Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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Gender equality in academia

Dr Almuth McDowall discusses how Birkbeck is drilling into the data of the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative which seeks to address gender inequality in STEMM.

Are women in STEM subjects not progressing as far and fast as their male colleagues? What should universities put in place to nurture and retain female talent? These are questions close to my own heart, not least as some of my own research on work-life balance and also on executive rewards as a science-practitioner in organizational psychology touches on gender issues.

It’s been much debated that women are more likely than men to leave academia in science subjects, and are underrepresented in senior roles. The Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, established 12 years ago, seeks to address gender equality through charters. These provide a framework for institutions to apply for an award which recognises their work on equality and diversity. Birkbeck is a member of this Charter, and a number of departments and schools hold awards including Biological and Psychological Sciences.

As a member of the College’s Athena SWAN panel, I am aware that much is being done in the institution to support direct initiatives, such as a dedicated mentoring programme through TRIGGER/ ATHENA SWAN, but also to support culture change by ensuring that any processes and activities are based on evidence and local need, and serve to further, rather than hinder, the equality agenda.

One of the challenges for everyone in academia is that our work is largely driven by the student lifecycle and a tight year-round calendar of events. Friends who tell me ‘oh you academics have all summer off, don’t you’, usually get a rather terse and detailed reply, as I list the number of tasks that have to continue all year around: student supervision, working on academic projects, updating and maintaining our records and so on.  As a result, we often don’t have the time to really drill into the data we have already gathered on issues such as equality and diversity.

Luckily, our ATHENA SWAN panel seeks to address just this. Earlier in the year, I set about a more detailed analysis of (anonymised) data from our staff survey, from all female and male academics in STEM subjects, concentrating on the free comments which people had provided. My question was: do women and men raise different things? And the short answer is: yes, they do.

On the whole, women report to be most concerned about effective communication in the institution, a sense of being valued but also the local facilities and environment. Men, on the other hand, appear more concerned with training, development and progression as well as pay and benefits. These are interesting differences, suggesting that women might focus more on how we work as an institution, whereas men focus more on how they get rewarded for what they do.

The next step is to follow up these issues in dedicated focus groups, to gain more rigorous data and insights on the issue.  Are women more likely to focus on Birkbeck as an institutional environment, but might this come at the expense of focus on individual needs and career progression? Are men more likely to ask, and get what they want? We hope to report back on these issues in due course.



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