Advice to my former self- Reflections for the RES Women Mentoring Retreat 2021

By | March 24, 2021

So here is me at the end of my PhD, all hopeful, standing at the gravestone of ‘The Father of Economics’, as he had been presented since high school philosophy classes. I was finishing my PhD, and even had a lectureship job practically dropped on my lap when one of my absent supervisors had decided to become formally absent from the institution too, leaving the department with a gaping teaching hole they knew I would be a safe pair of hands to fill.

In the picture my hands look cold rather than safe in spite of muffles, but the epithet would stick to me for years as they do: ‘William The Great’, ‘Alfonso The Brave’, ‘Marina The Safe Pair of Hands’.  

I always herd that since school: responsible, independent, organised, eager to please…perhaps too much? Sometimes the insecurity got mentioned in appraisals and reviews but never a mention of where it may come from or an idea that a supervisor/ advisor/mentor/head of department had anything to do with it or any scope to help. I was just so useful, I on with it and asked little in return… in fact I memorably thanked the head of the department for the job offer and was getting up to walk out when he said: ‘we should discuss salary, don’t you think?’. I know…

The Safe Pair of Hands not only came in handy for troublesome teaching (large classes, difficult groups, just any teaching that nobody was available to do), but for multiple administrative duties, large interdisciplinary dead-end activities the university would periodically embark on that needed departmental representation, teaching programmes reorganisations, university committees of all sorts that needed ‘female’ representation (which in the first years of service seemed literally to require me to show up with my safe pair of hands looking suitably demure but not actually having a say in any decision), and then escalated all the way to senior roles (done with my safe pair of hands but no actual seniority) directing programmes and finally the whole department. 

By then the hands were still safe, but I was not that demure or hopeful: I had turned into Marina The Survivor at an institution that had a track record of losing young talent that left to get promoted elsewhere, did little to nurture or value the people it employed (the notion that excessive teaching or administrative loads should be causing harm to junior careers was introduced quite late), and was totally blind about its own prejudices against women or foreigners or any other dimension of difference you care to think about: it was basically designed by white privileged men for folks that looked and acted like them or desperately aspired to do so and were working real hard to forget they looked different. Still, I stuck with it because I had many friends and co-authors, and for family reasons too (divorced parent), my poor negotiating skills in the households mirroring those in the workplace. This also had heavy knock-on effects on mobility (conferences, external networks and mentors, committees, jobs elsewhere…), and meant I simply did not know how to name and deal with all the things that kept me down, from ignoring, mansplaining and hepeating all the way up to short-changing, silencing, downplaying and harassment.

One thing I definitely did not know was that many of these subtle and not so subtle inequalities were happening to women economists EVERYWHERE (for a useful compendium of evidence see https://voxeu.org/article/women-economics-profession-new-ebook), and I was actually neither as alone nor as personally guilty of my situation as I felt.

I did make it to a chair eventually, but it did feel very eventual indeed.

Reflecting back is a painful but useful thing to see what could have gone better at the institutional level (much of which has been addressed in the meantime though definitely not all), as well as what I personally could realistically have done differently. Concentrating on the latter, my main three pieces of professional advice to my younger self are:

  1. Invest in building up the essential knowledge base early on: methods and programming and all of that, BUT also experiences of being a foreign woman in academia. To quote Gloria Stenheim’s latest book: the truth will set you free, though first it will piss you off!
  2. If you realise your doctoral training was not as good as it should be, find a postdoc at a different institution to build up your research portfolio and hit the job market later with more publications and skills and a better network: it is a long game!
  3. If you think you landed at an institution that is not nurturing you, do not assume it is your fault: go someplace else and remember the market bit in the job market!
  4. Find mentors and make sure to always keep them updated about your progress but also about your challenges: mentors are essential!
  5. Ask questions, help and support, both at work and at home and learn to negotiate across the board: you can’t get what you don’t ask for!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.