Women in Economic Development Research – Why the Woman’s Voice is Crucial: Part 2, View from a Senior Research Fellow

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This series of blogs celebrates women in economic development and the contribution we make. They are inspired by the current experience of City-REDI which is pretty unusual in its numbers of women at all levels in the team; from senior management and leading academics, through to early career researchers and project support. We all have different perspectives, journeys and are at different career points and these blogs celebrate the contribution we make to the team on International Women’s day.

Dr Catherine Harris- Senior Research Fellow

Although I did not realise at the time, my career in research began when I started my degree in Geography at the University of Oxford. During my university experience, I had a strong female personal tutor and studied at the University’s last remaining all women’s college, St Hilda’s. When I was offered a place at the University of Oxford I actually applied to an alternative college but was offered a place at St Hilda’s. Whilst I was delighted to be offered a place at Oxford, I was more than reluctant to enter an all women’s college. However, what I found over the three years that I spent there, was that living and being taught in an all women’s environment actually improved my confidence and put me at ease. I still attended lectures with male students and lecturers but my tutorials (the focal point) of the Oxford education experience) and my halls of residence were women only. At the start of the tutorial system, I was nervous and reluctant, perhaps even embarrassed by my work. However, in the nurturing and friendly all-female environment I found my voice in what became to be a very supportive experience, where I gained an invaluable education and developed lifelong friendships.

I was so immersed in my research and this intense educational experience that when I finished this degree I found it hard to adjust to life outside an academic environment. So, I decided to remain in education completing a masters and a PhD, both here at the University of Birmingham. During my PhD I had two excellent supervisors (one male, one female) and was part of a gender-balanced cohort of Doctoral Researchers.  After my PhD, in Economic Geography, I began work as a Research Fellow on a European Research Council project at the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. The Principal Investigator of the project was Professor Gill Valentine, a world leading academic who I had actually admired greatly since my early days as an undergraduate. Gill Valentine is highly-regarded as a leading ambassador for equality in academia and I even worked in all female team- extremely unusual in academia. This role provided me with exceptional grounding for a career in research. After three years at Sheffield, I began my current role as a Senior Research Fellow at City REDI, where my research focuses on entrepreneurship and migrant labour. City-REDI, encouragingly, has a strong number of women working on the team. I am also a member of the Athena SWAN working group for Birmingham Business School in order to address gender equality in higher education and research.

It is difficult to suggest what being a woman brings to my research. A male researcher may have similar skills and attributes to me. However, creating a diverse workforce means that a variety of skills are present and a range of voices are heard. My attributes which I feel are beneficial to my career as a researcher include being diligent, a good listener, hardworking and collaborative. I am not sure though if this is because I am a woman, or if it because I am just me.

Since woman make up half of the workforce, it is critical that women’s voices are heard equally in research. Given my positive experience of working with women, and now in a gender balanced workplace, I have found that diversity of thought leads to better problem solving — when we collaborate with people of different genders,  or in fact, sexual orientations, ethnicities and race in our workplace, we do better work. City-REDI is a great example of a gender equal team where this collaborative approach works so well. However, hearing women’s voices in research can often suffer due to imposter syndrome. Feeling that others might discover that you are not as intelligent as everyone else is not a uniquely female condition, but many of my female academic friends suffer from it. It is a feeling that wastes energy and causes unnecessary anxiety. It can also hold us back from putting ourselves forward or celebrating our achievements. In a career that requires self-confidence, such feelings can limit us. I have learned to embrace my imposter syndrome, laugh about it, and use it to self-reflect. I urge others to do the same to ensure that women’s voices are heard in research.

Whilst my experience as a woman in research has been overwhelmingly positive, I recognise that this is not the case for all. I hope that the future for women in research is progressive and empowering. It is critical that equality is achieved at all levels, particularly in positions of leadership so that women are encouraged to reach the top. Whilst doing so, women should be able to be themselves and be valued for their expertise, not their gender.

This blog was written by Dr Catherine Harris, Senior Research Fellow, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.  

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham

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To read part one of this series, click here

To read part three of this series, click here

To read part four of this series, click here

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