So it turns out I didn't write up any notes in a blog draft shortly after this event (from APRIL), possibly because the room in which the conference was held was unfortunately very hot and I had to rush off to avoid getting properly unwell. Then I had to get on a Eurostar quite early the next day, and once I saw my niece and nephews all else fell by the wayside. (Other than my self-reflective essay for teacher training, which took a long time but paid off in the form of a special commendation from the inSTIL programme team!)
First things first: what is the WCC? It self-identifies admirably clearly on its website as an organisation which aims (hah) to achieve the following aims:
- Support women* in classics**
- Promote feminist and gender-informed perspectives in classics
- Raise the profile of the study of women in antiquity and classical reception
- Advance equality and diversity in classics
Basically, anyone is welcome, other than the silly man who complained to a female archaeologist friend that he couldn't join the Women's Digital Archaeology Network because where is the equality in that? You're out. (And if you're that blind to the historical power imbalance along gendered lines, you may want to consider getting the hell out of this type of field.)
I have left in the asterisks in their aims, which lead respectively to a wonderful acknowledgement of the irrelevance of a biological basis for womanhood compared to self-definition and a usefully broad and realistic definition of the field of classics. This is a sign, y'all, of not just how politically correct this organisation wishes to be but, apolitically speaking, how HUMAN it is. I'm particularly proud to have attended the event, to have helped out a little in doing preliminary research for its membership structure, and of course to be a member, given the pivotal role of my 2nd thesis advisor Dr Liz Gloyn's involvement in getting this organisation off the ground. You've got to love people who see something admirable somewhere else in the world - in this case, the Women's Classical Caucus in the US, which impressively has its own Wikipedia page - and think 'we need that here!'. And then actually go and DO IT!
(I'm also particularly proud of Liz's awesomeness with regard to gender-related stuff, given that she's just been slated by the execrable Daily Mail - much as I hate to add to their page views, here is the article - for notifying the students on her Ovid course in advance that there is some nasty stuff in those texts, like domestic abuse and rape. She's written more about this here. In addition to the DM's painting this as nannying when campus-based gendered violence and rape is so prominent yet so not taken seriously, another bad thing about the article is that it ends on a sentence that suggests that if you're going to take a course on classical literature and have zero prior knowledge of it, then OF COURSE your default expectation must be to expect rape and pillaging left, right and centre. There are actually some beautiful texts from antiquity that give you hope for the human race, turds-at-the-DM!)
But! Back to the event. As said, this was an inaugural event so the whole day demonstrated an incredible variety of points of view and ways of expressing them and of engaging with each other. You can access the livetweeting through the hashtag wcclaunch and Liz's Storify here, but here are the main things that really stand out in my mind about it (other than the stifling heat in the room :0)
1. The incredibly personal nature of many of the stories shared. I chose to attend a breakout session on mental health, which I realise may therefore not have contained a representative sample of the general PhD population but nonetheless, given the variety of backgrounds, ages, fields, etc. the prevalence of depression in all its varying forms in academia is astounding. And frightening. The prevalence suggests structural causes (assuming we don't believe that only people prone to mental health issues are attracted to academia in the first place, whether masochistically or not - as I don't) but unfortunately I'm not sure what could be done institutionally to remedy this.
Loneliness was identified as a serious cause, though, and the provision of communal space for working in the presence of the likeminded could be a good way forward, I think. I wonder whether any research has been done as to the prevalence of mental health issues in lab-based and therefore less socially deprived PhD students compared to lonely humanities ones without a fixed base?
The community aspect also fed into physical disability, as one attendant of the group in a wheelchair was effectively barred from her own department as it was on the first floor of a building with no lift. Although people are often helpful and try to make arrangements, she has the added burden of having to plan her access needs in a way that people like me do not, and the sacrifice of spontaneity comes at a social cost, I am sure, not to mention the practical challenge of just making sure you can sit in on any meetings, seminars, etc. required. A few days later I spoke to Mai Musié in charge of Oxford's Classics outreach programme, and she said Oxford have actually conducted an audit to identify every single case where something as little-seeming as a single raised step forms an access barrier. I can't remember the details of how quickly everything will come up to scratch, but it's a start. More people need to do this!
2. The presentation of the survey results contained the slight revelation for me (well, I had probably not bothered to give it much thought, let me put it that way) that many of the issues identified weren't applicable to women alone, though for some issues it seemed to be the case that women were disproportionately affected. You can read the committee members' full analysis of the findings here.
From my own perspective, the two main issues directly affecting me negatively in my position - and which are by no means gender-specific! - which fall within the campaign goals of the WCC to improve the lot of women in classics are both ones which boil down to the prevalence of two very specific cases of impossible and contradictory expectations which are held of PhD students:
a) There is a mismatch between the general consensus that PhDs now realistically take four, rather than three, years to complete, and my funder's standard grant of three years' money. Those of us without either trust funds or baby-boomer parents who are both able and willing to help, are seriously hindered by this. There is agreement that it virtually can't be done, yet we are still expected to do it. And not only does this cause psychological anguish, it literally gets us in our pockets. Work while we finish off? Sure, but it's going to slow us down, and in a political climate obsessed with statistics and value for money for the taxpayer, extentions are not granted as enthusiastically as they once were.
b) The mismatch between the academic job market's requirement for you to have publications to your name when you come to apply for posts and on the one hand the impossible time pressure you have to complete your PhD, nevermind have extra time to crack out publications not related to your thesis. This is further exacerbated by college regulations, in some cases including mine, which prohibit PhD researchers from publishing or even submitting to publishers work from their thesis prior to finishing. So anyone who finishes is in the unenviable position of having at least a 9-month period ahead of them, during which they will be looking for work (for which publications are essential) but who are unlikely to have any publications to their name.
Alongside the WCC, another organisation which has identified some of these issues (though not the ones I suffer from specifically) and offers institutions suggestions to mitigate their impact on current students and recent graduates in particular, is Hortensii.
We need people who heed these concerns so very badly. Please add your voice, as it can only make their advocacy and clout with employers and funders stronger.