To mark International Women’s Day this year we are launching a series of articles to celebrate our female authors – ‘Women in academia and practice’. We will look at their work and the challenges they have faced, and hear their thoughts about obstacles to gender equality. Marie Lall is Professor of Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education and author of Bridging Neoliberalism and Hindu Nationalism.
How did you get to where you are today?
I’m Professor of Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education and 2022 marks my 20th year at the IoE. My background is in political economy and I have a doctorate from the LSE; so ending up in education was a surprise.
My PhD was on India’s economic reforms, and I moved to Delhi in the early 1990s for my fieldwork. I got married and stayed for a number of years, before returning with my husband and an almost completed thesis. Getting a job as an academic that was focused on India was incredibly difficult, and although I taught at SOAS for a few years my time on temporary contracts did not transform into a permanent job. I was welcomed as a Research Officer at the IoE, just next door, where I learnt on the job about my new discipline – sociology of education. My academic trajectory went from Research Officer to Chair at the same institution, and although I have had visiting positions in India, Japan, Pakistan, Germany and Singapore I have never felt the need to be at another university. When the IoE became part of UCL I was lucky to be able to use my area expertise to serve the wider institution as Pro-Vice-Provost for South Asia for three years.
Over the years I have managed to combine my South Asia expertise with my expanding interest in education, especially focusing on how national identity and citizenship are developed through textbooks and the classroom and how that leads to societal conflict. I also started to research and write on similar themes in Pakistan and then Myanmar. I was fortunate to be able to see how Myanmar developed from a closed military dictatorship to a participatory system and to meet so many of the key stakeholders of that transformation through my work. Tragically this ended with the coup on 1 February 2021.
Key to my work has been the field, no matter how remote or hard to access. I quickly realised that my privileged position that allowed me to meet parents and teachers from all sections of society between the Khyber Pass and the Shan Hills also gave me the responsibility to make their voices heard. The main research aim I have had over these last two decades is therefore to listen to respondents and report back to policy makers about what those most affected have to say. Most of my research has been about the voices of others – in particular from weaker sections of society. Part and parcel of working in the field has also been the collaboration with junior local researchers. Remembering my own journey, I have tried to make a point of developing and training researchers across my three countries and co-publishing with them.
What challenges have you faced?
Most recently the pandemic – I was due to be in the field for four months just when India went into its first lockdown. There was a team of researchers sitting in their homes working off kitchen tables. We had to redesign the project and collect data online. In the end, it was an excellent experience for all as we spoke to 110 teachers on Zoom. The pandemic also forced me to sit down and write the book I just submitted to BUP.
Over the years there have been many challenges. One key challenge of working in a country like Myanmar is the protection of the stakeholders you meet and interview. My early years there were full of anxiety for respondents and co-researchers who might get in trouble with military intelligence. Other challenges have been accessing remote regions, especially when travelling alone as a woman in conservative regions across Asia, managing the language gap with the help of translators; it does not matter how many languages you speak if you interview families in remote, conflict-affected tribal regions – the likelihood of speaking their language is nil. Yet they still want their side of the story told.
What needs to be done to address the challenges women face generally in academia?
Academia is still a male-dominated profession and one where professors are more likely to be male, and White. Despite policies about maternity leave, it is incredibly challenging for women to keep progressing in an academic career if they also have a family. The combination of research, teaching, writing, publishing, travelling to and presenting at conferences, and sitting on committees means women are at a greater disadvantage – even more so if their research requires weeks of data collection in remote areas. While the pandemic will have been challenging for young academic mothers with children at home rather than at school or in a creche, the new ways of online working developed during COVID-19 – for example meetings and conferences being moved to Zoom – might actually help women’s careers. Since much of the kind of support required by women is discipline dependent, it might help if faculties canvassed women as to what would specifically help them and then implemented some of the ideas that emerged from such a consultation.
What advice would you give to younger women in academia and more broadly?
Women tend to pick up more of the kind of work that ‘does not count’ towards promotion. Over the last 20 years I have seen how male colleagues are much more ‘hard-nosed’ about what they will do and what not. We all have to do a balance of teaching, research and admin but it is important to safeguard the time to research and write. My advice to any woman in academia is to set out a career strategy, identify what you want to do and what needs to be done to get there, and say no to anything that will interfere with that. Get a successful female academic mentor and ask for advice, support and help.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle to gender equality today?
Being a woman in academia is hard – but nothing compared to the difficulties faced by many women I have engaged with during my fieldwork, for whom the picture remains bleak. Globally women are disadvantaged because of lack of access to finance, land, technology – often due to local societal norms. This is worse in poorer countries and amongst disadvantaged and conflict-affected communities.
Marie Lall, FRSA, is Professor of Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, UK. She has 30 years of experience in the region and has worked with the World Bank, UNICEF, the British Council, AUSAID, South Asian philanthropic bodies as well as government ministries in South Asia and internationally. In 2019 she was named one of the 100 most influential people on UK–India relations at the House of Commons.
Browse all the interviews in our Women in academia and practice blog series here.
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