Academic Women: Some Reflections

Academic Women, Family, and Children

In the last 8 years I have written and edited five books, hosted 7 national and international conferences, received hundreds of thousands worth of grant monies, and travelled the world… but if you were to ask me what is most important to me in my life, I would instantly tell you my family. My three children especially, all born within the last 8 years, have provided me with balance and perspective and have kept my feet on the ground.

Little children are a great reminder of what life is about in all its simplicity- watching for a rainbow after a sudden shower-storm, looking for crabs at the local beach as they scurry back under the rock platform, and jumping into muddy puddles just to hear the sound of “splash”!

Continuous successes in a university setting can come in batches, at times however it does not come at all. For a long time everything you might touch might turn to gold- every paper you submit is published, every grant you apply for is awarded, and then, for no apparent reason there are quiet times when you feel you are trekking up giant mountains with no funding and with limited collaborations. During all these times, at least, your family is with you. I can say from experience, that it is the one constant factor in my life. 

It is for this reason that relationships need to be fostered with our partners and our children, friends and extended family, at least as much, as that 50 page grant proposal that was due last week. Of course we all know the time pressures too well. But it is quite usual I believe, for academic woman to feel torn in half, if not thirds or quarters. In the end it has to do with mental stability, emotional intelligence, and faith in one’s personal calling.

Feeling like you have the choice to start a family and growing your family when you want to as an academic woman is paramount. The pressures today to get your PhD, climb the academic ladder, and publish or perish, can make childbearing seem all but a distant dream. Recently one internationally recognised professor commented to me that he and his wife ‘snuck in’ their only child but that his wife did not feel she had the opportunity to have another child given the demands of her job as a lecturer.

I do understand the feelings of this woman; despite the rhetoric that every woman is entitled to maternity leave, and that most people understand the pressures of raising kids, I am at times surprised by comments that are nothing short of discriminatory. I recollect one senior academic woman who once told me that I was “very lucky to be on an interim fractional part-time professor’s appointment because that is generally unheard of”. I am good at ignoring such narrow-sighted comments as these, and revel in the fact that I have used every bit of leave I have ever received “wisely”. I have also always found that my teaching especially is even more passionate, each time I have returned from maternity leave.

Though still a young academic, I often think about the day I will retire from my university post… At that time I will no longer carry the title of Professor, but I will always be a mother.

If not for my family: my husband, my children, my parents, my siblings, and those special people around me who know who they are and encourage me onward daily, I physically and mentally would not be able to contribute as much as I have in the last decade or so.

Academic Women are Great at Sharing

At a time that knowledge exchange is being touted for its contribution to the generation of intellectual property, I think academic women, many of whom are natural communicators are doing wonders at sharing what they know.

For any academic woman just starting out, my advice would be to harness the power of the web but to use applications and tools wisely. I have seen some academic women burnt by the aftermath of very public social media web pages about their research and others who have managed their online profiles with prowess and have been able to draw international audiences keen to learn from fresh research outcomes.

Communicating knowledge today must happen via an online presence, but managing this online presence to exploit it for what it can offer is especially critical.

Given the many responsibilities that academic women have in the community- as mothers, as carers, as teachers, it is important that they are able to capture all those bits and pieces of wisdom they have learnt. It is not the quantity of information that matters but the quality of information that matters.

Women are sometimes poor documenters of their achievements, while it is well-known that men are good at detailing their achievements. I would encourage more academic women to jump online and document carefully what they are doing, as they are doing it. Some women might be surprised by the knowledge they have amassed over a calendar year, and by the number of different things they are engaged in on any given month. All of these pieces of information can be used (1) for providing a good case toward promotion or probation; (2) by others who are seeking collaboration partners or conducting research; (3) for reporting to your head of school or departmental unit; (4) to holistically raise the reputation of the organisation that you work for.

As the power of the Web becomes increasingly important in academia, I believe it is woman, many of whom are natural communicators, who have a great opportunity to experiment with a diverse range of media and applications- everything from multimedia video presentations to online blogs.

Reflections for: "From the Trenches" for the Focus, the ATSE Journal, about experiences of women in academia. These comments were submitted to our deputy vice chancellor research, Prof Judy Raper.