relate to other ringers, to communicate, to check motivation, to be organized, to consult, to coordinate things. All these skills we learn in all sorts of ways. And juggling also all sorts of things in the home is exactly the sort of experience that can equip you to manage a lot of things going on in the belfry. So if every woman were to ask themselves, what are my skills right now? What do I love doing? What am I really great at? And how could I apply them to ringing? I bet you, there would be loads that each woman could contribute in different ways.

CATHY: Yes. Moving on, what stories came out and what solutions are there to any of the issues of women who had families? Julia

JULIA: I’m trying to remember back to some of the stories. I think that a lot of it would have been around assumptions again. “Oh, she won’t want to go and do this because she’s got a young family.” In fact I had to say something to somebody recently who, we were going through trying to think of someone who would be suitable to do something that I was involved with. And someone said, “Oh no, don’t ask her. She’s got a young family.” I was like, “What?” because obviously that wouldn’t be said, regarding a man who’s got a young family, it just wouldn’t. So it’s the assumption I think that they’ll be preoccupied and not interested. I know from experience that actually, when I also had a young family, sometimes it was just lovely to get away from them. And actually I wanted the exact opposite. I wanted to be asked because I just wanted to go back and be me again, rather than being a Mother. So I think that assumption is dangerous about other people deciding what young Mothers want in a ringing setting rather than just asking them. That would be one of the big things that I would encourage.

CATHY: Great. So my last question, what remarkable thing has happened to you that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t taken up bell ringing?

TESSA: Probably not very remarkable, but I met my husband through bell ringing. So yeah I had family with him. To me that’s very special. I’ve also rung for the Queen a few times and that’s been pretty, pretty remarkable and exciting.

ELVA: That’s funny, cause that’s just mirroring my answers. I found three husbands through ringing and I’ve run for the Queen, Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana in different places. The Queen was in Toronto actually, funnily enough. Toronto Cathedral. So yeah, just extraordinary special occasions to be able to contribute to something like that is just amazing.

JULIA: I suppose holiday related, I organize quite a lot of holidays for myself and the girls around ringing. So we had a fantastic holiday on Cape Cod, for one of the North American long training sessions. It was a bell ringing camp. And to be welcomed into their sort of family there was lovely. And we’ve had a great holiday based around the bells and Vernay in the south of France. And we’re hoping to go to Dordrecht and Ypres later on this year. So it’s the opportunity to base your holidays around ringing. The intimacy that that brings when you’re there and meeting up with the locals. If it weren’t for ringing, I wouldn’t be doing those sorts of things on holiday.

CATHY: Thank you to my guests Julia Cater, Elva Ainsworth and Tessa Simpson. It’s been very interesting to listen to these remarkable women who have made the most of their opportunities and have been able to achieve so much. I’m hoping that, particularly if you are a Tower Captain, you take Julia’s advice to reflect on your decisions and realize that women may not be as assertive or confident and may need more encouragement than men. That there are potentially some very talented women in our bell towers, as well as the men. For those of you who learned to ring later in life and are wondering whether you can take on a leadership role, keep listening as I will cover this in future podcast episodes. 

If you have enjoyed this episode, then please share it. 

This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to…

Anne Tansley-Thomas and John Gwynne, Lesley Belcher, and the Society of Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.

[Bells ringing rounds]