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Raising women up: visibility, foremothers and role models in UK higher education

Women in classics

Edith Morley was the first woman to be appointed Professor in Britain in 1908. Yet, says Dr Victoria Leonard, who co-founded the Women’s Classical Committee UK, more than a century later women still have a visibility problem in UK higher education. 

Although there is near gender parity at undergraduate level and a proportional dominance of women in postgraduate populations, women are subject to an impossible sliding scale: numbers diminish and visibility falls the higher the level of employment.

Only 25 per cent of professors in UK universities are female. This imbalance significantly increases among vice-chancellors or principals, where they constitute only 18 per cent. The exclusion of women from these prestigious and highly visible leadership roles makes it harder for women to follow. After all, if you cannot see it, how can you be it?

Women have been marginalised and omitted throughout history, and this trend extends even to the pioneers who were first to break through the ranks of universities as closely guarded male institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Scholar and suffragette Edith Morley, who became Professor of English Language at University College, Reading, was labelled ‘difficult’, and suffered gender-based discrimination throughout her career.

Millicent Mackenzie, appointed Professor of Education at what is now Cardiff University in 1910, was subject to a significant gender pay gap. Dorothy Tarrant, celebrated in University of London’s Leading Women campaign, achieved first class honours in Classics at Cambridge. But like many women at the time, was not awarded a degree. Tarrant would later become the first woman Professor of Greek and the first female president of the Classical Association. Yet these path-breaking achievements are nearly forgotten.

The importance of recognising the struggles and achievements of our foremothers and promoting positive role models is a central concern of the Women’s Classical Committee UK (WCC). Established in 2015, it supports women in classics, and promote feminist and gender-informed perspectives.

Since the inauguration of the Committee, there has been a strong desire for a mentoring scheme. In order to rise through the hierarchies, having someone advocating on your behalf and exposure to key players in the field are vital. The highly competitive nature of academia, as well as issues like employment precarity or sexual harassment, make guidance for early career researchers essential.

The WCC recognises the crucial importance of appropriate and effective mentoring that benefits all participants, and has invested considerable efforts gathering information before launching the scheme, including a survey of its membership. The Classical Association Annual Conference is a major event in the calendar for classicists and, in April 2018, the WCC held the first element of its ‘Take a graduate student to lunch’ mentoring scheme. This event supports junior scholars, connecting them with established academics so they can gain from their expertise and discuss research and career aspirations.

Through mentoring, the Committee can connect women with positive role models in a way that is meaningful, useful, and inspiring. It also acts informally as a network, raising up women in Classics and making them more visible and accessible, at least to other women.

This type of women-centred promotion is essential on a gendered playing field that is far from level. A ‘manference’ held in March 2018 at Stanford University featuring 30 white men demonstrates this imbalance. However, issues of visibility and representation can be more opaque. In the UK, there are nearly twice as many male Classics professors than there are women. A man, rather than a woman lead nearly three times as many Classics Departments. Male heads of departments are at least four times more likely to be employed at professorial level than their female counterparts.

Our learned societies are not led by women. Since its inception in 1903, the Classical Association has had as many presidents named John as women (8). Since 1879, the Hellenic Society has had 38 presidents, three of which have been women. Fifteen out of the 93 British Academy for Classical Antiquity Fellows are women. This means that when we look up, we are not seeing women.

The WCC is dedicated to improving the visibility of our foremothers past and present, highlighting their struggles and successes for the benefit of successive women in higher education. We have achieved this through an initiative designed to reverse the gender bias in the English-language Wikipedia, the world’s largest and most influential source of information.

Fewer than 15 per cent of Wikipedia editors are women, and only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies are about women. That slant is even more apparent when it comes to Classics: an estimate in 2016 found that only 7 per cent of biographies of Classicists featured women.

The WCC organises regular ‘editathons’ and training sessions to bring people together to edit out Wikipedia’s gendered skew. More than 75 pages have been created or edited, including those for the pioneering American Classicist Grace Harriet Macurdy, Classical archaeologist Jocelyn Toynbee, and more contemporary role models like Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin. Facilitated by free online tools beyond Wikipedia like Twitter (#WCCWiki) and Skype, this is an example of direct activism that is effective and accessible to everyone.

Rather than sitting on our hands and relying on the deceptive myth of progress, by remembering the struggles and achievements of our foremothers we can shine a light on progress made so far, and areas that are yet to change. We can support junior colleagues by illuminating positive role models and through mentoring schemes, making higher education a fairer and more inclusive environment where women are allowed to succeed, and can be seen doing so.

Victoria Leonard women in classicsDr Victoria Leonard (left) is a research associate at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. You can find her on Twitter @tigerlilyrocks. For more information about the Women’s Classical Committee UK, follow @womeninclassics on Twitter and see here.

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