(Isn't it just the way? Not long after I resolve to start posting on a weekly basis, things get busy and I get behind. It’s not strictly PhD-related, but I wanted to use this post to talk about a conference I’m attending soon. I should be back to PhD-relating things soon.)
The Aspire Foundation aims to create a world ‘where women and girls are empowered and authentic leaders in both the developing and developed world for the sake of equality, justice, balance and success.’ They’ve worked with over 1 million women since they were founded by Sam Collins in 2001: as part of their aim to reach even more women, they’re running a two-day Trailblazing Leadership event. Which I am absolutely honoured to have managed to secure a scholarship for.
At this point I should give a shout out to Karen, my former colleague (hi!). Without her insistent encouragement, I would never have heard of Aspire. Last year, she suggested I attend an Aspire webinar. I was starting to get cold feet about the prospect of quitting my job, moving across the country, taking on 6 years of self-funded study and then having no guarantee of security afterwards. (Can you blame me?) I think the webinar was ‘Strategic You 2015.’ The aim was to discuss what goals you had in mind for the year ahead, how to implement them and how to balance them. That webinar really helped me: by the time that hour was up, I felt this quiet, diamond-hard certainty that I was ready to take this chance.
Between then and now, I’ve learned a little more about academia. And I wasn’t comfortable with everything I learnt. Some of that diamond-hard certainty was being undercut by the feeling I’m getting (at this early stage) that academia isn’t for people like me.
So, when I got an email about the ‘Trailblazing Leadership’ event in March, I naturally thought “that sounds great, but it isn’t for me.” I don’t think of myself as a leader. And I certainly didn’t have enough money to fund my attendance. But the more I read about the conference, the more it seemed to me that people like me are exactly the sort of people who don’t have a voice in academia. And when I heard that Aspire were offering scholarships, I felt that same diamond-hard certainty that I should at least apply. So I sent an email. I was invited to apply. And I did.
I applied because I’ve had female mentors for most of my academic career. These people took an interest in me. They challenged me. They held me to account. My personal and intellectual development has been thanks to them. The only problem is that there seem to be fewer and fewer women available to lead, or to mentor. I’m very lucky that I like and respect my supervisors immensely, but academia doesn’t encourage a culture of mentoring outside of that supervisory relationships. If I look to my peers (fellow PhD students) we’re all competing for finite resources: funding, conference papers, jobs. And I don’t think that this intense culture of peer competition and lack of mentoring makes for happier graduate students, better researchers, or improved academics. In fact, I feel the opposite is true.
I applied because the whole thing about this PhD thing is that I’d quite like to be an academic. (I know, I know. It’s unlikely. But I could post a whole other post about my issues with that. So humour me for now.) So, I’d like to be an academic. Which means I’m effectively training for a career that favours people who aren’t like me. Peer reviewers will assume my work is biased because I'm a woman. So, this means that when I am trying to publish and get a permanent job I'm less likely to get a permanent, full-time contract than a male. And if I do have children, I’ll be seen as less productive than my male colleagues: in fact, they’ll gain a net benefit from having kids.
I applied because this is all depressing and awful. But it isn’t just a broad political point. For me, it’s also intensely personal: my husband is an academic. And he’s a brilliant academic. (Again, I could write an entire post singing his praises but I’ll save that.) He’s an innovative, supportive, dedicated teacher. He’s a flexible, incisive researcher. He’s an engaging, personable presenter. All of these things mean that – as far as I’m concerned – he should have all the accolades in the world. But he should get them because of his qualities, not because of his gender. But as things stand, no matter how much we support each other, he is likely to do better because of something he can’t control.
And I was accepted.
And now I’m nervous! At first, it was about what to wear (business casual? Conference wear? What are either of those things? I can’t afford to buy new clothes!! Will people know if I wear second hand stuff? What do I do??) Luckily, Aspire have clarified that there’s no formal dress code, smart casual is fine.
So now I have to be nervous about the usual things. Like the fact that I’m awful at remembering names, and there are no name tags. Like the fact that when I get nervous I talk a lot. And a lot of it’s nonsense. But I’m also nervous about something specific to this conference: all these women are contributing amazing things to the world. And me? I’m contributing a potential thesis that I don’t have a research question for. What can I contribute?
I hope to find out that answer to that question at this conference. And I’d love to let you know how it goes, if you’re interested.