International Women's Day and other gender related musings

Kenyon excavating at Jericho. Photo from Archaeology International
It's International Women's Day! So I thought it would be appropriate to have a quick muse about one of archaeology's most inspiring female figures (in my opinion at least!). I first became aware of Kathleen Kenyon as the lady after whom my first year undergrad accomodation was named - the delightful Kenyon Building, a 1960s concrete tower block of doom in the middle of the otherwise attractive grounds of St Hugh's College. She is perhaps most well known for her excavations of early Jericho in the 1950s, and she also played a key role in the formation of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, was the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society, was honorary director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, became Principle of St. Hugh's College and in 1973 was named Dame of the Order of the British Empire. An impressive resume especially in a time when archaeology and academia were dominated by men.

Which brings me onto the second subject of today's musings, women in archaeology, or women in academia generally. I hope things have improved since Kenyon's time, but I worry they may not have improved as much as I'd thought. Until recently (I'm ashamed to say) I had never been one for thinking too much about equality and women's issues. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment and attend a school that was pretty good, and as an undergraduate I never felt I was discriminated against (at least not in my academic life). St Hughs is probably one of the more socially diverse of the Oxford colleges, but I was very still very aware that many of my peers came from families that were much better off than my own which gave them certain advantages. But in terms of grades (my main concern!), my gender and background did not matter.

As I have moved up the academic ranks, equality issues are more and more apparant to me as I become aware of the potential impact on my career, and as they have started to affect me personally. These musings have been inspired largely by a colleague of mine, Dr Sara Perry, who made a recent blog post about her negative experiences . Sara talks about her experiences of being harassed via digital media and social networking. Although I've never faced anything as extreme, I have definitely have been subjected to appearance related comments which have made me uncomfortable, and which I highly doubt I would face as a man. The most common being variations of "you look too young to be a Dr", "real life Lara Croft", to the really annoying "would your parents approve of you doing that" and being addressed by one person as "young lady". And more recently "you won't be able to do all this travelling when you have a family" (which I completely disagree with, but that's a topic for another day!). Although most of these are not intended to offend, it still gets tiresome. It makes me worry about how I dress, how I wear my hair, should I wear makeup or not? How will people judge me if I don't get it right? Will they take me seriously? Is it my fault? Would people make these sorts of comments if I was a man? Ok, so I know people make the Indiana Jones comment to male colleagues, but at least the key features of his character arn't tiny hotpants and large boobs.

It is also quite telling that I have never felt comfortable commenting or making my opinion known on these things, for fear of negative consequences. Thanks to discussions with Sara and her excellent blogging, I have come to realise I am not unique in having these experiences, which is unfortunate, but at least a relief that it is not something to face alone. It is for this reason that I volunteered to join the Athena Swan Assessment Panel for The School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh. Athena Swan is a charter scheme to advance gender equality particularly in science, engineering and technology, but is being extended to the humanities and social sciences. As a panel member for SHCA I will be helping to benchmark the School and develop an action plan for improvement. I am also hoping to work with Sara to develop a support network for women working in all areas of archaeology and heritage, from academia to the commerical sector. More on all of this at a later date!


  1. Lisa, as you know (but your readers won't) I'm a senior male academic at a UK university. Sadly you are correct I fear in that comments made about your appearance are very unlikely to be made directly to men in academia (though perhaps behind their backs more than you might expect), and the comment regarding family life is much more likely to be aimed at you than me (though it has had a significant affect on my ability to travel etc.) All I can say is that from my own experience of nearly 30 years things have significantly improved and I think you would have been pretty shocked at some of the things that were said (and done) during the near post-war era when my parents were university academics. I am always dismayed when we need something like Athena Swan but as always it takes such action to remove the residual acceptability of such outdated views. There is no doubt that worrying about appearance is for women, in all walks of life, much more of an issue than it is for men and that is unfortunate and tiresome.

    There are, and you'll know them I'm sure, plenty of men who are dismayed and appalled by the sort of things you have experienced. Try to get these people to help and to remonstrate with the idiots who try to belittle you and your female colleagues. I firmly believe that a united front of women and men is by far the best way to move things forward to a genuine gender-blind world.

    I wish you all the best in your Athena Swan work and hope that by the end of the decade you will no longer have to concern yourself with how you look or what you wear to work or whether by speaking out against prejudice you will in any way harm your career prospects.



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