You might think this is just another slow and drowsy Monday in March. Perhaps you have to sit through the horrors of an early 8.30 online lecture, have to bike through the downpour your weather-app optimistically describes as ‘showers’, or have to spend planted behind your desk to try and catch up on the heap of readings and assignments your ever-procrastinating self has undoubtedly created during the weekend. In short: today is going to be as irrelevant and inconsequential as any other dark and drizzly uni day, right? Wrong! Today is 8 March, International Women’s Day! A day marked in calendars across the world to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, but perhaps most importantly, a global day highlighting the year-long call to action for accelerating gender parity.
And, to celebrate the EUTOPIAn way, we’re here with 3 of EUTOPIA’s many leading ladies: Nikki Muckle, our alliance’s Secretary-General, Eva Wiberg, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gothenburg and Chair of our alliance, and Marie Marchand, PhD student at CY Paris Cergy Université and President of our EUTOPIA Student Council. Chatting about female academic leadership, feminist inspiration, and life in general.
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
Do you usually actively celebrate International Women’s Day?
- Marie: Absolutely! I’m a convinced feminist and I share important information every day on my social media accounts. However, International Women’s Day is more special. On that day, I try to make sure that I raise awareness regarding global figures, key issues that concern each woman on earth, whether it be regarding equal pay, the end of excision or the right to abortion. There is so much to be discussed!
- Eva: The University of Gothenburg usually has events, panel discussions, and research portraits that day. Students usually also celebrate with many activities. With the pandemic, all activities have gone digital.
We can practically already hear the self-proclaimed devil’s advocates shouting: “If you really want equality, then why don’t men have an international day? Why do women need 8 March?” What would you say to these critics of International Women’s Day?
- Marie: Unfortunately, even if we live in 2021, there are still many things to be done regarding gender equality. I sometimes have the feeling that we are regressing on some issues. We need to teach women and girls that anything is achievable. We live in a world that is still full of prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about what women should do as a job, how they should behave, how they should look. I might agree on one point with the critics of International Women’s Day: it should not exist. But not because there is no existing problem, but because we should all be equal. Since that’s not the case, every day is International Women’s Day.
- Eva: And we actually really need the men in this discussion. It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’, this is a joint effort. I think that today we still need a special day for women, but that the focus on just the binary genders is not enough. We need even more common discussions during the year. But 8 March is Women’s Day!
All three of you are women in academic leadership positions, actively working towards the European university of the future, a university that is challenge-led, student-centred, place-based and inclusive. What led you to this career path? Did you always know the academic world was the route for you?
- Eva: I was brought up in a family of academics, which is of course a very privileged situation, but I have relatives back in history who were farmers, and also school teachers. The fact is that I never specifically chose to become a university leader per se, it was the engagement of the students and staff that I thought was so fascinating to work with.
- Marie: As far as I can remember, I’ve always said to my parents that I wanted to be a teacher. I think what is key in my way of perceiving the world is that I love to learn and to give people the possibility to learn by themselves. After obtaining my Master’s degree, I started working as a communication & marketing officer but I really missed thinking by myself. I’m currently in my third year of my PhD and I really love research. On top of that, being involved in EUTOPIA has been a revelation, it’s the perfect place to feel useful! I’m not sure if I still want to teach but I definitely want to pursue a career in the academic field.
- Nikki: I started a career as an academic, but in a field where solitary research with large datasets was the norm. I soon realized that I wanted to work in a role that involved bringing people together to create change in higher education and that I would better be able to do that in a more facilitative role. Almost the opposite path to Marie! I enjoy problem solving and complexity, but also working in teams and with a wide range of people. So throughout my career, I have focused on the development and implementation of new, complex initiatives that enable individuals and institutions to respond to changing priorities. And I enjoy working in a university setting particularly because of the diversity of views, positions and approach.
“A leader isn’t someone who forces others to make them stronger; a leader is someone willing to give their strength to others that they may have the strength to stand on their own.”—Beth Revis. Is this a philosophy you embrace as a leader? What is your leadership style?
- Eva: This is what I related to in the former question. I embrace that philosophy wholeheartedly.
- Nikki: I completely agree. But I think a good leader is also someone that can bring together a team with different skills and expertise where different perspectives can be heard and valued. So a leader is someone that not only supports others, but encourages others to identify and develop their own strengths rather than mirroring the leader’s attributes.
- Marie: I completely agree, too. I’ve been able to teach British History and Research Methodology and I think you cannot get anything done by forcing people to do what you expect. Especially because everyone has their own way of thinking and that is what makes us stronger: our uniqueness. A good leader is someone who helps others become independent and able to think on their own, a good leader is someone who is supportive and who believes in others while guiding them towards a defined objective.
In your experience, would you say the academic world is still a typically male world? Or has it evolved and become more inclusive? During your career, did you encounter obstacles that were there for you and your female colleagues, but not for your male colleagues?
- Nikki: My academic discipline was very male-dominated, but I never experienced any obstacles because of that. I have seen female colleagues struggle with balancing a career with childcare, but recently I have also seen many more creative ways of achieving that balance. I think universities are becoming increasingly flexible in their approach to balancing work and home lives, and this has been even more marked during the last 12 months – hopefully, this is a trend from the COVID period that will continue.
- Marie: I think progress is being made, but I can see that regarding research, there are still too few female researchers. I’ve experienced some disrespectful remarks when I was working in the private sector but haven’t experienced anything of that kind recently.
- Eva: It depends on the academic field you are working in. There are typically female areas too, e.g. education, teacher training, parts of health care. I think that this is a very big question that needs a great deal of focus.
What do you think is causing the lack of diversity in top leadership? What can women do to take these matters into their hands and actively contribute to changing these situations?
- Nikki: I think this is also an issue of considering what ‘leadership’ itself is. Our traditional view of what makes a good leader has historically been based on many typically male characteristics. Frequently female colleagues feel they have to adopt those characteristics to further their career, and then feel conflicted when they achieve leadership positions. But there is beginning to be increased discussion now on the value of more female leadership characteristics. I would like to see more dialogue and training on different styles of leadership so that we broaden thinking on what we value as strong leadership traits and what they can deliver. As Eva says – if we can bring everyone, male and female, in to this discussion I think we can achieve much more balance in how leadership is delivered.
- Marie: To me, there are many elements causing the lack of diversity in top leadership, starting with the question of becoming a mother. The fact that one day, a woman might want to have children is clearly still perceived by many as an obstacle. There is also the fact that in the collective mind, there’s still this idea that girls are weaker than men, and thus unable to have big responsibilities. We need to teach our little girls and boys that they can do anything they want. I insist on teaching our little boys too that there is no “girly” job, there is no “girly” sport. Raising awareness among boys and men is essential to achieve equality. We need to teach our girls how to be self-confident and how to chase their dreams. Our gender should not determine what we can achieve in life and this is something one needs to understand at the youngest age.
How important has mentorship been to you in your career journey?
- Marie: Mentorship is always important, whether it is “official” or not. I think we’ve all met this special person who was there for you, pushing you and encouraging you to be the best version of yourself. For me, it’s my research tutor who is a professor in British History. She’s a wonderful woman that I’ve known for 10 years now and I don’t think I would be here without her support. I hope that one day I’ll be able to be somebody’s mentor too!
- Nikki: Yes, definitely. I have had several strong female managers and mentors, and have learnt a huge amount from them – both good and bad! It is incredibly important both to support those around you and to learn from them, and this should be the case whatever career stage you are at. At a training session some years ago, I was asked to identify both the good and bad traits in a (female) manager, and to consider how I would either emulate their style or do things differently. This particular manager was a very supportive mentor, and I learned a huge amount from her, but she struggled to make definitive decisions. It made me realize how important it is to make timely decisions and that this was something that I should work on, but it also really brought home to me that no one has all the answers and you can learn from both the strengths and weaknesses of others.
If you had to pick one lesson in leadership you’ve learned throughout your career, which lesson would that be?
- Eva: Only one? Well, I’d say listen to what people say, don’t act until you have information about pros and cons in a question. At the same time, sometimes it is better to come to a conclusion and a decision before it is too late. The higher up you come, the more you have to understand that you are just a part of a longer stretch of leaders, one day you will finish, and remember that the leadership is borrowed for a period. Leave the organisation in as good a shape as you can when you leave.
- Nikki: To be true to yourself and to lead in a way that you are comfortable with, not trying to conform to some external idea of strong leadership. Bring your true self to every role and every decision, and don’t apologize for that. Your style and approach will not be liked or appreciated by everyone, but if you act with integrity and consistency it is usually respected – although that respect can take some time to achieve!
Gender equality is an explicit priority for the EUTOPIA Student Council. During the last EUTOPIA week, the Student Council organized a student conference on this very topic. What were your most important takeaways from this session, Marie? Is EUTOPIA on the right track towards gender parity, or do we have a long way to go still?
- Marie: If I had to sum up what was said during our forum, I would say that our universities have their role to play in reaching a more inclusive environment. This issue is true for our students, but also for our professors and members of staff. We still see too many cases of violence towards women. We need our universities to be safe spaces for girls to think and to live in. We are very lucky to have wonderful student organizations that do a great job in raising awareness, organizing events and workshops for everyone to attend. Our universities also proposed some solutions such as providing free period aid, and the possibility to report abuse or harassment via apps or phone numbers, but we need to push initiatives further!
- Eva: I agree with what Marie puts forward, and would like to add, that the Student Council is a very important group that will be agents for change for our Alliance. We must listen to them, and to our staff.
Growing up, which women inspired you the most?
- Nikki: I have very recently lost my mother, and that has brought me to think a lot about what I take forward from how she raised me. She was a very quiet, quite shy woman. But I have been struck in recent weeks with how many people have said she was so important to them, and how strongly she influenced their lives and families. So from her I take forward that strength does not have to be loud and forceful, but can be quiet and supportive.
- Marie: I think my mom, my grandmother and my great-aunt are key figures who have inspired me. My mother because she raised me alone from my birth to my 3rd birthday while my father was on missions abroad as a soldier. My grandmother because she went through the war, lost her father and then her husband, showing a great ability of resilience. And my great-aunt because she’s herself a very modern woman and convinced feminist.
- Eva: My great-grandmother had a rather big farm, her husband was older than her and died, left her with 6 children. She was the first to understand the importance of technology, and bought a tractor to the farm. This was the early 20th. The farmers around thought that she was mad, but one after the other came to borrow that tractor. All her children were able to get an education, some at the university or college level. My grandmother was one of them. She married my grandfather who was headmaster of a primary school. They in turn helped many girls, and boys to get their education. I think this has inspired me!
Being the women you are now, which piece of advice would you give your younger self?
- Marie: Do not care about what people think of you, do not care about those remarks regarding what you should do with your life. Trust yourself, you can achieve everything you want. Support other girls, do not see them as your enemies. Be yourself, not the one the others want you to be!
- Nikki: I would say exactly the same as Marie!
And last but not least: favourite classic feminist work? And favourite contemporary feminist work?
- Marie: I won’t be very original but I would definitely say the Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo. She was such a powerful figure, first wanting to become a doctor, then experiencing a terrible accident, and never being able to have children while it was her dream. Her courage to paint those self-portraits while being stuck in her bed symbolizes emancipation, hope, freedom and courage. Simone Weill is also of course, one of the many inspirations every woman should listen to. As for a contemporary feminist figure, I will say Fiona Schmidt, a French journalist who’s written an excellent book called Lâchez-nous l’utérus and who runs an excellent Instagram account ‘Bordel de Mères’, made for all women out there whether they want children or not, whether they can have some or not. She publishes testimonies of women who always receive remarks on motherhood. She’s an excellent analyzer and always broadens my views.
So what can you do to contribute to gender parity?
For starters, throughout the year, you can take our leading ladies’ advice to heart: support other women, bring your true self to every role and every decision, broaden your views, support those around you and learn from them, trust yourself – you can achieve anything you want!
As for today, the 110th International Women’s Day, you can ring up your mom, your sister, your girlfriends, your neighbours and any other women close to you. Tell them you love and admire them all year, but that today they get a phone call.
Happy International Women’s Day!