Motherhood and PhD fieldwork

By Thais Bessa

I am a PhD candidate in my early-mid 30s. I started the PhD 8 years after finishing my masters and in this meantime, I worked great jobs in my field and had two kids, now 7 and almost 4. I do not fit with the statistically average PhD candidate (single, mid to late 20s, childless) and this brings additional challenges to the whole doctoral process. Needless to say, it is harder for candidates in my position to socialize and network (we can’t always “just grab a pint at 5pm”), take teaching and research assistance assignments, attend multiple conferences and training events, jump into summer research opportunities in Australia… it is all much harder, if not impossible. I get it, I made my bed and I am lying on it. It was my decision to have children “young” (I guess in developed Western societies having a first child at 26 is young!) and follow an academic career in a non-linear manner, with a somewhat big break between postgraduate degrees. So although I understand this post feels like a big rant, I am not asking for people to feel sorry for me and offer privileges and exceptions to suit my life. Especially considering that, generally speaking, academic life is a very privileged one compared to thousands of women who have much bigger struggles in their lives and careers.

When I started thinking about the issues covered this rant/post, I read a bit about academic career and motherhood. There is quite a lot of interesting material out there, from books and papers to anecdotal articles and blog posts. Regarding post-PhD academic life (post-docs, tenure-track jobs, etc), there is ample quantitative and qualitative evidence that women with children are much less likely to advance in their careers than men with children. This is all well-known and reflects wider gender inequalities in the workplace. I heard once and it is true: the job market is bad for women but is actually cruel for mothers. As generations pass and men (hopefully) get more and more involved in taking care of their children (which you will never see me applauding because well, it’s their responsibility), life/work balance becomes increasingly part of their concerns as well. Change might be happening slowly and painfully, but it is not an even playfield yet, not by a stretch. You will still struggle to see men being asked “do you have children? And if so who will take care of them?” in job interviews, be it in academia or any field. In an article full of advice on how to deal with having kids and pursuing an academic career, a male professor said in hindsight he was an absent father because he loved his job so much, but kids survive even if they are ignored. Setting aside the debatable parenting standard promoted, it never occurred to him that he was only able to ignore his kids because there was certainly a woman doing his fair share of parenting so he could excel in that job he loves so much. This type of discourse, even disguised as useful advice, continues to perpetuate gender inequality so that unfortunately reconciling parenting and career is an issue that still affects women immensely more. Hence why the title of this post is “Motherhood and PhD fieldwork”, not “Parenting and PhD fieldwork”.

When tackling the issue of motherhood and a career in academia or elsewhere, there is a strong discourse about women being empowered and able to have and do it all. However, I am increasingly cynical about that. Today I read an article that recommended educating new generations of women so they believe they can have it all. First, this type of discourse is directed at women, subtly reinforcing the idea that it is their problem only and taking care of children is their responsibility. But foremost, this emphasis on “educating”, “informing” and “raising awareness” (I worked in the development sector, so I know how these buzzwords are thrown around willy-nilly), can actually make us feel more disempowered. I read this type of speech and one or two success stories of big executives and top academics who indeed seem to have it all and I feel not only inadequate but powerless. Knowing your “rights” and possibilities whilst everything around you and structural barriers remain the same is just frustrating. I call it “informed powerlessness”.

Because although this type of discourse sounds amazing in theory, when it is time to implement, it is utter bulshit. Take the example of fieldwork, a crucial part of most PhD projects in almost every single field. When I first wrote my PhD proposal and shared it with a few professors from my masters, they were very receptive and gave me great feedback. But one thing I heard from one (male, single, childless) professor stuck to my mind. He said the project was great, but my methods were not the best and he said my research would be much stronger and “non-extractive” if instead of interviewing people I did an ethnographic fieldwork, living, observing, and interacting with research subjects in a more natural manner for several months. That hit me hard and I almost gave up on pursuing a PhD as it would be impossible for me as a mother to go live somewhere else alone for several months. But after a lot of reflection and comforting words from awesome colleagues, I realized that 1) I am not an anthropologist, 2) I am not convinced that long ethnographic fieldwork renders “more accurate” data (I find it extremely presumptuous to think that after living with “research subjects” for 6 or 12 months one becomes “one of them” and is given truer information). However, there is another issue there and one that involves important issues of gender, class, and physical ability. For that professor, doing extended ethnographic fieldwork is not only his methodological choice, but also a possibility. But it is not a possibility for people in different circumstances: people who lack the financial resources (grants don’t normally pay the bills back home whilst one lives somewhere else), who have small children, who need to care for older relatives, who have disabilities etc etc etc.

Even when extended ethnographic fieldwork is out of the picture, fieldwork still takes time, not just the preparation of logistics, but the actual fieldwork (be it consulting archives, doing interviews and surveys, collecting samples, etc.) For mothers, being away from home for extended periods of time is hard or impossible for many reasons. This brings great anxiety about whether our research is going to be valuable or scientifically sound. Most advice for mothers to reconcile fieldwork and children call for the importance of having support from your partner and family. Of course this is important but when one does not have extended family nearby and have a partner who is not a fellow academic or who does not have a flexible job, it is hard. Although my partner is supportive and does his fair share of parenting as he should, he also works in a gruesome private sector field where 70 hours workweeks are a rule, working from home impossible and 10 days of annual leave are considered a luxury. So even with the best intentions and efforts, it is virtually impossible that I go away for weeks or months and dump my own fair share of parenting on him.

Some interesting articles about motherhood and fieldwork present a seemly great solution to this dilemma: take the children to fieldwork! Cue beautiful and wholesome stories about adaptability, overcoming struggles and the kids actually having fun and learning so much in the process! However, this is not always possible. These stories make the caveat that the presence of kids make fieldwork slower and longer, but the issue of costs is mysteriously ignored. Which funder pays for the children’s costs? Will funding be available for this longer fieldwork? What about childcare costs, sometimes in a foreign country? I also imagine the ethical issues that having children present in fieldwork must raise. My process to obtain ethical approval was excruciating in itself and I cannot imagine the response I would have received if I had mentioned in the Risks Section “by the way, my small children will accompany me to conflict zones and refugee camps”. I can practically hear the members of the ethical committee having a stroke.

Taking kids to fieldwork also depends on the location of fieldwork, the field of research and the age of the children. Taking kids to Geneva (or even remote villages in developing countries if one is more adventurous) is feasible with the adequate planning and if support is available. But it is unnecessary to explain why taking children to a conflict zone is not feasible at all. Most examples I have seen of mothers successfully bringing their children to fieldwork were in the field of natural sciences. Fieldwork is always difficult and demanding, but I imagine it is easier to have children around when one is observing ecosystems or collecting geological samples, instead of interviewing women about sexual violence. Kids can fit around some type of fieldwork, but in some cases the only option is to hire out childcare, which once again raises issues of cost and might be difficult in certain settings. Finally, these same success stories often include small children in pre-school age who have much more flexible schedules. Once children hit school age it becomes harder to remove them from their habitual life (unless one decides to homeschool on the road, which I am not capable of doing whilst also pursuing a PhD).

These difficulties unfortunately might mean yet another glass ceiling: in practice, the type of topics, research questions, methods and case studies a PhD candidate can pursue becomes constrained not by their hypotheses and intellectual ambitions, but by what they can actually do given their current situation. Fieldwork is an integral part of the PhD process in a way or another in most fields. However, the special circumstances of people are rarely considered and addressed by Universities. In this post, I raised issues related to motherhood, but I am sure there are many other special circumstances that make preparing and conducting fieldwork a difficult balance between the best option scientifically and what is feasible given people’s multiple roles in life.

Welcome to Tory Britain, where you can’t even age with dignity: scroungers, shirkers and the neo-liberal rhetoric of strength.

By Milly Morris

(Image location)foucault1

Growing up as the youngest of fourteen siblings and living in poverty for her entire life, my Grandma has always fought to keep her head above water. In 1939, she left school at fourteen – the year that World War II broke out – and cared for her disabled father, who had lost his leg in the First World War. After he died, she was evicted and became homeless whilst she struggled to look for work.

Despite her difficult experiences, the stories that she relayed to my siblings and I were always centred around community spirit, friendship and the trouble that she would get up to at my age. Indeed, throughout my life, she has consistently taught me that compassion and community are essential to human existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the average Tory MP, my Grandma is a “model citizen”: she has worked hard her entire life, paid her taxes and – much to my annoyance – always gets excited at the sight of the Queen on TV.

Today, at 93-years-old, surely she should be able to relinquish some of her individual responsibility and be one of many vulnerable citizens that the government aims to protect and support?

Yet, when my Grandma was sent to hospital last week, she was left in a corridor for nine hours before being seen. The lack of resources meant that she wasn’t even permitted a bed for the time that she was there, being left to sleep in a wheelchair. Despite the warm and friendly staff attempting to cater to all patients, the waiting room was crowded and chaotic; patients and their families were left in undignified discomfort, lying and sitting on the floor.

Since the announcement of the upcoming general election in June, the right-wing press have hailed Theresa May’s “strength” as guaranteeing the country with a sense of stability. This is despite the fact that the UN recently condemned austerity politics as the main source of poverty and inequality in the UK, disproportionately effecting women and children.

For Foucault, language “mediates our understanding of the world” and shapes the social reality that we live in via portrayals of that reality. Indeed, within neoliberal society, rampant individualism is often misconstrued as strength whilst compassion is associated with weakness, instability and – as the right-wing media would like us to believe – millennial “entitlement.” One can see such language being played out in binary representations of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn; whilst May is a “safe pair of hands”, Corbyn’s desires to support vulnerable individuals mean that he is repeatedly presented as “out of touch” and a “loser.”

Arguably, this ubiquitous rhetoric of contempt for “weakness” has led us to the point where our most vulnerable in society are simply being tossed onto the scrapheap and left to rot. For example, calls to support refugees are branded as overly emotional, irrational and naïve. When Gary Linicker critiqued The Sun’s racist coverage of refugees – including Katie Hopkin’s column which referred to them as “cockroaches” – he was branded a “leftie luvvie.” In contrast, when David Cameron announced his plans for airstrikes on Syria, The Sun’s headline was: “Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam!”, suggesting that the former Prime Minister was efficient and strong in his violent reaction to the refugee crisis.

Moreover, such discourse shifts collective responsibilities onto the individual and demonises those who struggle to keep up. Rather than lay the blame for the refugee crisis at the foot at violent government’s doors, the right-wing media consistently asks why individual asylum seekers don’t “go back where they came from” to “fight for their own freedom.” In terms of the welfare state, individual “benefit scroungers” and migrant workers are seen to be forcing our services into disarray. This is despite the fact that the government’s welfare plans have been found to have “serious design flaws.” Indeed, we are now living in a country where starving benefit “scroungers” will go to prison for stealing £12.60 worth of meat, seemingly forgetting the fact that:

(…) just a few years ago – over 300 parliamentarians were found to have claimed expenses to which they weren’t entitled; hundreds of thousands handed over to some of the richest people in the country for duck houses, moat repairs and heating their stables.

Arguably, such pervasive and stigmatic language has meant that people are afraid to ask for help for fear of appearing ‘weak.’ Indeed, this may be why so many people who are suffering at the hand of Tory austerity are still willing to vote for Theresa May in June; when we individualize issues, people turn inwards rather than looking outwards at the powerful structures which govern our existence.

It would appear that ‘strength’ in this instance is less about providing feasible solutions for a divided country and more about shifting attention away from those who are profiting from atomistic individualism whilst simultaneously re-writing the narratives for those who criticise such ideals as simply naïve.

Yet, at a time when the NHS is on the brink of being dismantled, we must ask ourselves: if the government does not look after our most vulnerable citizens, then what are the state’s real interests?

Handy things the BBC taught me

Sophie Harman


I don’t know if you saw the email in January from the BBC looking for ‘Expert Women.’ It was unfortunately worded, as if the BBC could make women experts or that somehow women needed help being experts. Aside from the wording the intent was good: most experts on TV and radio are men and the BBC have recognised this and decided to do something about it. I applied and was accepted. I also found the day to be brilliant and very helpful. I thought it would be worth sharing some of the things I found out for four reasons. First, some of my friends were one of the 400+ women who applied. The demand or need for such knowledge is clearly there. Second, you may be like me and think TV or radio is not for you. I thought this and then after the day changed my mind. Apparently this is what a lot of women think. Third, according to research from City University London the ratio of male/female experts in Politics is 10/1 and foreign affairs 5/1. In the long list we were shown at the beginning of the day, Politics was the worst of all academic disciplines. I see this as a discipline fail. Finally, it is an opportunity for me to share a picture of me presenting the news (I am taking a call from a foreign correspondent on the line) in my Mum’s kitchen. Once male/female ratios are equal I’ll post the full video complete with thrilling guided tour of my home town of Chesham. I can’t add you to a BBC database (which is half the problem) but some of these points may help you go for it should you get the call.

  1. Um, well, so – are all acceptable words to use in a TV or radio interview. Don’t stress about them. We all use them in everyday speech. Think about how often you use um, like, well, so when talking in the pub/coffee shop/on the phone. Always.
  2. If you dry up/go blank presenters will help you. Professional presenters or interviewers know what to do: this is their job, they will therefore pick you up, prompt you and get you back on track if you forget your name. So don’t worry about blanking.
  3. Breathe through your mouth. This was a big reveal for me as years of yoga mean I always think breathing through your nose is best. Big mistake! Yawning is also good as it relaxes your jaw and wakes up your brain.
  4. Who cares if you get high pitched when you’re nervous? You are not Thatcher and this is not the 80s, women don’t have to moderate their voices anymore. Having an annoying voice has not stopped Robert Peston.
  5. If you flush/go red – no-one can see if you’re on radio and it is not clear on telly.
  6. Never read. You may want notes as a crutch but reading from them will make you sound and look rubbish. They will also make you more nervous.
  7. TV studios (well the BBC ones) are like the university seminar rooms you to try to change – in the basement, windowless, in odd corridors – with added cameras. So nothing to fear there.
  8. Examples to illustrate your point are big. They are effective at communicating and impacting with people listening/watching.
  9. Pivoting – talk about what you want. If you listen to the radio/watch TV you’ll see this all the time. ‘That’s an interesting question, but the real issue is…’
  10. Take your bangles off if on radio (I sadly abandoned wearing bangles everyday years ago because of keyboard bashing but I salute those of you who remain committed to the bangle) – the mega mics pick up everything.
  11. Because no-one can see you on radio you can raise your hand to the presenter if you have a point to make and they’re ignoring you
  12. Be easy – if they call and you can do it, turn up and do it: no drama.
  13. Have a back up list of excellent women – this is a big one. If we want to get more women on the radio and TV we’ve got to help each other. If you get the call and cant make it, have a go-to list ready to refer another woman. If anyone wants to be added to my global health women expert list let me know!
  14. Contact editors/producers if something newsworthy happens in your area. E.g. if you’re an expert in Milton Keynes and there’s a local government coup – let them know! Also update your linkedin (apparently a search tool for journalists – who knew?). You can contact them by Twitter or emailing them (all BBC addresss seem to be in the format of
  15. What to wear: no stripes, no white, if on radio less jewellery the better. Apparently there is a secret society led by Susannah Reid of dresses that look good and fit mics on telly but I am not privy to that information. When I am I’ll break the Reid omerta and share.
  16. Do some homework on the show you’re on. The Today Programme has a different style to PM to Woman’s Hour. Still be yourself but get a sense of the pace and tone.
  17. Fun Fact! Impersonating the accent of the person talking to you is not insulting – it is called ‘code switching’ and (correct me if I’m wrong linguists) is something women predominantly do to communicate effectively.

This may be all self-evident to anyone who has gone on media training. However training always seems to tell you how to be when the BBC seemed to stress over and over how it is best to just be yourself. Top thing I learned, give it a go, and if you don’t like it don’t do it again. Mumbling on radio 4 won’t end your career. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Diversity in academia: It takes raindrops to make a river

PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group

PSA ECNJessica Smith (Birkbeck), Communications Officer for the PSA Early Career Network, reflects on the ECN’s recent workshop on ‘Demystifying and Navigating Early Career Academia’, held at the University of Manchester on 3 February 2017. 

In February, the Political Studies Association’s Early Career Network hosted a day of workshops and panels at the University of Manchester aimed at demystifying early academia and discussing how we can increase diversity in our ranks, co-sponsored by the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group. The most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that just 24 per cent of UK professors are women, we know that it is lower in political science (around 20%) and that numbers for BME representation are even worse. The day offered training sessions for early career academics within which there was recognition of the varying experiences different identities and backgrounds can create. The day finished with a panel on increasing diversity in…

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Ideal academics (and the women behind them)

The Slow Academic

A highlight of the week on Twitter has been the hashtag from @bruceholsinger #thanksfortyping which reveals the contributions of anonymous wives to the research of male academics:


The entire thread is well worth reading (and there are also some more recent positive examples where wives are named and acknowledged). It reminded me of the uncomfortable images of hidden mothers in Victorian photographs:

Hidden mother in unsettling Victorian photograph of childrenmother-and-baby-portrait-001Image result for victorian hidden mothersImage result for victorian hidden mothers

In a previous post, I provided some links on the disproportionate load of care work, emotional labour, housework and service that women carry in and out of the academy. #Thanksfortyping shows…

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Globalisation & the environment (a rap)

Thomas Sheldon



With regard to the environment, the

impact of globalisation is significant,

Multifaceted and complex, but I will

try my best in this brief talk to address, a

few theories and thoughts that have been put forward,

to assess the descriptive and normative nature,

of this relationship between nature and global

trade between nations. So let’s begin…


Globalisation is often thought,

To damage our ecology across the board. When the

transport of goods by ocean and air alone, a-

-ccounts for a tenth of all petroleum blown, it’s

easy to see how you’d reach this conclusion, but

in reality the situation is nuanced,

The bad may well outweigh the good, but

some positive elements can’t be ignored.

Perhaps a global neoliberal order,

Allows positive pressure to spread wider,

If we vote with our wallets and purses,

And every time we make a purchase, we

take into consideration, the pollution and re-

duction to bio-diversification that ensues,

the companies that profit from it, will see their profits plummet,

Unless they change the way they make their pay,

J. Frankel puts it quite simply,

Without global trade between countries,

The ethical consumer in Milan wouldn’t

be able to sway the producer in Taiwan,

But that doesn’t negate the state’s role, con-

sumers can only control when they’re in the know,

Proper labelling of packaging is a must,

With origin and method of production up front,

Without a set of laws to dictate,

Companies can too easily obfuscate,

If free markets entail a free choice,

Then the state has to step up and regulate,

But what chance is there that they’d do this?

Most governments have double incentives,

As Professor Peter Newell puts it:

Those charged with tackling environmental problems and promoting sustainable development are the same actors that create the conditions for the expansion of trade, production and finance which generates environmental harm in the first place. It is imperative to be clear about the contradictions and strategic dilemmas that flow from this situation if we are to meaningfully advance a project of socially just sustainable development in a context of globalisation”.


There’s the fear that globalised markets, make

states afraid to reign in their corporates,

So they reduce the regulatory burden, placed

upon them so they compete stronger.

If China can produce your goods cheaper,

Despite causing more pollution,

And if neither you nor them pay for the clean up,

Most firms will see it as an efficient solution.

This ‘race to the bottom’ hypothesis,

Isn’t entirely evidenced however.

Empirical studies have generally concluded,

Environmental regulation doesn’t always do this,

The cost of complying with eco-regulation,

Doesn’t compare to other considerations,

The price of labour, training and infrastructure

Is much greater, and besides

In his book, ‘Trading Up’, David Vogel,

Says that northern markets are too profitable

To be ignored even when the cost of compliance is

borne, so standards rise overall,

I think this analysis is flawed,

Although a company that moves overseas wouldn’t

want to ignore northern markets and in

turn they ensure that their goods are fit for

Sale over here and fully comply with

our laws, our laws are quite poor.

Though not by design, it’s more by compulsion,

Let me explain the conundrum…


It’s all because the W.T.O,

Though permitting the setting of trade barriers

Where an imported product is damaging to the

environment of the importing country,

Don’t allow for the importing country

To set restrictions on the method of production

Utilised in the originating country

Even if the method contributes to global warming.

Therefore it’s hardly surprising to see that

in developing states factory standards are shaky,

and to compete on the international scene they

have to keep production methods cheap or cease to be.

Consider an example: a

factory in Bangladesh that manufactures textiles.

It’s heavily polluting, but a

waste treatment plant would vastly reduce this.

The only problem is the cost,

When any global company can cut corners to undercut,

They can’t afford to clean up, and the

tax rate’s low so the state’s broke and can’t pay too.

Well that’s not exactly true,

The government has money but has to spend it subsidising,

Water supplies for the factories’ dyes,

To keep the economy alive.

So in a sense, it’s fair to say that

states have the power to regulate effectively,

But in reality, it depends entirely

on the type of externality.

If pollution is local to a region, then

states can legislate to alleviate the grievance,

But if the problems are more global, then

unilateral action won’t work to solve them,

And wealth plays an enormous part, or

What Boyce calls the ‘ability to afford’.

The UK can pay for clean cars, while

developing countries can’t.

If we feel that a decent environment,

Isn’t a luxury but more a human right,

Then the north can’t just ignore, the

damage that’s caused by the goods we import,

When pollution is externalised to war-

mer climes or future times so that we’re blind to

what we’ll reap from what we sow, it’s inevita-

ble that competition won’t address on its own

The crisis of the commons,

That global warming represents.

We need to co-operate or

sooner or later we’re spent.


So far we’ve looked at how people,

countries and international agreements,

In the context of neoliberal

capital can still act to advance en-

-vironmental protection.

But this doesn’t necessitate action,

Despite the fact that we can see,

Global temperature rising so predictably,

And due to human directed activity,

There are those who would deny responsibility,

And as the far-right gains in popularity,

The worrying fragility of public awareness is

laid bare before us, and it’s enormous-

ly important to reflect on the fact that

right now the man who sits in the White House,

thinks the Chinese invented the greenhouse,

And wants to ignore environmental law, and

thinks we can afford to abort the Paris Climate Accord,

He may be on the other side of the pond,

But the consequences will be felt from London to Hong Kong,

For decades most states could have been blamed

For not doing enough to help save the

planet from our ecologically damaging ways

but other threats dropped off the radar,

It’s not exclusively the laws that are made and the

talks that are staged that relate in an obvious way

to the environment that have the potential to sway,

climatological change. Let me

give you an example so you can relate,

As Trump and Bannon plan to ban citizens travelling from seven

Majority Muslim states, thereby undermining

trust that wasn’t easily made, it’s not unthinkable that

all the work that went into assuaging Iran,

could be harmed beyond repair and lead to an affair where,

both end up proliferating nuclear arms,

and the aftermath sees the earth scorched bare and,

leaves the seas toxic sees the leaves dropped from

all the treetops. And that’s just the local,

turn to the global, most studies show that,

from pole to pole will be frozen over,

A cyanosis that the globe won’t cope with,

For five years our crop yield will be near zero,

Black smoke injected into the stratosphere

will block light and cause plant life to die,

Sobriety is called for,

We can’t afford to ignore the risk of a nuclear war,

And how it would affect the climate,

On a global scale like no war before it,


So to conclude I’ll offer my own thoughts.

In my view we need more co-operation,

And less competition to ensure,

We make globalisation work for us all.

From hate-mongering to greed,

From cutting every corner just to earn enough to eat,

To maximising profit by homogenising seeds,

It’s unsustainable. So I propose…

Well, right now the W.T.O

sets rules to promote financial growth,

and though the evidence shows it’s not so, they

hold that this is the sole consideration,

In trying to fight degradation:

‘States will clean up if they prosper’ they say.

But we need compulsion,

The stakes are too high to rely on fake wisdom.

In the same way world trade states,

must agree to liberalise their trade with others nations,

I say they should make a dedication,

To cut pollution and reduce carbon emission.

If all countries had to play ball,

Companies couldn’t be undercut anymore,

It would encourage finding genuine efficiency,

And not externalising liabilities.

So in short its worth keeping in mind,

Despite all the trends we might find,

The way globalisation will evolve,

Depends on us and the world we choose to mould.

I’ll end now with a quote from James Boyce,

To emphasise this most important point,

When it comes to our future direction…

As its critics fear, globalisation could accelerate worldwide environmental degradation and deepen environmental inequalities. Yet globalisation also gives impetus to countervailing forces that could bring about a greener and less divided world. The history of the future is still to be written.”