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Leading women

Raising women up: Visibility, foremothers, and role models in UK higher education


Dr Victoria Leonard, who co-founded the Women’s Classical Committee UK to support women in classics, explores the legacy of 19th and 20th-century scholars such as Edith Morley and Dorothy Tarrant. At a time when the spotlight is being turned increasingly on women and issues of gender, she discusses the continuing need to improve the visibility of women in higher education.

A lack of representation

Edith Morley was the first woman to be appointed a professor in Britain, in 1908, and yet more than a century later women still have a visibility problem in UK higher education. 

Although there is near gender parity at undergraduate level and a proportional dominance of women in postgraduate populations, women are subject to an impossible sliding scale: numbers diminish and visibility falls the higher the level of employment. 

Only 25% of professors in UK universities are women. This imbalance significantly increases amongst vice-chancellors or principals, where women constitute only 18%. The exclusion of women from these prestigious and highly visible leadership roles makes it harder for women to follow. After all, if you can’t see it, how can you be it? 

Edith Morley

Women have been marginalised and omitted throughout history, and this trend extends even to those pioneering women who were first to break through the ranks of universities as closely guarded male institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Scholar and suffragette Edith Morley, who became Professor of English Language at University College, Reading, was labelled ‘difficult’, and suffered gender-based discrimination throughout her career. Millicent Mackenzie, appointed Professor of Education at what is now Cardiff University, in 1910, was subject to a significant gender pay gap. 

Dorothy Tarrant, who is celebrated within the Leading Women campaign, achieved first class honours in Classics at Cambridge, but like many women at the time was not awarded a degree. Tarrant would later become the first woman Professor of Greek and the first woman President of the Classical Association. And yet these women and their path-breaking achievements are nearly forgotten.

Dorothy Tarrant

Women's Classical Committee

The importance of recognising the struggles and achievements of our foremothers and promoting positive role models is a central concern of the Women’s Classical Committee UK (WCC). Established in 2015, the WCC is an organisation dedicated to supporting women in classics, and promoting feminist and gender-informed perspectives. 

Since the inauguration of the committee there has been a strong desire for a mentoring scheme. In order to rise through the hierarchies, having someone advocating on your behalf and exposure to key players in the field are vital. The highly competitive nature of academia, as well as issues like employment precarity or sexual harassment, make guidance for early career researchers essential. 

The WCC recognises the crucial importance of appropriate and effective mentoring that benefits all participants, and has invested considerable efforts gathering information before launching the scheme, including a survey of its membership. 

Making connections

The Classical Association Annual Conference is a major event in the calendar for classicists, and it is here in April 2018 that the WCC held the first element of its mentoring scheme: ‘Take A Graduate Student To Lunch’. This event supports junior scholars, connecting them with more established academics to gain from their expertise and discuss their research and career aspirations. 

Through mentoring, the committee can connect women with positive role models in a way that is meaningful and useful, as well as inspiring. The committee itself acts informally as a network, raising up women in classics and making them more visible and accessible, at least to other women. 

This type of women-centred promotion is essential on a gendered playing field that is far from level. A ‘manference’ held in March 2018 at Stanford University featuring thirty white men demonstrates this imbalance. But issues of visibility and representation can be more opaque. In classics in the UK nearly twice as many men as women are employed as a professor. Nearly three times as many classics departments are led by a man rather than a woman. More than four times more men than women who are head of department are employed at professorial level.

Our learned societies are not led by women. Since its inception in 1903, the Classical Association has had as many presidents named John as women - eight.

The Hellenic Society has had 38 presidents since 1879, three of which have been women. Out of 93 Fellows of the British Academy for Classical Antiquity, 15 are women. This means that when we look up, we are not seeing women. 

The WCC is dedicated to improving the visibility of our foremothers past and present, highlighting their struggles and successes for the benefit of successive women in higher education. We have achieved this through an initiative designed to reverse the gender bias on English-language Wikipedia, the largest and most influential source of information in the world. 

Fewer than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women, and only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies are about women. That slant is even more apparent when it comes to classics: an estimate in 2016 found that only 7% of biographies of classicists featured women. 

Editing for equality

The WCC organises regular ‘editathons’ and training sessions to bring people together to edit out Wikipedia’s gendered skew. More than 75 pages have been created or edited, including those for the pioneering American Classicist Grace Harriet Macurdy, Classical archaeologist Jocelyn Toynbee, and more contemporary role models like Averil Cameron  and Judith Herrin. Facilitated by free online tools beyond Wikipedia like Twitter (#WCCWiki) and Skype, this is an example of direct activism that is effective and accessible to everyone. 

Rather than sitting on our hands and relying on the deceptive myth of progress, by remembering the struggles and achievements of our foremothers we can shine light on progress made so far, and areas that are yet to change. We can support junior colleagues by illuminating positive role models and through mentoring schemes, making higher education a fairer and more inclusive environment where women are allowed to succeed, and can be seen doing so. 

You can find Victoria on Twitter @tigerlilyrocks. For more information about the Women’s Classical Committee UK, follow @womeninclassics on Twitter and visit their website.