Being a woman in academia

MILIEU team member Aleksandra Traykova on being a woman in academia

Several months ago, while working on the MILIEU PhD Summer School programme, my teammates and I were forced by the circumstances to really take a step back and contemplate how our own careers had developed, what hurdles we’d had to overcome, and, most importantly, what we had learned from them. This was how, over a decade after embarking on my journey as a woman in academia, I finally began to reflect on my past experiences in the hopes of drawing some conclusions that might help others. 

However, instead of a sense of confidence and clarity of purpose, I found myself overcome with a feeling of self-doubt. Was I really in a position to be giving other people advice about their own professional development, and was there truly something I could teach an aspiring fellow academic? Was I not, after all, just another girl who lucked out due to a combination of favourable circumstances, a reliable support network, and sheer persistence? 

That’s when it dawned on me: it’s often the smaller steps we make on a consistent basis that matter the most when it comes to pursuing a long-term goal (be it a professional or a personal one). In my case that had meant coming up with a plan and sticking with it, no matter how tough things got, and actively maintaining a positive outlook for the entire duration of every project. Academic work introduces a myriad of exciting challenges into one’s life, but not all of them will be leading to glorious victories, especially when the battlefield is already fraught with obstacles such as inequality of opportunity, prejudice, sexism. When dealing with such environments, learning to tap into one’s inner resources of patience and resilience is a must and can make it somewhat easier to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

It is also very important to acknowledge the role of mentorship and networking as crucial components of every academic’s journey. Ideally, every female postgraduate student would immediately be assigned a mentor who has already broken through the barrier of gender biases herself and become an advocate for equity, but even if a suitable candidate is not available, or if one’s institution has yet to develop initiatives such as mentorship programs and gender-aware hiring practices, it is still possible to come across supportive, understanding senior coworkers of every gender and form lasting professional unions and friendships. In my experience, a good way to meet helpful and non-judgmental people who would like to see you thrive in your work is to take advantage of every learning and networking opportunity provided by your institution. Attending all departmental seminars, workshops, conferences and training courses guarantees that, eventually, your talent will be noticed by the right people.

Speaking of people, as a social species, one of our main sources of strength should be those nearest to us. Unfortunately that is not always the case for everyone. If, for whatever reason, you either cannot rely on your closest contacts for support, or are simply overwhelmed by stressful, exhausting and time-consuming domestic duties (e.g. being the sole caretaker of a child, elderly parent or sick partner), then tackling those personal problems and responsibilities while pursuing academic excellence comes with multiple additional layers of complexity that the majority of young researchers typically do not have to deal with. I am here to assure you that there is nothing wrong with accessing your university counselling services and checking what family-friendly policies and support are available within your institution – whether that be housing, an emergency hardship fund, or just free therapy. Sometimes even the tiniest little bit of help can go a long way, and I would like to encourage you to seek it.

Apart from these particular struggles faced by all women in academia, as a scholar originating from a non-Western country I have also had to navigate a delicate balance between professional aspirations and cultural identity. Proficiency in English, the predominant academic language of our time, had already become pivotal when I was an undergrad, meaning that my workload doubled as I struggled both to adapt to an English-speaking environment and to maintain connections with my native-language academic communities. Even after I was successfully integrated, I never stopped challenging biases and stereotypes, or advocating for systemic change to foster inclusivity by sharing stories and raising awareness. What I found out in the process was that perceiving your own struggles as a contribution to dismantling systemic barriers and fostering a culture of diversity is the ultimate “hack”, as it not only develops your problem-solving skills, but also creates a more equitable and inclusive academic landscape.

To sum up, my academic story – every woman’s academic story –  has been one of resilience, collaboration, and a willingness to confront difficulties and call out their systemic nature, so that things may gradually improve just in time for the next generation of researchers. Whenever and wherever I can, I will help others, just as others have helped me.