For International Women’s Day I want to take as my theme, the lines from Ecclesiasticus
And some there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been…
This is not because I’ve suddenly acquired a desire to become a lay preacher. Indeed the reason I know those lines is because we used to sing that verse, and those surrounding them, as a rather mournful dirge at my school’s Founders’ Day each year and the words have stuck. They are actually extremely inappropriate for a girls’ grammar school, as mine was, since they begin
Let us now praise famous men…. Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions…
And so it goes on. No word associated with women appears throughout these verses, so why they were thought appropriate for 700 young girls to sing with wavering voice I have no idea. But let me get to the point.
I want to consider not famous (wo)men, but those who vanish; those women from the school who happily set out on their life trajectories and were derailed. The women – and all like them – whose career choices were impacted by the query ‘do you really want to do engineering, dear, it’s not usual for women’; those whose PhD supervisors gave credit to a male PhD and offered them the opportunity to travel to a major meeting to present the work to the same student without apparently spotting the inherent injustice; those who were bullied and/or ignored in their group meetings and no one spoke up for them; the postdocs who were groped at a conference (when they were finally allowed to attend) or excluded from the boisterous male evenings down the pub when so much valuable information was exchanged; the early career researcher whose letters of reference implied she was hard-working and sociable, rather than internationally-leading and brilliant (although she was); or who was told that there was no point in her attempting to get a permanent position as she’d just go off and have a family; the inexperienced lecturer who was told to get on with the Athena Swan application with no logistic support or reduction in teaching load; or the woman (at any stage) put on a committee (however (un)important) to make sure there was some semblance of gender balance and then ignored, talked over or sneered at when attempting to speak up.
Those vignettes will seem familiar to most readers. These are the people who have ‘no memorial’ because at some stage they’ve had to give up their dreams in the face of a lack of support, active denigration or passive overlooking. They may have been far more talented than their co-worker who fitted their department’s stereotypes better (gender is of course not the only way in which they may fail to fit to these, but as it’s International Women’s Day that is what I stress here), who got the opportunities denied to them and consequently who saw their careers thrive. These co-workers may have had a sense of entitlement and arrogance which allowed them to feel comfortable with the richesses coming their way, and who never stopped to question who they trampled on en route to their chair.
Sometimes the women fight back. I am reminded of this by the story of a woman I first met as a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in a discipline not my own. She asked for advice from me, posing a question that had me stumped. She had heard another newbie (but male) research fellow ask one of the (male) professors in her department out for lunch so he could ask for advice. How could she, a young female, do the same or anything similar? She felt excluded by the social niceties in case, by asking the man ‘out’ it was interpreted as a come-on. The answer has to be simply to keep the offer to a conversation in the tea-room, but it shows the pitfalls (for both man and woman) in this situation and the way the conventional greasing of social wheels in our society may impact on the professional.
In due course this woman applied for a lectureship in the department and, at interview, was told by a senior male colleague that there would be no room in the department for a woman like her. What had she done (and I have no idea, but suspect the answer is that she had two X chromosomes) to warrant a public dressing-down like that? She did not get the job. She left. She is now a very successful head of department – in a different university – lauded with prizes, and has thrived, with an academic partner and a couple of children as well. She had the determination and resilience to walk away from a toxic environment and start afresh somewhere that supported her better and in so doing proved her male detractors wrong (I hope they are smarting and regretting the loss of a superstar from their department).
She is a success story whose life will undoubtedly be remembered by those in her profession (and her Wikipedia page!) and the impact her research has going forward. Too many others will have lost their way, been challenged or overlooked once too often for their souls to bear. We should remember these in the abstract and vow not to let such women be persistently let down by the system. To make sure this happens is a worthy challenge for all of us on International Women’s Day.