Women in Academia: The Feminist Experience of Studying Up

Women in Academia is a reading group initiative by the Women & Politics society created to highlight women in (surprise) academia, by reading academic texts written by women in humanities and discussing them on a bi-weekly basis. This piece is a summary of the discussion held by the group on October 3rd 2019.

The academic text selected to read this week was “The Feminist Experience of Studying Up: Encounters with International Institutions” by Christine Cheng, Georgina Holmes, Katharina Wright, Soumita Basy, Matthew Hurley, Maria Martin de Almagro and Roberta Guerrina.

[Featured Image: The photo shows a woman in business attire, carrying a glass plate on her shoulders and back. On top of the plate several sets of masculine feet are shown. The woman looks obviously displeased.]

For the first session of Women in Academia, we went all out, finding a text which highlighted not one, but 6 women in the academic world. One of them, even a lecturer at KCL: Dr. Christine Cheng, who was so kind as to bless our reading group with her presence and insight.

The text in itself is based on a roundtable discussion titled “Challenges and opportunities for Feminist IR: Researching gendered institutions”, and according to its abstract it focusses on the experiences of feminist scholars when “studying up”. It argues that “feminist IR conceptions of narratives and the everyday make a valuable contribution to feminist institutionalist understandings of the formal and informal”.1

This was also one of the first points to be raised during yesterday’s discussion: the often-unorthodox methods used by women in the academic world. Something that has developed alongside the, back then, unorthodox way of thinking that women brought to the debate, when they were finally allowed in. Having been excluded from the debate for so long, the feminine perspective that came along side women’s entrance into the academic field, challenged the otherwise rather established field of International Relations (IR). A point which is also raised by the piece itself: “early feminist IR scholars sought to actively changing IR, not just participate in the discussion by adding something”.2 This further allowed for a participant of the reading group to comment on the fact that the piece itself was also rather unorthodox for academic writing. As mentioned, the text is a round table discussion which has later been written down. The hinted informality with which the points were originally made at the roundtable discussion allows for many voices and many viewpoints to be presented, while also bringing with it a less scientific and more experience-based feel.

The discussion further progressed to the stigmatization that women, who decide to talk about feminist issues in IR are often exposed to. The idea that women who focus on women’s issues are often grouped as being feminist scholars and nothing more. A label which is hard to shake once it has been attached. Mainly because feminist IR is not seen as “hard IR” and therefore not respected nor acknowledge. Sadly, this issue is often also not acknowledged as existing. Yet, according to personal experiences of participants, the issue very much exists. At this comment another participant raised the very valuable question: “But, if women don’t talk about women’s issues, who will?” Then continued to point out that when men talk about women´s issues they often get them wrong. An argument the participant was basing on a point also raised in the reading: That the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015) explicitly links the Women, Peace and Security agenda to countering terrorism and violent extremism. Thus, aligning the Women, Peace and Security agenda with militarized solutions to terrorism and extremism. As stated in the reading: “The UN fears the radicalization of Muslim female bodies, but it wants to use those same bodies to stop terrorism”.3 So maybe women do need to talk about feminist issues to stop them from being highjacked by other agendas, and maybe men really do get feminist issues wrong? The group never came to a final conclusion on this. Instead the conversation carried on.

Another participant proceeded to raise the point that she, as a first-year student, was quite disappointed by the KCL history department. Having come to Kings for a diverse curriculum, she personally experienced her first few weeks as being surrounded by white men. “Even in [her] global history course”. This made the participant personally feel scared to speak up, and quite powerless. Especially in regards as to how she could change or influence this. The group then briefly brainstormed ideas as to how we, as students, could help influence the curriculum to be more diverse. Ideas included directly contacting the module convener, making personal efforts to broaden your horizon (for example by creating a reading group), or even mobilizing the student body around you to demand change. It was then drawn to the group’s attention that the seemingly homogenic curriculum not necessarily reflected the stance and wish of the department or module convener, but more reflected a long bureaucratic process which was needed in order to change the curriculum. Plus, the fact that academia traditionally has been dominated by white men and therefore the availability of good quality teaching material by non-male people of color may be harder to come by than one would hope. Eventually it was concluded that the general tone of the environment of academic studies has been changing rapidly over the last few years and that lecturers and universities in general are much aware of the increasing demand for a diverse curriculum, and therefore progress towards diverse reading lists should not be far off. This was not a necessarily comforting nor satisfying conclusion for the first year student, but did provide a glimmer of hope for future decolonization of curriculums.

Lastly two direct examples from the text, which caused wonderment among the participants when reading were brought up. The first was a point made by Katharine Wright about “women becoming signals on institutional change”.4 This is the concept of institutions in crisis, promoting women to leadership, as a symbol of progress and change. Yet, when women inevitably fail in those roles because of the crisis which precedes their leadership, they are held unfairly accountable and the glass ceiling is further (indirectly) reinforced. Here, the comment “Theresa May” was quick to be dropped. A comment to which every single participant nodded in agreement. The conversation further progressed to a participant sharing a personal anecdote of being a sole female employee in an all-male office. Here she was handed a rather difficult client with the comment “you’re a girl, so maybe they will be nice to you”.  An anecdote that not only reinforces the above analysis of women being placed in the midst of chaos they did not create, but also echo’s Wright´s experience of being told she was “a clever little girl” in a research interview with a NATO male employee.5  A comment which made several of the groups participants uncomfortable. However, most notably also a comment which made several participants voice that they recognized all of the above treatments from their own daily and professional lives.

The other incident that resonated with participants after reading the text, was one described by Matthew Hurley, in which a female employee at NATO´s HQ, working with gender, purposely, and quite strategically, had left her door open and placed a bowl of sweets near it. That way, when people passed by her door, they would stop for a piece of candy and a chat, often resulting in a talk about gender. This anecdote touched many of the group’s participants as many recognized themselves in similar scenarios. The group then moved on to discussing whether men would ever have to come up with such a trick in order to have their work recognized. A discussion which echo’s the last line of the text concerning this incident: “She finished by saying: What man would think of that?”.6 Next a point was made by a participant that the candy bowl may have been an ingenious move towards inclusion and normalization of women in research and gender studies in general, as it underhandedly forces the topics visibility and creates awareness. It was a way of pleasantly working with men to create inclusion rather than scolding, yelling or forcing the agenda. Thus, also playing more on the traditional ways of creating respect in the academic field.

Finally, the group concluded that due to the limited amount of female academics that have caused the creation of the group, as well as the many, many points come across in the discussion as to why women face more hardship when making a name for themselves in academia, the women at Kings who have made it to being senior lecturers and professors or even deans are “goddamn superstars!” So, cheers to them!

This piece is a reflection of all the points raised at the Women in Academia discussion on October 3rd, 2019, written down by Sarina Bastrup. The next discussion will be held on October 17th and is open for all participants. Details can be found on the facebook event on the Women and Politics Society facebook page.


Works Cited:

1 Cheng, Holmes, Wright, Basu, Hurley, de Amagro, Guerrina, “The Feminist experience of studying up: Encounters with International institutions”, (Sage journals, 2018), pp. 211.

Ibid, pp. 214.

3 Ibid, pp. 217.

3 Ibid, pp. 213.

4 Ibid, pp. 229.

5 Ibid, pp. 225.

6 Ibid.

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