Natalia Kucirkova and Loleta Fahad – We all must come together – without one part of the puzzle, there isn’t a full picture 

Authors: Rose Gordon-Orr and Carolina Capelo Garcia

Natalia Kucirkova is a professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway and The Open University in the UK. She also holds the position of visiting professor at University College London (UCL), UK, and acts as the chair of the International Collective of Children’s Digital Books

Loleta Fahad serves as the head of Career Development in Organizational Development at University College London (UCL), UK. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing the management, development, and implementation of resources that facilitate the ongoing growth, advancement, and retention of professional staff at UCL. 

Natalia and Loleta’s collaboration culminated in their published work, Inspirational Women in Academia: Supporting Careers and Improving Minority Representation (2022). Bringing together their lived experiences working within symbiotic areas of academia, they amplified the voices of academic women, and celebrating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reducing inequalities within and among countries, we sat down with them to listen and amplify theirs. 

Photo credit: Natalia Kucirkova

As part of your book, Inspirational Women in Academia; Supporting Careers and Improving Minority Representation you interviewed top-performing female academics about their experiences. How would you summarize your main findings across all the women’s experiences?

Natalia: “One of the things that struck me is that there is a lot of glorification of academic work, with the demanding nature and long hours that become part of the culture. It’s the idea that this is what we do and if you don’t work all these extra hours, then somehow the definition of an academic has not been met. So, one of the recurring themes is how academic women buy into this culture and how they resist it. Do you think that is correct, Loleta?”  

Loleta: “Absolutely. We have fallen into this trap, and you find a similar case for women not just in academia, but across other fields as well. It is just accepted that this is part of how we should work, that we work every hour, and people can ask ‘how are you doing? how are things?’ and the expected answer is ‘I’m fine, I’m doing okay.’ If you say anything more, people stop listening. All they want is to know that you are okay enough to do the work. If it takes you all day and all night, then there is no real way of addressing this, or there is no attempt to address it. Women just quash that because they think if they are not always working then they are failing; they are not doing their job. Why tell people that they are working hard? Why tell people that they are working excessive hours, working every weekend, and neglecting their families? Because people don’t really want to hear it. It is just accepted as part of the culture.”  

Natalia: “The other thing was this notion of discrimination and how women deal with it in their own ways. Instead of asking whether one has experienced discrimination, I was corrected in my interviews by the interviewees that it is not whether, but rather how one copes with discrimination. And some coped with it more successfully than others.”  

Loleta: “We are all women, and we go through similar things: striving to get ahead, experiencing setbacks, having people who support you and those who hold you back. Natalia, you are right when you say that women handle things differently because while we all face some sort of discrimination, our experiences are as unique as we are, whether it has to do with gender, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. No matter what you’ve achieved, people look at you and decide who they think you should be, not who you are; where they should place you; and how they should interact with you based on their own preconceived notions. We all find our own ways of dealing with this.” 

Could you tell us a bit more about your intersectional framework and why it was important in this context?

Natalia: “Intersectionality is a widely used framework in all different contexts, so for us it wasn’t about inventing something, it was applying it. The reason it felt almost natural to apply it was that there were all these different stories from women that shared a pattern of inequality. When thinking about the intersecting identities that women bring to work, it becomes obvious how the framework can be used both for acknowledging these intersections and mobilizing effective strategies to address them. Rather than saying that ‘we should have this big training for all women,’ or ‘we should do something now that is only for women working in academia,’ you need to be able to understand that this is different for everyone. It is much more productive to listen to each individual and think about tailored approaches, rather than have some generalized ‘one size fits all’ approach that would not work.”  

Loleta: “Exactly. Many people think that when there is a problem, they can just create a solution that encompasses everything and everybody, and that doesn’t work. We are all individuals and even if we face the same issue, it doesn’t mean that there is a ‘one size fits all’ solution. This is part of why when the idea of the book came up, I was excited to get involved because it was the opportunity to listen to people, to other women.   

“I find storytelling the best way of understanding the person’s perspective because sharing one’s personal journey is very courageous. You’ve been through it once already and now you’re sharing it with other people so that they can understand your point of view and they can pull things from it that can help them with their journey.” 

Natalia: “I want to add that the individuals we interviewed are exemplifications of the stories that we hear repeatedly, unfortunately. The sample of inspirational women is never complete; there are so many inspirational individuals around us, among us, and there will be new generations of people coming who will be inspiring others.”  

What did you discover about the collaboration of women across the field of academia, and what does the collaboration between the administration faculty and research faculty mean to you?

Loleta: “We are proof that both sides need each other for the work to continue. Natalia and I met when she applied for a prestigious research grant and was successfully awarded it. We had great communication and got along well personally and professionally. To help with managing her projects and finances, I needed to give her clear information and she needed to feel comfortable coming to me.  

“When people talk about ‘them and us’ in academia, I can understand how things flare up, but it’s nonsense because if we need academics, we also need professional staff and we need researchers. We all must come together – without one part of the puzzle, there isn’t a full picture. Through talking to the different women, I learned they had similar stories. So, the collaboration is there, and it is strong in some areas, as it should be for the various groups to survive and thrive.”  

Natalia: “I couldn’t agree more. Loleta was introduced to me as the person to go to if something was needed and working with her was a privilege – I loved it.  

“What was enriching was to read what Loleta was writing about the experiences that other interviews shared with her as well as Loleta’s own experience. Oftentimes we, in science, may not fully appreciate the extent of work that is being done in administration. They really are complex tasks and getting to understand these research projects – it would be hard to describe them only as administration. There is a lot of leadership, management, and research itself in understanding what admin support is about. The success of a scientific piece of work or of a research project is due to that effective collaboration between the administrative side and the scientific side.   

“When writing the book, we really struggled to find a name – is it an academic woman that we mean? Is it a woman that works at the university? To me, even that distinction is a bit artificial, because often the roles intersect as well, but it varies from institution to institution, often with the size of the university. Sometimes the academics will do all the admin, and sometimes, at large institutions, you have teams of admin support – it varies.”  

In line with the Sustainable Development Goal 10, which aims to reduce inequality within and among countries, what would be your policy recommendations for leveling the field in academia?

Natalia: “It’s hard to come up with a policy recommendation that hasn’t been recommended yet. I think we have had enough recommendations. We are looking for action plans and how to translate them into practice. One of the reasons these action plans fail is that they very often give a lot of responsibility to the women who represent an inequality. In my experience and because I am young and from an ethnic minority, I have been asked to serve on many different panels, committees, and given various mentorship roles – which, of course, I would love to do. At the same time, it’s easy to end up being the one who becomes overworked and writing about it, so it is a funny vicious circle.   

“I know that it is very hard for women who, for example, have a disability or come from ethnic minorities that are not represented in science at all to then be serving on all these committees as part of the recommendations that institutions should increase diversity. If anything, I think some of the policy recommendations need to be revisited by people who are supposed to implement them. We need to spend more time listening to individuals’ stories to better understand the actual situation.”   

Loleta: “I would agree with that. I am on different committees, and they are all about supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I mentor people, I coach people, and it comes about because we raise concerns about things that are not happening how they should. We attend these meetings and go away with actions. Then, as Natalia explained, I’m the one who needs to change things, but I’m also the one experiencing these things. I have my peers who are telling me the same story. Somehow it falls on us to take ownership of this and to make the changes.   

“The active people in these groups are the ones affected by discrimination issues, but we don’t have the power to make changes at the scale it is needed. We have the power to make small incremental changes within our small areas, but that doesn’t always create a ripple effect. These groups need to have more authority and support to address areas of concern. Otherwise, we just become a support group and we’re disillusioned by the fact that there is no change. We need to see some tangible evidence of change.”  

If you were to give advice to a woman getting into academia now, what would be some things that you would wish that you knew before you got into it?

Loleta: “One of the things I talk to people about is networking with purpose. When I first joined, I was working on a research project and it was very closed off, you only really saw the people around you, so my world was quite limited. When I was ready to start moving on, I didn’t know who to reach out to, who to talk to. Having a helpful, purposeful network is important not just in career development, but just to maintain your sanity. Sometimes you need other people to connect with, so you’ve got different conversations happening, so that you feel as if you’re not boxed into a particular area, so that other people know you and get to see what you’re capable of. It takes you out of your comfort zone and it can propel you into different areas and opportunities.”  

Natalia: “That’s very wise. I would emphasize how important it is to do advocacy in scientific work, like translating science into practice and making sure that it gets implemented into actual changes. However, one of the mistakes, or the most difficult pathways, that is being chosen by young academics is that they go into advocacy too early. They get into all these media engagements, conferences, and meetings with different stakeholders to explain the importance of their research before having done the research. That becomes a difficult position to defend in the long run. I would tell young academics starting their careers to do the foundational research first. Make sure that you identify your niche and become an expert in it and then go into advocacy, because that gives you the voice and legitimacy. It will also open the door to further research.”  

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and United Nations Sustainable Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries

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