Gender Equality and the Postgraduate Community

In this first post for August’s theme of Women in Research, Amy McTurk-Starkie introduces herself, her role as Gender Equality Doctoral Intern at University of St. Andrews, and the Athena Swan charter. She explains her current work on the initiative, and suggests ways in which you (and your HEI) can get involved.

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As someone whose PhD research revolves around the situation of women artists in nineteenth-century France, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the barriers that women had to overcome in order to access education, employment, and a place in the public sphere. So, when St Leonard’s Postgraduate College (the home of the PG community at the University of St Andrews), advertised an ‘Athena Swan (Gender Equality) Doctoral Internship’, I leapt at the chance to explore the key themes of my research in a modern-day context.

I started the internship in late June, and I work on it two mornings per week, which allows me to combine it with my PhD research. This set up also provides a much-needed change of scenery – quite literally as I work on the internship in a different office – when writing my thesis gets overwhelming. In my internship role, I work on a project entitled ‘Gender Equality and the Postgraduate Community in the University of St Andrews’.

The role supports the university’s Athena Swan institutional self-assessment team in its preparation for submission for an Athena Swan silver award in 2023, by engaging with the PG community to identify good practice, increasing awareness of gender equality issues, and identifying areas for improvement. The aim of this work is also, therefore, to think beyond the Athena Swan submission and to embed (and share) good practices in the university community.

What is Athena Swan?

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First things first, what is Athena Swan? The Athena Swan Charter aims to promote gender equality in higher education and research. It champions inclusion and equal opportunity for people of all gender identities (while also addressing intersectional inequalities) in all roles across a university setting.

An Athena Swan award recognises good practice and there are three levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. St Andrews currently holds a Bronze University award and all the academic schools have their own awards (16 Bronze, 2 Silver, and our School of Biology holds a Gold award). Some of the key issues that Athena Swan aims to address apply primarily to academic and professional services staff, such as the gender pay gap or a lack of women in senior roles within the institution.

However, there is also a number of ways in which Athena Swan’s spotlight on gender equality can benefit the postgraduate community. This is where my internship comes in. In my research, I want to find out:

  • What gender equality issues do postgraduate students face?
  • What examples of good practice for promoting gender equality already exist in postgraduate communities?
  • How can we improve gender equality at a postgraduate level?

I am currently concentrating on building a full picture of the work that is already going on to promote gender equality in the PG community, both in St Andrews and at other universities (an important part of the Athena Swan initiative is the sharing of good practice!). This preliminary work is helping me to identify key topics about which we, as postgraduate researchers, would benefit from having an open and honest conversation. These include (but are most definitely not limited to):

  • The journey to becoming a PhD student: what factors impact the decision to apply for a research degree? What barriers are there to pursuing a PhD and how are these barriers related to gender? These are pressing questions because we often see a decrease in the percentage of women present as we move up academic ranks. This is true of the pipeline from lecturer to professor, but it can also be observed in the transition from postgraduate taught to postgraduate research degrees. A gender equal postgraduate community is only possible if entry to this community is fair and accessible for all.
  • Postgraduates and parenthood: The question of starting a family during a PhD often seems like a taboo topic. From practical barriers like job insecurity and low income to the fear that having a child will damage your career prospects, there are a myriad of reasons why PhD researchers might feel like they need to delay starting a family. And, for PhD researchers who are already parents, childcare can make key milestones of a PhD, like attending a conference, difficult.
  • Support networks: The formal and informal support networks that PhD researchers join or develop during their degree can have a huge impact on their experience, from feeling able to find support for mental and physical health issues, to the ability to recognise and report abusive or inappropriate behaviour, to simply feeling that you belong and that you are not alone in your PhD journey. It is thus essential that effective support networks are in place for postgraduate students of all gender identities.

Getting Involved

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If you are passionate about promoting gender equality in the postgraduate community, here are some ideas of how you can get involved:

  • Participate in developing new policies and practices in your university: Is there postgraduate representation on your School’s EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) committee? This is a great way to get involved and learn more, and it is usually not too time-consuming (in my experience, there are one or two meetings per semester).
  • Help to develop new policies and practices in your field: if you are involved in organising a conference or event, try to keep equal access in mind from the beginning. Key questions might be: are there childcare facilities? Are these accessible for both students and staff? Can childcare costs be included in any funding applications? A more detailed guide to organising a diverse, accessible conference can be found here (while this guide was produced by the School of Biology at St Andrews, the guidelines are applicable to conferences in the Arts and Humanities).
  • Brush up on your EDI knowledge: You will likely be able to take unconscious bias training through your university (if not, this would be a great issue to bring up with your EDI committee!). Externally, there are lots of resources available. For example, while not specifically focused on the academic sector, Pearn Kandola (an EDI training and consultancy company) have a range of FREE podcasts and webinars, dealing with themes like ‘Managing gender and race based micro-incivilities in the workplace’; ‘Gender stereotypes: How to identify and overcome them’; and ‘The key to increasing inclusion’.
  • Learn to be an inclusive teacher: The Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) is a professional practice programme for staff and postgraduates engaged in university teaching or supporting student learning. Based on my own experience, my university offers the opportunity to enrol on individual modules as stand-alone units. One of these modules, ‘Embedding Inclusive Practice in Teaching and Learning’, focuses on developing a better understanding of the educational practices and policies on equity, inclusivity, and diversity within teaching and learning in Higher Education. If the PGCAP is not an option for you, the University of St Andrews’ inclusive practice webpage lists lots of external resources and best practice about inclusive and anti-colonial pedagogy.
  • Join or set up a PGR/ECR Women’s Network at your institution: If a group doesn’t already exist, ‘Lean in Circles’ offers a platform (and ongoing support and guidance) to create a space where friends and colleagues can come together regularly to learn new skills, network, and support each other’s goals.
  • Search out and highlight role models: This can take the form of participating in (or requesting the creation of) a mentorship programme offered by your institution or funder. It can also involve finding and sharing information about exemplary historical figures. For example, one exciting initiative is the upcoming collaboration between the University of St Andrews’ Postgraduate Society and the IDEA (the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Network for Open Knowledge) network to host an event in which postgraduate researchers come together to research St Andrews’ first female alumni from the nineteenth century and to celebrate their achievements.

Please feel free to reach out (and maybe even write your own blog post) if any of the topics above speak to your own experiences of gender (in)equality as a postgraduate researcher or indeed if you think I’ve missed out a pertinent issue!

Amy McTurk-Starkie is in the third year of her PhD in French Studies at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis re-examines the figure of the artist as a young woman, through a case study of George Sand’s early negotiations of female artistic identity, creativity, and agency in her fiction. She is also the university’s Athena Swan Doctoral Intern.

Find her on Twitter @AmyMcTurk1

Photo copyright Richard Newton

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