Women in Academia: How Universal are Our Experiences Anyway?

I talk about the importance of open, honest communication all the time but the lack of it is probably the number one problem I experience and witness in my everyday life. Time and time again, I talk to people, one on one, and usually totally unexpectedly, about the obstacles, challenges, and triumphs that they face in their department and university. Each time, I find my belief in the value of open communication about one’s experiences reinforced, but each time, I also find myself wondering how universal our experiences are.

Maybe this is just an issue I face, I’m not sure, but many times when people come up to talk about their work, their job prospects, their career trajectory, the conversation is shaped by their academic field and their university. I find that people often preface, or have to be asked, with a disclosure of their background and “the way things are done” in their field or department. Even things that seem like they should be streamlined across a university, like the way lecturers or TAs are hired, often vary considerably between departments. We’re all in the same general boat going in maybe in the same direction, but we are guided by very different things.

That metaphor might be a bit vague. What I mean is that we all know how much work goes into an academic career, how much the split between work and life can be tough to juggle, how the split between research and teaching and grant writing and book writing can be tough to juggle, how terrifying qualifying exams/the job hunt/tenure applications can be. Those are some of the general things that most people in academia can relate to. But after that point, we splinter and get divided by areas, disciplines, university backgrounds, and our own personal backgrounds.

I try to keep this area generally relatable, or at least a space where people from different backgrounds can share and talk. But women in academia are far from a monolithic group. A single mother, a woman of color, a foreign student, a white lady from near the university are all going to have wildly different experiences. I have linked to articles that talk about different perspectives, I have interviewed people with different perspectives, and each time forces me again to acknowledge how limited my own scope is.

So I am left to ask how useful is it to talk about the struggles of women in academia? How do we recognize the variety of experiences and backgrounds that make up this group, and the impact those experiences and backgrounds have on the experiences of women in academia? What is a more productive way to talk about the issues?

I encourage comments, responses to the questions, and general feedback. If someone wants to write a guest post for this column and has a different experience to share, I fully welcome it. I am one voice and I am a very well represented voice. I want to hear more people talking than just me.

One thought on “Women in Academia: How Universal are Our Experiences Anyway?”

  1. I think it’s important to have these conversations because even though our experiences may be different, I have felt the benefits of the solidarity that comes from other women in academia–and the support, empathy, and openness that comes with it. Even in my own field (Composition) and in my own university I have felt both supported and adrift. Now that I am a woman with a young child working on my PhD, I have had a young professor reach out to me because she is worried about how to balance academic life with a family (she is currently pregnant). My university/department is very supportive of women, our careers, and our families, but I need to understand the various challenges for when I go into the job market. I also try to help other women/mothers when I have the chance.

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