All posts, Articles, Modern Languages & Applied Linguistics

Press for Progress: women in academia

By Prof. Helen Kelly Holmes, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences


I recently came across this photo of me with two of my fellow PhD students, taken on our graduation 23 years ago in Birmingham. The PhD journey can be one of struggles and loneliness, but it can also be one where an intense and lifelong bond is forged. And this is something I had with Andrea and Suzanne (and Lisa and Abidah, not pictured). We supported each other though endless doubts and worked together through many late nights, the only time when we, lowly PhD students, could use the very precious printer in the Department.

But there are two things that strike me now looking back on this photo of friendship: we were all female students, supervised by three different supervisors, all male, all full professors – as were all of the professors in the Modern Languages Department at that time. And, the second and more amazing thing to me now is that this fact is not actually something we ever talked about. It was simply the taken for granted normality.

The theme of the International Women’s Day Conference at the University of Limerick today is #PressForProgress, and indeed, there has been a lot of progress in the intervening 23 years – to the extent that the prevailing norms of the time when I was a PhD student are being questioned, challenged and transformed today. Both Andrea and I are full professors – Suzanne opted for a career outside academia – and for our newly minted PhD selves, though we were proud, we were not unrealistic and prevailing commonsense told us that a professorship was a remote and highly improbable goal and possibly not compatible with other life goals.

Although we largely accepted the status quo of our PhD experience, what I do remember, looking back now, is a poorly articulated and underdeveloped but nonetheless growing sense of unease about power, authority, entitlement. And progress must surely be about questioning this also – it can’t just be about women unquestioningly taking up rigid roles and understandings of power and reproducing a system that excludes and that does not recognise that life happens, that caring, friendship, illness, are all part of life and part of working life.

As Mary Beard has argued superbly in her book ‘Women and Power’, we need to change our understanding of power and that change is the progress that I hope we move forward to press for.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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