Posted on: May 21, 2021
Women in Academia - Q&A - Week 3
The status of women in academia has changed considerably over the last few decades, with more opportunities and careers contributing to a more level playing field. But there remain obstacles, and the situation varies from subject to subject, from institution to institution. We spoke to a range of women from across the world about their perspectives on academia, how the situation in higher education for women has changed over the years, and the issues they still face.
This week's interviewee is an assistant professor in the field of Linguistic and Cultural Studies at a university in Italy, and has asked to remain anonymous.
What would you consider your primary motivations for entering academia?
During my MA studies I developed a strong interest in research and I realised I was indeed adept at carrying out academic research. Most of my lecturers were researchers in their late thirties - so relatively young - and I was fascinated by their studies and their ways of popularising their innovative research for students' benefit. I guess this is what really pushed me to apply for the PhD position. Since then, I simply followed the course of events and here I am in academia.
What, if anything, made you reluctant to enter academia?
I don't remember ever feeling reluctant to enter academia. However, sometimes I feel reluctant to continue my career in academia. I do love my job, but I believe that building relationships based on mutual trust and understanding is definitely more difficult in academia than in other work contexts.
Could you briefly describe the route you took to arrive at your present position?
After my MA I got a PhD position at the same university. After obtaining the qualification, I was a contract lecturer for two years at the same university. I didn't have time to start new research, but I spent those two years publishing as much as I could. Then I got the junior researcher position at another university.
For many courses, men make up the majority – or even the entirety – of the staff, while even for some subjects that are generally more popular amongst women, such as literature, men tend to be overrepresented in the faculty staff. Do you think that men are, on the whole, more attracted to a profession in academia than women are?
I've never investigated the issue, but as far as I remember, in my discipline women seem to outnumber men.
Do you feel that there are any challenges you have faced that your male counterparts have not?
No, I don’t think so. I believe that in an academic career much depends on one's own personality and soft skills rather than gender.
In your time as an academic, have you noticed any changes in women’s roles in the university environment?
Yes, definitely. I've seen women growing more and more powerful, especially in decision-making organs. I’ve also noticed that communication is changing, as great attention is being paid to gender differences in language.
Some universities have recently proposed to diversify their curricula by prescribing books and articles from a more diverse range of authors. Do you think it’s important to include a variety of male and female authors on the reading list for your course?
It depends on what in practice this choice and similar choices aim to achieve. It is certainly a choice that opens new perspectives and that might raise awareness about gender-related issues (awareness among whom, however? Students?). If the aim is to give visibility to both men's and women's academic activities, it will probably work, but only at a superficial, formal level, which in my opinion is not likely to impact the way women are perceived in society as a whole and the stereotypes related to such perceptions.
I've noticed that over the years more importance has been given to gender differences in language, and I've also noticed that this has changed my way of communicating to students and colleagues, as I'm now more careful about using language that include both males and females. But again, these approaches only work at a superficial level in terms of gender issues.
What advice would you give to women entering academia today?
The same advice I would give to men: "respect everyone and make sure you are respected as a person and worker, be collaborative and open to criticism, but never negotiate your freedom. Don't be ONLY a researcher or a professor: do not sacrifice relationships, hobbies, passions etc. in the name of academia."
I would also advise women who do not have children to look after to make it clear from the very beginning that the fact that they do not have children must not allow anyone to give them extra work or ask for extra favours (compared to colleagues with children).