By Roseanna Doughty |
I was talking about the English Civil War with a group of undergraduates a few months ago, when to my horror one of my young female students remarked that the history of wars was really just for boys. I had to remind her that I studied one of the bloodiest conflicts in Britain’s recent history; Women can do war!
Since then I’ve been haunted by this girl’s words. But after going to yet another conference where the vast majority of the participants were male, and yet more seminars dominated by men I have to concede I can see why she might have made this mistake. I am well aware that in some ways I’ve had it easy. There is some fantastic work on Northern Ireland being done by women, and at my institute, I am surrounded by a group of women who are doing incredible research on a wide variety of subjects. Plus there is one perk to being the only women at a conference- there is never a queue for the bathroom! Of course, there are huge discrepancies across different disciplines when it comes to gender balance and equally there are fields where there is a distinct absence of men. Still, the number of times I’ve stood up to give a paper and the audience has been predominantly male… For a young female academic this can be hugely intimidating, and it seems no wonder that some feel excluded from certain subject matter.
Off the bat, I want to emphasise that I have been to many events where gender balance has never been an issue. I have also been lucky enough that the vast majority of male academics I have known have supported and worked alongside myself and other female colleagues as equals.
But the lack of strong female role models is a problem in academia period! Although initiatives such as the Athena SWAN have made significant headway in tackling gender imbalance in higher education there is still a long way to go. For me, as a young female in academia, however, I have been able to see other women achieving their PhDs, publishing their first monographs, being made professors, teaching, researching and raising families all at once, and it is this that has really made a difference in how I perceive my own potential.
I was recently invited to join an online support network for women in academia and I cannot emphasise enough how affirming it has been to be part of this community. The group includes women of all ages, at all stages of their academic lives, working in a wide variety of fields. They share their experiences and offer each other support. The group is a mine of information on issues both specific to the experience of women and academics generally. Someone from the group is always on hand to provide advice, support, celebrate, commiserate, or just send funny gifs if needed. When I have asked for help, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people that have rallied to my side.
I have also been lucky enough to have a female supervisor and it is inspiring to see what she has achieved. This has always given me the confidence to think I too can achieve academic success. Although both my supervisors have always been incredibly supportive; it is nice to know that there is a female member of the academic staff I can talk to if I need to. This is not the case for many of my female colleagues. I know that some universities have toyed with the idea of introducing a women’s officer to provide students with a female point of contact and I think this is a great idea.
My student who though the history of war was an exclusively male domain, however, just had me. I hope I was able to demonstrate to her that no topic is gender exclusive. Women study war, politics, economics, society, medicine (the list goes on) and excel. If her academic life is studded with just some of the inspirational female role models I have had then I think she will be fine. I am eager, however, to hear any ideas as to how we can help and encourage young female academics of the future.
(Image 1 and 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org; Image 3: Valerie Everett Flickr Account)
Roseanna Doughty is one of Pubs and Publications Publicity Editors and is going into the final year of her PhD. She knows that she certainly would not have reached this point if she had not been surrounded by some truly inspirational men and women.