Read on for a write-up by Laura, a first year PhD Student, Postgraduate Decolonise Rep and WOKE Champion.
Yesterday, Thursday 11th October 2018, my alarm went off at 5:55 am and I’m sure I had all the thoughts a tired postgraduate mum could have,
‘do I need an education?’,
‘can I home-school my kid?’,
‘I need more sleep!’,
I piled my son into the car and dropped him off at his school’s breakfast club, just so I could sit in traffic for 40 minutes to (hopefully) get a parking space at Keele.
After working through the whole day, attending the postgraduate coffee morning (so that I can at least feel like I’m staying in the ‘postgraduate loop’), rushing home to collect my son from school and quickly throwing together a meal that was nutritional but required minimum effort, I piled my son back into the car and met my partner on the Keele car park to hand him over so that I could attend the official launch event of the Women of Keele Educate initiative (W.O.K.E).
By this point I was feeling the strain…
But, as I walked into the W.O.K.E launch event I was immediately surrounded by energy.
Roxy and Sophia, who have spent months making this initiative and launch possible (along with Ele and some WOKE Champions), were stood right at the front of the room greeting each attendee with the exact enthusiasm that has gone into making an initiative like this possible.
Students and staff alike were seated, chatting amongst themselves, sharing ideas and just generally catching up. In this sea of quietly charged excitement I spotted a familiar face and decided to sit behind her for the event. We had a minute to chat and I explained about my busy day, I remember saying that ‘postgraduate life whilst parenting is like hitting the ground running except you’re sprinting the entire time’ to which she agreed and offered me some really great advice.
I wasn’t the only one… I wasn’t pretending to be something I’m not. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a good grip on this postgraduate life after all!
Roxy and Sophia both began the event by explaining a little bit about what W.O.K.E is and the amazing speakers we have coming up, internally from Keele and externally from other places (more details of these can be found on the W.O.K.E website soon).
It was then time to introduce the first ever W.O.K.E speaker; Anne Loweth. I must admit, I had no idea who Anne was at this point – she’s a senior lecturer in Biochemistry, an Athena SWAN Champion, and Keele’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for students, so you know… a big deal!
Anne’s talk last night was amazing, the perfect combination of academic achievement and work-life balance. I wanted to share with you the parts of Anne’s talk that resonated so much with me.
Anne began her talk by explaining that she had stood in this very same room, 29 years before the W.O.K.E launch, to deliver a talk to undergrad students about being a mature student. As a mature student myself, she had me interested from the word ‘go’!
Anne did not take the traditional route into education, instead after her A-levels she went into the world or work for practical reasons. She talked about working at Crewe Hall for a company which produced liquid pharmaceuticals like creams and medicines.
Looking back at her position in this company she can understand now how she was working in a very male, ‘macho’ environment and how some of the behaviours that were deemed as ‘normal’ would not be permitted today.
This triggered my own memories and I thought back to my experience of working in ‘macho’ environments.
Like Anne, I did not follow the traditional path to university and sought work after college. At the time, I lived on army barracks in Salisbury and worked for the RAF on an airbase just down the road. Not only was I one of the few females in my team, I was also a lot younger than many of the staff by at least 20 years.
It was the norm to hear comments about my skirt, my legs, to have a senior staff member place his arm on the small of my back, to be spoken to in a condescending manner.
Even though this was only just over a decade ago, this behaviour was just ‘normal’.
I even remember a member of my team telling me my ‘bum has the right amount of jiggly’… ‘normal’, right?
Anne’s words reminded me of how much change has happened in such a short space of time. I can now look back and see that this behaviour is not normal, and I now know that I do not have to stand for it.
When Anne was on maternity leave, she made the decision to not go back to work and instead, when the time was right, decided on going to university instead.
Again, my path has mirrored Anne’s.
She explained that when she came back to education as a mature student, she suffered many anxieties that I have also felt; would she be any good? How would she be able to juggle studies whilst parenting two small children?
But Anne found that she could complete a degree with two toddlers at home, and felt that not only could she complete it, but she was quite good at it. She remembered a time in the lab when the group were asked to complete an experiment that had a lot of different components, the other students (who were not juggling studying and parenting) were having a hard job with the amount of different things to do, and Anne thought to herself ‘this is easy compared to looking after two toddlers!’
Anne excelled in her studies and went on to complete a PhD at Keele university. She explained that the completion of this degree brought about new anxieties, post docs were meant to be flexible, relocate, perhaps even do a stint abroad.
But Anne said that in every decision she has ever made she has always put her family first, admitting that this may have had a knock-on effect on her career, but she was determined to keep a work-life balance that both her and her family were happy with.
Anne secured grant funding that allowed her to continue researching at Keele for a further three years, when this came to an end she knew she had to find a more permanent role.
As there were no contracts available at Keele at the time Anne managed to secure a lecturing role in Liverpool John Moores University.
This role did have its draw-backs though, there were no research hours included in the contract and Anne now faced a 100-mile commute taking her further away from her family each day.
Nevertheless, she made it work for five years.
In this role Anne was a personal tutor to many students, and this is where she learned to provide pastoral support to students, something that she brings to Keele in her current role on a much larger scale.
When a position became available at Keele in 2003, Anne jumped at the chance to come ‘home’ to a university she loves.
During this time, she has taken on the leadership of the undergraduate program in Biomedical Science, been appointed Head of School of Life Sciences, led the School of Life Sciences to its first Equality Challenge unit Athena SWAN award, been the interim Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, co-chaired the University’s Athena SWAN committee, and is now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Students (Keele, 2018).
And she has done all of this while raising her family… #superwoman!
After hearing Anne’s story, I felt so inspired that I wanted to talk to this amazing woman.
As the session came to an end and we were invited to partake in the refreshments available, I plucked up the courage to speak to Anne.
I can’t remember the exact words that I said but it was something along the lines of how amazing her talk was, and how much I had related to it.
We discussed imposter syndrome, something that Anne had mentioned in her talk. This is something that I feel has followed me around during my university experience, always feeling as though I had to keep up with younger students and trying to balance the academic and social sides of university at the same time as raising my son, always feeling not quite good enough.
Anne’s words were really encouraging, she told me of a time when her children were in their teens and she would be cooking their dinner before even taking her coat off after getting in from work.
She reminded me to take time for myself, to set myself ‘working’ hours and family hours and that even though I would be tempted to continue working into the evening, to always make time to relax with my family at the end of each day.
On a day when I was really feeling the strain, Anne reminded me that I am good enough, that I can do this and that having a family does not mean that you can’t have a career.
As I looked around the room and spied my supervisor who had brought her young son along to this talk, juggling her work-life balance (just as Anne, myself, and countless others in the room were), I realized that this journey does not have to be about making a choice between work and life.
Initiatives like W.O.K.E and many more are allowing a more inclusive working and studying environment for everyone who identifies as a woman, or is non-binary.
This is exactly why I wanted to jump on board.
One day I hope that I can stand in Anne’s position and inspire somebody the way that Anne has inspired me and many more people in the room last night.
Find more information about Anne here.
Find more information about the Athena SWAN award here.
Find more information about W.O.K.E by looking at the rest of the website