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Kate Mackenzie Davey


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Dr Kate Mackenzie Davey to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

If ever anyone belonged to Birkbeck, it is Kate. When she used to teach the module ‘Life Career Development’ to masters' students in organizational psychology, Kate used to put up her hand to the 'calling' response when she asked the question “Do you have a career, a job or a calling?“ This sense of her belonging, the way she dedicated herself to the College and to the career development of all those mature students across time certainly feels like a calling.

Like so many people who take up organizational psychology, Kate started out in a very different line of work. On graduating, her early career decisions were (1) never to take another exam (something I am sure many of you feel like at this point in time), (2) never to teach and (3) never to work with her father, who was an occupational psychologist. This career framework initially propelled Kate into the music industry, working for a rock staging business which saw her organising the Rolling Stones at Knebworth, Wings in Venice, and Queen in Hyde Park. Lest we think of this as glamorous, Kate assures us it mainly involved sitting in a portacabin ordering scaffolding.

When the business went bust, Kate concluded she wasn’t tough enough for the rock music sector; but a varied sequence of jobs led her to discover a love of teaching - despite her earlier career decision never to teach - a realisation that eventually brought her to Birkbeck in 1994. It was those earlier jobs, however, that laid a foundation of knowledge and interest which fuelled Kate’s subsequent academic career. After a baptism of fire at Willesden College of Technology, teaching people from all backgrounds, Kate joined Swindon College where her students were British Rail apprentices. She embraced this context, touring rail and pressed steel works, learning about industrial accidents, shocked that people could still die at work. Exploring the role that trade unions and the Labour Party can play in making contemporary workplaces safer, ironically involved Kate spending a lot of time in pubs and other smoke-filled rooms.

Then, despite that early career decision never to take another exam, Kate decided to do an MSc in Occupational Psychology (her father’s subject) at UMIST. This set a new path, with Kate choosing to continue with research. A PhD followed which she combined with consultancy work, first in health and quality of life, and then in the selection and assessment of senior management.

When she subsequently joined Birkbeck in 1994, Kate’s experiences of teaching working people, returning to study in mid-career, commercial consultancy and academic research found a natural home in the College’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Here, Kate bridged the commercial and academic sectors in her role as Career Research Forum Research Fellow. Promotions followed, including serving as the Assistant Dean for Organizational Psychology in 2007, the first woman to do so. As Head of Department, she epitomised leadership: super smart but self-deprecating, fair-minded, and eloquent.

In 2007, Kate was also appointed to the challenging and vital role of College Dean. This involves acting as ombudsman and impartial and confidential advocate for College staff in matters of their employment and progression, and for College students in matters of their welfare. Kate undertook the College Dean role with great sensitivity and commitment. Her work was widely appreciated by the student and College community. So much so, she was nominated by the Academic Board and appointed by the College Governors to this role twice, serving a total of 13 years, routinely putting the needs of others before her own. And, of course, this was undertaken by Kate in addition to her teaching, administrative and research activities.

And what a trajectory Kate’s research followed. Her particular focus was on careers across boundaries. This began with large scale, quantitative surveys and developed via mixed methods into qualitative studies using interviews, focus groups and ethnography. At the heart of Kate’s research were many of those issues that had prompted her turn to occupational psychology and an academic career. A concern for those under-represented (by their gender, refugee status or class background) or stigmatised (through bullying or participation in ‘dirty work’) or whose careers offered new understandings of contemporary ways of working (such as those with hybrid professional identities or who navigate cultural differences in multi-national teams). Innovative data sources encompassed visual representations of female enterprise in the form of the Entrepreneur Barbie doll as well as newspaper editorials and online blogs. Participants included refugee doctors, medical directors, taxi drivers and museum workers. Kate published widely and supported others to do so, often co-authoring with former students who perhaps hadn’t anticipated a fledging academic career to add to their portfolios.

When colleagues describe Kate, they mention her sense of humour, her compassion, and her ability to speak up for what is right. New staff were welcomed into the department by Kate and made to feel safe and supported in their roles. She was a reassuring and encouraging presence; early career academics were generously mentored. Her depth of concern and care for staff and students is irreplaceable. Colleagues knew that Kate was always there for them and their students. And this was always achieved with the same unique style Kate brings to everything she does. The word ‘style’ in this context is not about her dress sense - although Kate is always the most stylish woman on the academic circuit: a legacy perhaps of her earlier rock music days, as not many academics wear Dries Van Noten or multi-buckle combat trousers to a lecture. Rather, it is about her uniqueness and her authenticity. Kate chooses her words carefully, speaking with precision, whether in conversation or in her research publications. This promotes a wonderful sense of sincerity, where each word carries meaning. Her vibrant smile at events such as graduation is much missed, though we are graced by her presence - and smile - of course today.

When students describe Kate, they recall listening to her lectures and being stimulated and motivated as they encountered a perspective on the world of work that their own jobs or practitioner experiences could never provide. She won over many a prospective student to the Masters in Organizational Psychology by describing it as the ‘thinking person’s MBA’. Her teaching involved sharing a deep and nuanced understanding of organizational life. Students pay testament to Kate’s unswerving belief in their ability to climb the academic mountain, especially during the hardest moments when it would be easy to give up. Kate made them feel they had valued experiences and insights to bring to their studies, getting the best out of them through empathy, respect, and gentle persuasion. Kate has a wonderful ability to listen and engage and to leave students with a good feeling of having learnt something. Her PhD students valued her ability to cut to the chase and see clearly what needed to be done, as well as her enthusiasm. They appreciated Kate’s enduring ability to get excited about intellectual ideas and the creative possibilities they offered. She is a great listener, unfailingly positive and can turn complexity into something clear and insightful with breath-taking speed. Summing up Kate, one doctoral student said, “fiercely intelligent, fabulously stylish, ferociously funny”. Indeed!

In 2020, Kate retired as College Dean and Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology. Over the course of 26 years of dedicated service to students and staff, which we honour today, Kate was the consummate professional, a loyal colleague and critical friend to the College. In other words, a real Birkbeckian. Staff and students have benefitted so much from her wisdom and support. She is passionate about ensuring lifelong learning opportunities and the importance of encouragement in helping people to think independently. She is witty, creative, nurturing, optimistic, and elegant. We wish her a plentitude of opportunities in the future to put her many talents to use.

These are just some of the reasons we are delighted to welcome Kate to a College Fellowship.