I have just been reading a blog post by my colleague Dr Helen Bond on sexism and New Testament scholarship. Her reflections on her own experiences as a female scholar in a male-dominated field make interesting reading, regardless of one’s own discipline.
Although things have been gettting better over the years, many of Helen’s experiences sound all too familiar to me. Having been to an all-girls school where we were all expected to become engineers and constantly told that the world was our oyster, I went on to Cardiff University for my undergraduate degree, which was dominated by female students, and had little idea that the world of academia would be difficult for a woman. It was only when I reached Oxford to begin my doctoral study that things began to unravel. Although I had a top-quality research Masters, a year’s lecturing experience, and a full scholarship for my doctoral study, several of my fellow (male) students were impressively dismissive of me, and sexual harrassment was a clear problem. It seemed to be a not uncommon view that women can’t do proper scholarship (neither can gay people, apparently), and even women in senior academic roles were belittled by male students who commented only on their appearance. Back at Cardiff for a post-doc things were better again, with generally supportive colleagues. However, it was only when I moved to Edinburgh that I realised an important thing had been lacking even there: mentoring and female role models. Helen Bond is one of several impressive female scholars here at New College, and just as they provide an excellent example for more junior scholars like myself, I aspire in turn to be a role model for others.
This year I have taken on the job of leading the School of Divinity’s gender equality work. We recently received a Bronze Gender Equality Charter Mark award (the Humanities equivalent of the Athena SWAN scheme, soon indeed to be merged with it), and are working through various initiatives to try to further improve gender equality in the School, both at staff level and for students. It is an interesting role and one to which I feel personally very committed. We have come a long way, but there is still more we can do to make it an even playing field for male and female students and scholars.