Guest Blog post by Rachel Handforth
Back in summer 2016, I was approached by an enthusiastic first year PhD student at my institution called Fiona Martinez. She wanted my help to set up a network for women postgraduate students, feeling that it was important that women had a chance to meet each other and discuss the challenges facing women working in academia. She had already drafted some aims and objectives for a network for women postgraduates, got agreement from the university to set up the group, and secured funding for the next academic year.
My first thought was why I hadn’t already thought of this?! Not only is my research grounded in feminism, focusing on the experiences of women doctoral students, but I had also experienced isolation during the first year of my PhD and found it difficult to meet like-minded peers. We recruited another member, Larissa Povey, to our organising group and put together a calendar of events for the upcoming year, including sessions on negotiating the work/life balance during postgraduate study.
There seems to be a growing recognition of the issues facing women working in academia. Similar networks aiming to bring women students together exist at institutions across the country, including at the University of Edinburgh and University of Lincoln. At our first event, we discussed the lack of women in senior roles (currently 22% of professors in the UK are women, according to the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2016 figures, and just 17 professors are Black women), the gender pay gap which stands at 12.6% (UCU, 2016), and the relative lack of women in traditionally male-dominated disciplines such as engineering and in the sciences.
Our network enables women students from across SHU to meet and socialise as well as providing a safe space for the discussion of issues affecting women in academia today. However, we feel that the network also has a practical role to play in supporting women students in their career development- acknowledging that women PhD students are less likely than men to be encouraged to engage in career development activities (Dever et al., 2008).
We provide women postgraduates with opportunities to build on their research skills, and are organising events such as how to get your work published, and a workshop on presenting your work at conferences. We have also held workshops for undergraduate and Master’s students where current PhD students shared their experiences of applying for doctoral study, and the realities of doing a PhD.
At our launch event earlier this month, the Head of the Graduate School in one of our largest Faculties, Professor Lisa Hopkins, shared her personal career journey with us, starting with an anecdote about one of her first teaching jobs where the cleaner presumed she was a student rather than the lecturer. She drew attention to the institutional sexism that women academics at all levels have faced, highlighting the experiences of Liz Schafer, a Professor in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway University who took legal action in 2010 after discovering that women Professors were paid less than men in the same roles.
Professor Hopkins also commented that women are often ‘good citizens’ of the academy, who engage in time-consuming activities such as being committee members, rather than activities which are more focused on career development. However, she also expressed her feeling that engaging in ‘academic citizenship’ was important in women helping other women to succeed, and that we all have a responsibility to help others and recognise the efforts of those who have supported us.
Our network has been very well received by women students who have attended our events, as well as by key figures at our institution. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Husbands who also attended our launch event, expressed a great deal of support and enthusiasm for our network.
Yet despite the success of our launch event, for me it is the monthly interactions with colleagues and peers who come together to seek company, support, and solidarity, which are the most important. Our regular events provide a space for women to come together and support one another- speaking back to Professor Hopkins’ message about helping each other, which is an act of resistance within a culture which promotes individualism and competition. This network helps us to resist the individualistic culture of the academy, promoting and helping to maintain a culture that is instead both collegial and feminist.
Now more than ever, it is vital that women are able to come together and support one another, and Fiona, Larissa and I are proud to have created a community which has started to do this for women students at Sheffield Hallam University. We look forward to our next big event which will be on International Women’s Day, where we will explore women’s academic career experiences with our guest speaker Professor Sandra Eldridge, and discuss feminism in the academy.
Rachel Handforth is a final year PhD student in Education at Sheffield Hallam University. Her doctoral research explores the career aspirations of women doctoral students, examining how these aspirations change during the PhD.