Reflections on an uplifting and sobering conference

9 April 2019

by Nancy Kelley
Deputy Chief Executive and Director of the Policy Research Centre, NatCen.

Listening to such a talented group of women over the course of an afternoon at the Women In Social Science conference was uplifting and sobering in equal parts. The quality of thinking, the honesty, and the passion of the speakers was uplifting. Sobering because each presentation painted a picture of a discipline that has a long road to travel before it fully recognises and supports women, and in particular women of colour.

Throughout the afternoon I found myself reflecting on the familiar theme of women’s work, and of the women who are invisible within the social sciences. We heard about women taking on the hard work of institution building in the field of gender studies and the social sciences as a whole, and women at all career stages taking on the work of investing in people and teams, only to be held back for not having done enough ‘promotable’ work.  We heard about the struggle to succeed in the ‘men’s work’ of economics or political science, disciplines with large gender pay and progression gaps, where the bar for quality and performance set at ‘twice as good for half as much’. We also heard about women invisible to researchers: the low paid domestic workers, often women of colour, being put forward as the solution to enable researchers to work harder and longer, or the mostly female workforce collecting the data driving our social statistics.

I also found myself reflecting on the way in which gender and race intersect to lock women of colour out of opportunity in the social sciences, and our failure as White women working in social research to live the reality of the intersectional feminism many of us have written and read about.  Professor Ann Phoenix’s challenge – her observation that we ‘are only at the very beginning of challenging conversations about intersectionality’ rings loudly in my ears.

And I also heard about actions – the need to raise awareness about structural inequalities of gender, race and class in the social sciences, to change what we value and recognise ‘women’s work’, to challenge the processes of recruitment, promotion, grant giving that drive inequality, to mentor, build and open our networks and widen opportunity for the women and girls who will be social science leaders of the future. I hope we all left ready to work harder to make change.