I Don’t Know How She Does It… Women in Academia

During my four years at university, I have had the privilege of learning from some incredible women. As a female student, seeing women in academia has helped me picture whether it is a career I would like to pursue one day.

Although the number of women in academia is increasing around the world, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality. For this post, I asked some of my professors questions about their experiences. I am so grateful for their willingness to share and hope that you will find their responses as insightful as I did.

Please note: This post reflects the experiences of professors in the social sciences and may vary from those in other disciplines. More detailed information about each instructor can be found at the end of this post.

Why did you become a professor? Did you consider any other career paths?

Dr. Valerie D’Erman (Assistant Professor at UVic): Academia was not my goal at all coming out of undergrad – I pretty much hated studying and writing papers by the end of it! I had intentions of eventually doing a post-graduate degree in journalism because I knew I liked reading and writing. After a few years away from school I found I had a more natural interest and inclination (and work ethic!) to instead appreciate the kind of work that goes into academics.

Image by Siora Photography via Unsplash.

Marij Swinkels (PhD candidate and Assistant Professor at Utrecht University): I actually never thought that a career in academia would be something for me. First, because I wasn’t a ‘model’ student with straight A’s. Second, I hardly knew anyone who did this (except for the – mostly male – professors I had). This changed when I met Femke as my MA thesis supervisor who showed me that cool women do this job as well. She saw something in me and really encouraged me to take on a career in academia.

Dr. Mallory Compton (Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government): I became a professor because I enjoy teaching and research. It’s a privilege to spend my days studying questions that interest me while engaging with colleagues and students about those same questions. I did consider other career paths, mainly research roles in the civil service.

Dr. Grace Lore (Sessional Instructor at UVic): I loved university. I loved thinking and reading and writing. What a privilege it was to have the time and space to do that throughout my PhD. I wanted to keep one foot in that world. I also love teaching – every week I get to spend a few hours talking to engaged and smart people about things I care about! That said – a lecturer is just one of my hats… I also work in the world of politics and policy, mostly with not-for-profits.  

Did you have female professors when you first started university? 

VD: I have always had a lot of female professors. In some situations, I actually noticed that the women outnumbered the men. I honestly can say that I never noticed a disparity at any time in my education (although I studied Sociology as an undergrad and Political Science as a graduate student, so I only have the perspective from those disciplines).

MS: In Dutch unis, and especially in Utrecht, women are ‘overrepresented’ in lower ranks of the university and underrepresented in higher ranks. In my department, there were simply no female professors with a full-time appointment. I do think that there are more women in academia now, but the barrier from assistant prof to associate or full prof is still high – partly as a result of institutional sexism.

MC: I was lucky to have learned from several female professors while I was an undergraduate student, and some of the most influential faculty in my doctoral studies were women. The department I work in now is headed by an incredible woman. I think I’ve had closer exposure to strong female role models in academia than most, and I feel lucky for that, because I know it has helped me.

I think I’ve had closer exposure to strong female role models in academia than most, and I feel lucky for that, because I know it has helped me.

GL: I had a few that really had an impact, especially when they introduced me to the ideas that shaped my thinking and research.

If you have children, do you find it difficult to balance family with the unique demands of being a professor? If yes, in what sense?

Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash.

VD: I have two children, both of whom were born during my graduate school years. What’s particularly challenging about being a professor is that you’re never really ‘done’ with your work. The demands of research and grant applications and teaching create the sense that you could/should always be doing more – there’s always some writing that could be done, teaching materials can always be improved, etc. So, it can be difficult at times to switch from work-mode to not-work-mode.

The flexible schedule of academic jobs is both great and a curse for parents; while it’s nice to be able to work from home, there were many moments when my kids were small when I used to regret not having a job with set hours that I could simply leave (mentally and physically) at a set time of day.

MS: I don’t have children, but can share some insights from what I’ve seen/discussed with colleagues. I vividly remember a male colleague informally saying to me in a job interview that there were two good candidates, both around their 30s, one man, one woman and ‘that I probably could guess whom they would choose’.

I vividly remember a male colleague informally saying to me in a job interview that there were two good candidates, both around their 30s, one man, one woman and ‘that I probably could guess whom they would choose’.

It’s these kinds of remarks that, to me, show how institutionalized sexism is and which influence many women’s choices about having kids and pursuing such a career. Another example is the lack of resources for moms – for example, at our department, we ‘fought’ for a pump room for about 6 years!

GL: I do have children! I had both my babies during the course of my PhD. In fact, I handed in my Dissertation 10 days before I gave birth to my son… It was a close one! It was really hard to navigate babies and my PhD, especially as the only woman in my cohort and, for most of the time, the only one with kids!  However, it also offered a lot of opportunity.

I worked from home with my first baby, and my partner and I took her to Europe for 4 months to travel around and do interviews for my research.  I have flexibility in my schedule which is wonderful with kids – I sometimes work from my couch when my kids are sick and I have the option to make some days shorter and some days longer.

What challenges did you face during your first years as a professor?

VD: Financial uncertainty! This is definitely a huge thing to consider. Depending on one’s discipline and field of expertise, permanent positions are hard to come by. Also, with a family, we were less mobile and not really able to move quickly to take on temporary one-year opportunities in different locations, as much as those temporary positions can be great for building a career.

With a family, we were less mobile and not really able to move quickly to take on temporary one-year opportunities in different locations, as much as those temporary positions can be great for building a career.

MC: Time management. Teaching is important to me, and it has immediate feedback. Research, however, happens on a longer time scale but is more important for my success in academia (including tenure). Balancing the two has been a challenge for me.

MS: Being taken seriously because of my expertise. I have many examples of boys or men making statements about my lectures like: “I didn’t expect much when I saw you come in, but it was actually a really nice lecture.” Another example: in evaluations, women are often credited for being ‘nice,’ ‘enthusiastic,’ or ‘caring’ and hardly ever for being ‘intelligent’ or ‘knowledgeable’ (this year was the first time that some students wrote that down on my evaluations and I was just SO happy).

GL: As a sessional lecturer I don’t have job security or predictability. This is really challenging and anxiety-inducing. Academia can require a lot of time working and researching (without pay or predictability!) before you’re considered tenure track ready, and the job market can demand you move to the job that comes up. With two kids, this hasn’t felt like an option for me. I have also wanted to stay with one foot in the world of politics and policy and put my academic expertise to work. It’s been my experience that there isn’t a ton of space for this, except for in the insecure and unpredictable world of sessional!

What do you think is the greatest challenge for women in academia?

VD: I certainly would not presume to speak for all women or all areas of academia, so I have to first make that enormous qualification. Based on what I myself have experienced and from my colleagues that I know well, I think one of the biggest challenges is internal. A lot of women are taken off-balance when they have children, particularly if they’ve been fairly ambitious or directed before children. And, honestly, that’s not a bad thing – it just is. So going from being able to kind of pour all of your mental energy into researching and writing something, to having not only less time but less energy and motivation, is a really common and normal thing, yet I’ve seen a lot of women seriously beat themselves up over it. But I’ve also seen this with new fathers in academia, too.

Photo by Craig Ren via Unsplash

MC: That’s a difficult question to answer, because I don’t have the counterfactual– I’ve never experienced the challenges faced by men in academia. I do know that a lot of research shows that women are disadvantaged in both the peer-review process and in student evaluations, both of which are fundamental to our career success. People of color are even more disadvantaged by implicit bias. So it might be that the greatest challenge for women is something we have very little control over: the implicit (or explicit) bias of others.

MS: Battling institutional sexism (it takes painstakingly long to change institutionalized practices), continuous and ‘functioning’ bias awareness (so not just saying “Yay I did bias awareness training and now hired a pregnant woman”), and cultivating a culture where women really have a place and voice (it all starts with an available pump room 😉 but also the idea that you’re not seen as an ‘angry woman’ when you speak up about the issues that concern you), and equal pay/equal evaluating criteria.

GL: The job market is challenging, especially if you have a family. In a lot of ways, the system is broken and a bit exhausting. However​, the time to learn, think, and research is such an incredible luxury.  The chance to be an expert in the thing you care about and the opportunity to continue to teach, learn, and engage really can’t be beat. If you want to do it, learn about the risks and challenges on the other side, and then ​go for it. 

What advice would you give to women who want to pursue a career in academia?

VD: I would offer this advice to anyone of any gender considering a career in academia: think carefully about what you now perceive academia to be, and do a lot of research into the opportunities available. Also, think carefully (and honestly) about your financial situation – do you have family support? Will you need student loans for graduate school and will you be able to pay them off? Depending on your field of study, how probable is the result of achieving a full-time job after graduating, and how mobile will you need to be?

Photo by Andre Hunter via Unsplash

For women, specifically, I might suggest thinking ahead of time about the timing of children, if you want a family. The physical aspect of childbearing and its aftermath is no joke, and one doesn’t know ahead of time how easy or lucky or difficult a particular situation is going to be, so be reasonable in making some room/concessions for that. Having children isn’t something that just happens when work is done – it takes a lot of time and effort and sacrifice, to include sacrifices in your career.

MC: Find (or create) a support system, and use it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and ask for help even when you’re unsure of what you might need.

MS: Find other women to mentor/buddy you, or join forces. In my department, some colleagues and I have joined forces to open the debate about institutional sexism in our department. Create awareness (doing stuff on international women’s day, speak up during meetings etc.). Furthermore, find out how and where you can report things when you feel unsafe (e.g. a trust person or ombudsman).

Is there anything else you would like to share?

MS: There’s a great site, Women Also Know Stuff, which promotes the work of women in Political Science. It’s about creating awareness that we often tend to think about men when we look for experts (I do so too, because.. bias!), but there’s soooo many cool women out there too.


The Professors:

Dr. Valerie D’Erman is an Assistant Professor at UVic. I have taken courses with her on European politics and she also accompanied our team to Seattle for the 2018 Model EU Conference.

Dr. Mallory Compton is an Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government. I took her course “Achieving Successful Public Governance” at Utrecht University.

Marij Swinkels is a PhD candidate and Assistant Professor at Utrecht University. I took her course “Understanding Political Leadership,” which she co-taught with Dr. Femke van Esch.

Dr. Grace Lore is a Sessional Instructor at UVic and researcher. I took her course on Canadian Elections.

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