Life as a young female academic

You mostly know me/follow me for my butt-naked antics, but there is another not-so-secret part of my life that inspires me, challenges me and makes me angry everyday. I’m a PhD student, a researcher and a visiting lecturer, and I’ve had a pretty intense autumn of criminology teaching and public speaking. So if you’re wondering what the academic life – in my case, what doing a PhD and presenting at conferences while being young and female – feels like, you’re in the right place.

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Me trying to convince myself I am an academic

It’s an old white man’s paradise

So you’re an academic. Are you female? Are you young?  Prepare to feel like this at your next conference.

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DISCLAIMER: This doesn’t mean that female academics sparkle (although sometimes I do) or that they don’t exist. I know many of them, and they are awesome. What I mean is that, at conferences, you will be the very extra sparkly thing that is a bit of a myth in some old white dude’s head.

I have now become accustomed to being the new “sensation” at conferences. While I love surprising and confusing the shit out of people – wow, she has breasts and she talks! MIND.BLOWN! – and the element of surprise sometimes gets you noticed, it’s also insulting to always pass for the intern, the student, the one who isn’t meant to speak.

Repeat with me – and this is going to be repeated throughout this post, get over it: youth and gender (or not wanting to identify with either gender) shouldn’t be indicators of your abilities and preparation.

Yet, unfortunately, when I rock up to conferences smartly dressed in my nice twin sets or power suits, the most acknowledgement I get before people see me go on stage and realise I’m actually one of the speakers is a request to take a picture with me. People who have wanted a snap with me were often old male academics. This is quite baffling. Especially if they haven’t heard me speak, or if I don’t know them, or if I’m not going around wearing a massive neon sign on my butt, I don’t see the necessity for us to take a picture together at a work event. It just sounds like you just wanna feel me up a bit, or tell your mates: “Look at this! A WOMAN! SPEAKING! AT A CONFERENCE! UNDER 40!” It’s awkward and unnecessary.

Strangely enough, the only conference where I’ve openly talked about my pole life, showing pole videos and all, has been the one where I’ve been taken more seriously (more of that to come in the following weeks when the video comes out).

The Speech Makers

There’s also a particular bred of male academics (they could be female, too, but in my own personal experience they were always male) that don’t ask questions – they make a speech. Because they weren’t invited to the conference. But they have to let you know that their research, too, is hella cool. Asking questions for 20 minutes and taking up everybody else’s space.

I have found myself interrupting men’s “questions” following my speeches or other young female academic’s speeches asking: “What’s your question/point?”

Why? Because I have watched too many young women have to deal with pointless peacocking and derailing of their speech and topic. So I have become ruthless and I stop unwanted speeches. Sorry not sorry.

Women aren’t taken seriously no matter what they do/say/wear

“By the way, great suit! I didn’t want it to be the first thing I mentioned about you, because I loved your presentation and you are more than a dress.”

A really smart, driven and engaged student told me this after about half an hour of chatting after my conference speech in Washington DC. On one hand, I was really thankful she said it: I was there to speak, not for a fashion show. But also, it seems that any woman wearing something different than a black skirt and a jacket is going to be a talking point at academic/business events.

So again, repeat with me: my clothes – whether they’re Madonna’s spiky Gaultier boob leotard or the red Zara power suit I can actually afford – do not change the fact that I am qualified to talk about my research and to teach my classes. Yes, there is a dress code, and I appreciate that talking to a room full of academics might require more than my go-to performance g-string and nipple pasties. BUT it’d be great if in 2K18 clothing didn’t equal preparation, qualifications and abilities. Also, why does nobody question the men with bad hair and stained shirts I’ve seen at conferences about whether they are qualified to speak?

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I taught dressed like dis. Dis is my mum’s vintage Moschino bitches.

A woman’s body and what she does with it still a hot topic, and I’m often told off by other old white dudes about what I should or shouldn’t do as an academic. Because, you know, otherwise people like them could judge me.

Outright harassment

Aaand then there’s outright harassment. If you know me or follow me on social media we’ve probably talked about this, but I went to a talk on my research topic where I wasn’t speaking. I asked the organiser if I could speak at the next one and he told me to email him, saying: “Amazing trousers!” in an odd tone at least twice. THEN I emailed him. And I received this response.

This is inappropriate because:

  • I was pitching for a work event and my pants had nothing to do with it
  • You can pay a non-sexual compliment; you can say “Oh yeah, of course, you were the girl with the shiny pants,” saying that you remember; “Those trousers…” and “Bring the trousers” sounds like: “DAT ASS” and “Bring DAT ass!” which, again, has no place in a work event.
  • Ew.

I’m quite pleased to say this is the first time in all my academic career (whether that was during my BA, MA or now) that this has happened. However, when these things happen the old anger about academia being an old white dude’s club resurfaces.

It’s Tiring

When I say “tiring” I don’t simply mean that teaching can be draining and I’m not simply referring to the nature of the work. I’m actually referring to the whole academic space.

Some of my fellow PhDs on a scholarship have had to teach a huge amount of hours for free as part of their scholarship agreement, an experience I’m told isn’t great, because often the hours you end up teaching are more than what you’d hoped to do.

Not all universities offer a full scholarship however. I for instance, don’t get one. All I get is a fee waiver, which I’m super grateful for, because I’d rather not pay 5K a year for my education. This means that I have to support myself working two jobs – that of visiting lecturer and of research assistant. Both jobs are interesting, challenging and rewarding in a variety of ways… but wearing multiple hats is tiring. So is having to chase for payments which, believe me, happens a lot. Apparently, paying visiting staff properly is an issue in a variety of universities, and I was quite surprised to see the process go way less smoothly in a global university than in shitty side gigs I used to do back in the day. I guess you never stop learning!

Students Take You More Seriously Than Other Academics

When I first started teaching I was petrified. I’m not much older than my students – I’m 25, they’re 19 or 20 – and at first they mistook me for one of their classmates. I thought they wouldn’t respect me, trust me or think I was capable of teaching. This week however I got my module evaluation forms back from them at it turns out that the students who do show up actually really value my teaching style and my module. My use of RuPaul’s Drag Race gifs was partly to blame, but from conversations we’ve had in class it transpired that my students really value someone speaking the same language as them and not referring to them as these mysterious “young people” that tend to be over-represented in sociology and criminology.

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I did also get a “9 am is too early for a seminar, fam, WOT IS LIFE” comment, but let’s just look at the positives.

The Future Is Nice and Female

I know I often sound like a massive catastrophist or just an angry, man-hating bitch, but both my PhD friends and attending conferences this year cheered me up a lot. At the Undergraduate Awards in Dublin last month I spoke to so many inspiring young women (which makes me sound ancient, but they’re actually just a few years younger than me – with “young” I mean “young female academics”). They were doing inspiring research across all fields, and many of them were focusing on science, something that in the past women didn’t use to do.

But at conferences and through academia I also met many inspiring men of all ages, that did incredible research and managed not to be dicks. Because this isn’t about men vs women in academia – it’s about us working together, without being surprised that someone without a penis can do things, or be smart, or wear shiny pants.

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