The added value of diplomats’ spouses

This morning I came across an article about a group of ambassadors’ wives working together on economic inequality–arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, alongside (and linked with) climate change. The Spirit Level is a fascinating book that makes a strong case for inequality being the root cause behind a wide range of problems, from crime to obesity, teen pregnancy to the opioid epidemic.

These ambassadors’ wives, whose husbands are based at embassies in Berlin, are led by Julia Przyłębska, the wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany. Amongst their proposed projects, they want to organise international youth exchanges with a technical, environmental and agricultural focus. Przyłębska noted that diplomats’ wives have access to a highly international network of contacts, and they want to use this network to tackle collective problems:

She added that being wives of diplomats the group is in an ideal position to support those struggling against economic inequalities. 

She said: “Within the embassy, it is easy to bring together an international group of people from different countries in order to exchange and work together on solutions for today‘s global problems: unequal salaries and wages, the rights of the disabled and seniors, the access of the poorest to education. Also we ladies often have the advantage of having enough time, because we are rarely active professionally.” (source)

That last sentence sounds like something out of the 1950s, but it’s a good point: the accompanying spouse (male or female) of an Ambassador does have limitations on his/her career, due to the temporary and mobile nature of a diplomatic career. The realities of moving between countries for undetermined periods of time precludes having much of a professional life, and it’s something that the couple must negotiate between themselves.

This story reminded me of the Fulbright wives I discussed in my chapter for the upcoming book, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright, edited by David J. Snyder, Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, University of Kentucky Press (forthcoming 2018).

My chapter, Fulbright Women in the Global Intellectual Elite, includes a section on the contributions of accompanying spouses to the goals of public diplomacy. In my archival research, I noticed the prominence of Fulbrighters’ wives in the field–they volunteered at local schools, joined community organisations, hosted parties for their husbands’ colleagues and students, etc. In some cases, they were arguably more closely integrated into the local host community than their husbands were. By engaging in these kinds of activities, they were directly contributing to the culture learning processes that are an expected outcome of exchange diplomacy.

This has observation important implications for our understanding of how public diplomacy works–who the key actors are, how people engage with hosts, what kinds of activities enable culture learning to take place. The wives were not the recipients of grants, they didn’t attend orientation programmes or briefings, they had no formal role in exchange diplomacy–yet they formed lasting ties with members of the host community and played a significant role in culture learning processes.

These women (and male spouses of grantees) represent “added value” for exchange diplomacy practices. Their contribution has often been overlooked, or even discouraged. Senator Fulbright himself believed the grants should go to unmarried scholars, who would be able to focus on their work and engage with their colleagues without the ‘distractions’ of a family life. I would argue that this view is very much based on Senator Fulbright’s experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Bachelorhood was one of the original requirements of the program–the Rhodes Scholarships were even opened to women long before they were opened to married candidates (1977 vs. 1995, p. 345). This view fails to see the potential for spouses and children to enrich the culture learning experiences of an exchange programme. A spouse, particularly one who cannot work due to visa regulations and therefore has a lot of free time, can connect with locals in the community on a much broader and deeper level than the grantee can. Children can integrate their parents into local schools, parent-teacher associations, community activities and playgroups. They can represent added value for the grantee, not a mere ‘distraction’.

What I’m Reading

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Mama, Ph.D: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008), edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant.

I bought this book almost 3 years ago and I’m finally getting around to reading it, which tells you something about the reality of motherhood and academic life. I read a few chapters with George napping on me today and I love it.

When I bought it, I hoped for some tips and lessons learned, but it’s more theoretical and reflective than that–after all, it was written by academics. I’ve also been surprised by the extent to which I identify with some of their confessions. In the first chapter, Jamie Warner (one of the few contributors who is not yet a mother) voiced some of the very same questions that I’ve considered over the years:

“And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five-page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being ‘average’ considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?” (p. 10)

 

When I was in her shoes, contemplating the big questions of career and family and work-life balance, I wondered whether having a baby so soon after finishing my PhD was partly a delaying tactic, whether I was using it as an excuse for my lack of publications and inability to find a proper (i.e. full-time, permanent, tenure-track) academic job. I half-jokingly reasoned that if it takes a few years to establish your career in academia, you might as well have a kid while you wait for publications to come through and jobs in your field to come up. Now, a few years on, when I voice concerns about my career trajectory, they’re often met with “Oh, but you had a baby”–as if that absolves me from any blame or guilt for not having published more, for not securing a post-doc or a research grant, etc. They’re trying to be comforting, but I don’t see it that way–I hold myself to a higher standard than they do (we’re always our own worst critics).

This book hasn’t really answered any questions for me yet, but it’s comforting to hear other peoples’ experiences and think “It’s not just me!” (On that note, I’ll also recommend Brene Brown’s work)

 

 

Leftover Women and International Higher Education

Over the past three years, I’ve been teaching and supervising Masters students who are (~80%) Chinese women in their early to mid-twenties. In Leeds, they’re independent young grad students, exploring Britain and Europe, working hard in the library, socialising with their peers, and video chatting with friends and family back home. In China, they’re considered ‘leftover women’–剩女shèngnǚ. 

‘Leftover women’ is a derogatory term for unmarried women over 25 (the Government’s Women’s Federation definition says 27), often highly educated, urban professionals. My students fit this description, and some have opened up to me about their anxiety over the pressure to get married. One mentioned it while asking my advice about doing a PhD. She wasn’t sure whether to apply, because her family didn’t want her to–they thought a Masters would hurt her chances of getting married, and a PhD would destroy those chances completely.

I find it so heartbreaking that a parent wouldn’t support a child who wanted to pursue a Masters/PhD/any degree, because they thought 1) marriage was more important than education/career, and 2) men would reject educated women. On the first point, the two realms of career and marriage don’t have to be mutually exclusive for women, because they certainly aren’t for men. Nobody ever talks about men “having it all” (apart from this awesome satire on Facebook) if they want a career and a family. On the second point, if a man rejects a woman for having a degree or a career, the flaw is with him, not her.

Sometimes my students will look at the pictures of my family on my desk and congratulate me–they’re impressed by the fact I have a PhD, but even more impressed that I’ve managed to avoid being a ‘leftover woman’. I want to tell them no, anybody can get married and have a kid–the PhD is a bigger deal. But the truth is that it’s something I thought about at that age, too. When my sister was 29, she told me she was so relieved that she was married and had a baby by 30, as if it were some kind of deadline. At the time, I was 22 and very single, so the words “married and baby by 30” stuck in my head and the deadline began to loom. I was 23 when I met my husband, and until then I’d suspected that I was destined to be single. I’d been single all through my undergrad years, which I thought were the prime dating years. I watched friends couple up and felt like I’d failed, like I wasn’t attractive enough and that I might as well just carry on with grad school, so I could provide a nice life for all of my future cats.

It’s sheer luck that I happened to meet the right person at the right time, when we were both in the right mindset and place in life, we both wanted kids, etc. I like to think, however, that I would have been happy on different trajectories, too–ones that didn’t include “married and baby by 30”, but would be equally valid, socially accepted, fulfilling choices. I suppose that’s the difference between the “married and baby by 30” and the “leftover woman” concept–my deadline was self-imposed and nobody would have been disappointed by my single status after a certain age, whereas the “leftover woman” label comes from the Government, from parents, from society, etc. It’s a matter of internal vs. external pressure, perhaps.

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(Maybe some external pressure, too, in the form of rom-coms…)

Resistance to the ‘leftover woman’ idea has increased in recent years. My students are enthusiastic about feminist theory–it’s a very popular optional module and they often want to use feminist approaches in their dissertation research. There seems to be an effort to change minds in China, too. In the video below, parents and daughters express their anxieties over singlehood and marriage–it’s sad, sweet and moving (even if it is produced by SK-II, a skincare brand, much like those Dove  adverts):

 

For further reading:

Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China(2014)

China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage among Professional Women and its Consequences (2015)

Women in the Academy

The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together a brilliant piece on women in academia, The AwakeningIn the current atmosphere of #metoo and #timesup, of last year’s women’s marches and resistance to Trump, it’s important to bring that scrutiny to what’s been going on in the academy, too.

There’s a common misconception that higher education is somehow more “enlightened” and egalitarian than other fields, that it’s a meritocracy where women and people of colour are welcomed with open arms. Over the past three decades, the proportion of female students enrolled at US universities has grown substantially:

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Data from National Center for Education Statistics

Women are earning the majority of undergraduate degrees, and by quite a big margin, but we can’t celebrate that achievement while women are still very much underrepresented in leadership positions across all fields–politics, business, law, and yes, in academia, too.

It’s not just in the US, either. Catalyst has this great summary page of statistics on Women in Academia around the world:

–In Australia, women hold 53% of Lecturer and more junior roles, 44% of Senior Lecturer roles, and only 31% of more senior roles.

–In the EU, women hold 40% of academic positions, but only 20% of senior roles

–In Japan, 52% of junior college staff are women, but just 23% of full-time university teachers are women.

–In India, 25% of professors are women (better than Japan and the EU average, but still low!)

For women in academia who intend to have children, research suggests that there is no perfect time for academic women to start a family. The decisions of whether and when to have children have markedly different impacts for men and women, including when it comes to tenure.

“Women who have children soon after receiving their Ph.D. are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same point in their career.” (Williams, 2005, p. 91).

Delaying having children seems like the obvious answer, and it’s becoming increasingly popular with recent advancements in assisted reproductive technologies, such as IUI and IVF. Unfortunately this is problematic, too, because there are simply new work pressures later on in academic careers. Jacobs and Winslow (2004) found that the ages during which women might pursue delayed motherhood, their late thirties to early forties, are the same years in which academics are working towards tenure. So rather than clashing with the establishment of an academic career in the ECA stage, motherhood clashes with the acquisition of tenure.

In their study of the Nordic countries’ famously egalitarian family leave and childcare policies and their impact on gender balance in academia, Mayer and Tikka found no appreciable difference between the US and Nordic countries in the representation of women among academic staff.

“Improved family policies are a necessary but not sufficient condition for continued improvement in the representation of women in academia, and must occur in concert with efforts to advance a broader societal shift towards gender equality.” (Mayer and Tikka, 2008, pp. 371-372).

The discrepancy between the number of female PhDs and the number of women in tenured positions is about more than just family leave policies.

The demand for mobility can also be problematic for female academics. Research has shown that mothers are less likely to relocate than men or women without children (Bielby and Bielby, 1992; Williams, 2005). When it comes to questions of relocating for better job opportunities, women are more likely than men to think about potential family impacts in their decision-making process. One study found that “…women in dual-earner couples were substantially more likely than men to cite family considerations as a reason for their reservations about relocating for a better job. Over half of the women (56%) reported a reluctance to relocated because of family considerations, compared with just 16% of the men.” (Bielby and Bielby, 1992, p. 1253). Even in cases where couples professed ‘nontraditional’ egalitarian gender role beliefs, the authors still found that “nontraditional males were not nearly as sensitive to their spouses’ job circumstances as were nontraditional females.” (ibid., p. 1262).

Moreover, women often follow their husband’s career to the detriment of their own professional development. “One had worked in 18 countries across all five continents, moving with her husband’s job. The careers of all seven of these women had been affected as they had lost substantial professional ground after each move.” (Powney, 1997, p. 58).

Some critics might argue that female academics are privileged and their #firstworldproblems of struggling to achieve tenure and “have it all” can be easily dismissed. But I think the fate of women in academia reveals a great deal about their position in society more generally. If academia is supposed to be a progressive bastion, it should be a place where we see best practice in terms of equality and diversity. It should be market-leading in family leave, flexibility, affordable on-site childcare, etc.

The internet went crazy with praise for a professor who picked up a student’s crying baby during a lecture–but what if the professor were a woman, and the baby were her own? She’d probably be considered ‘unprofessional’ for bringing her kid to class, not praised in a viral social media post.

Impostor Syndrome

This afternoon, one of my best students came in to discuss her fieldwork. After we talked about her progress, she opened up about her feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, admitting that she had impostor syndrome.

“I’m on track to get a distinction, but I’m never happy with my writing. I get an essay back with a high mark and think ‘I don’t deserve that’. I feel like a fake.”

This is why she’s one of my best students: she really is excellent and doesn’t realise it. She compares herself to others, not acknowledging that her abilities are actually better than theirs. She works hard–she was narrowing down her dissertation topic and asking for reading recommendations months before her peers had even started thinking about it. Most brilliant people I’ve known don’t actually try that hard–they’re just brilliant. They often get distinctions and joke about how they wrote that essay in a few hours. It’s annoying. She doesn’t do that. Yet they don’t have impostor syndrome…

While it’s wonderful to see someone work hard and do well, it was hard for me to hear that even she doubts herself. It made me realise how universal imposter syndrome is–even somebody who clearly works hard to be successful doesn’t think they deserve their success.

And while I won’t use her name or identifying details, I will use ‘she’/’her’ pronouns, because gender is key to understanding and discussing this issue. The term “imposter phenomenon” (sic) was introduced by Clance and Imes in their 1978 study to describe the difficulties that high-achieving women have in internalising their success.

In recent years, impostor syndrome has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon, with scholars, activists and writers offering ways to fight it:

 

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy did a TED talk on body language that included another confidence-building trick: the power pose. Holding a confident pose was shown to actually boost testosterone and lower cortisol.

 

Before my next job interview, I’ll be hiding in the ladies’ room, posing like Wonder Woman for a few minutes…