International Women's Day: being female in academia

  • 2016-03-08
  • Times Higher Education

I was asked recently to talk to some early career researchers about the challenges of being female in academia. At first, all I could think of was my privileged race, class, nationality and sexuality. Yet many of the gains for women in academia have only been recent and we still lag behind in pay. Women are still disproportionately under-represented in disciplines such as geography, especially in senior positions. There are many things I wish I had known as a new lecturer and here are some I would like to tell my younger self.

Be yourself

It might be tempting to act like your (predominantly male) colleagues, the ones who are getting the recognition and promotions. There is a certain confident swagger that gets undue credit and airtime in academia. But mimicking others is uncomfortable and undervalues the importance of doing things differently and doing the work you want to do.

Over the years, I have been advised to be less collegiate and limit my research interests. But I have always had diffuse interests in life and I enjoy the freedom of exploring new research areas. I might have advanced quicker if I had avoided administration and not done my share of teaching but I did not want to be that person.

A female colleague recently shared that she had been asked why she did not wear heels like other women. I have been asked why I do not wear make-up and as a junior academic I wondered if my inherent scruffiness would hold me back. Yet how we dress is often purposeful and political. It signals much about our identity and allegiances and it is, again, necessary to dress as you wish.

You will be stereotyped

Not all women are caring, good at administration or less competitive than men. But stereotypes of women abound in academia and this is never more obvious than when you are perceived to have acted against expectations. As an assertive opinionated academic, I have been accused of being bossy in a way that I have not heard an equivalent man chastised. I also use humour as a way to lighten some of the ridiculousness of academia, and again this is commented upon as unusual in a woman.

Often these stereotypes are subtly expressed and shared by other women as much as men. Learning not to make assumptions about others is hard work, but vital if we are to create spaces in academia where we have diverse colleagues and flexible working environments. More than anything I would like people to stop assuming that I am trying to “act like a man” when I express competitiveness.

(Not) Having children

A colleague once shared his fear that our department had “too many women of childbearing age” whose maternity leave would, apparently, increase his teaching and administration load. He proceeded to ask me the likelihood of each of my female colleagues having children. Having children or not having children is too often considered an important facet of being a female academic. Women who have children are perceived as distracted, unreliable and not fully committed. Women who don't have children are seen as too career-focused and somehow lacking motherly instinct.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if I have children, and then questioned as to why not. Too often, having children is perceived as the only reason one would go part time, would not want to travel incessantly overseas, or not work weekends. The concept that we all have families of some form is ignored and the role of being a father is invisible in academia.