Recently I have received a link in my emails to a report on Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies undertaken by Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song (2013). Detailing some comparative data in the field charted against the gendered profile of the discipline, the report highlighted a number of factors that influence women’s pathway through academic study and career progression in academia that I feel are worth reiterating to our readers. While there are other Arts and Humanities-based subjects that are marked by the trends indicated in the report, in a comparison between English, Philosophy, Anthropology, Mathematics and Chemistry, the field indicated by Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) fared worst as regards a gradient decline of women enrolled in further study, or progressing through academic promotion procedures. Whereas by and large female students outnumber male students in undergraduate courses, over the course of postgraduate work, taught and research, the figures begin to tip in balance. As the study shows, ‘the drop off rate for female TRS students is more than twice that of any of these other subjects’ (12).
Of the numerous indicators gathered by the report, the ‘gradual female withdrawal in tandem with academic progression’ (4), a recurring theme was that of lacking confidence in women candidates. However, three issues stand out as especially connected to the academic subject area, rather than a patriarchal institutional culture underwriting academia at large: the recruitment strategies of some institutions that recruit from countries in which candidates are likely to be funded for their studies by their church, which may reinforce a conservative, gendered reception of Christianity also at a structural level (14). To develop the level of confidence in female students to pursue a career path in particular sub-disciplines consequently appears as comparatively more problematic. The report specifically names Systematic Theology amongst its finds (15). A second area highlighted in relation to that of recruitment from elsewhere is the connection of TRS departments with denominational affiliation, often due to supplying training for ministry for which the recruitment by the churches into ministry impacts upon the question of diversity at the university (13). And thirdly, the administrative struggle of TRS departments in their variously re-structured forms. Specifically in the complicated relationship and disciplinary distinction drawn between religious studies in a broader, often interdisciplinary field, and theology, the report noted the implications on directions for research when targeting submissions for the REF (cf. 16). All of these issues, in effect, are symptomatic of funding politics, as they come through at various stages for career progression: in recruitment, in funding further studies, and in impact assessment for career progression.
Motivation to pursue further study, in my own case here at Stirling (one of the few non-denominational schools – and one without the competing demands of classical theology), had largely been kindled by a postgraduate initiative titled “Feminine Divine” that was run over the spring term in 2009 by research postgraduates of the interdisciplinary school for Languages, Cultures and Religions at Stirling. As a first point of contact with the postgraduate community, the lively and welcoming circle of feminist postgraduates made a strong impression on me, as I shied away from approaching (our very approachable!) staff to discuss options of further study. In light of prejudices against tags such as “feminist,” highlighted in the report (8, 16), I recall the reaction of one of my friend’s parents, who upon hearing of their daughter’s participation in the group, cautiously asked if her relationship to her male partner was still all it could be. The equation between the theme “Feminine Divine,” feminism, and lesbian culture in the popular imagination gave rise to many a discussion since.
The question of funding, albeit related to other reasons and factors cited by the study, analysing the recruitment processes and circumstances of candidates, remained largely absent from their consideration – due perhaps to the focus and response of those interviewed for the report. Having been one of the 33.2% of female research postgraduate students in the figures from 2010-11 cited (9), I vividly remember the apprehension in the run-up to deadlines for funding applications after the announcement of cuts in the Arts and Humanities, that could have very well spelled the end of my own academic aspirations. The prospect, particularly in a time of economic austerity, of finding part time work that could fund tuition fees and living costs, especially if there are no family savings to meet some of the costs, is not inviting. And in retrospect, with my study all but completed, I know all too well that without funding, I would have written a different study: economic demands play crucially on the scope and outcomes of research, whichever the field.
Curiously, the report characterised Philosophy and English as two comparative reference groups for the field in light of working methods and subject matter within the Arts and Humanities, cited to aid the interpretation of the absolute figures attained from Higher Education Information Database for Institutions (HEIDI) (10). I say curiously because in the logic of funders – and certainly in the historical development of Religious Studies – TRS nestles under the rubric of Historical and Theological Research. While I do not have access to the numbers of female students progressing through a career in Historical Research, my estimate is that this line of inquiry might have found TRS less of a special case. Obviously this is not to say that it would therefore be any more acceptable to the health of the academic institutions to maintain this imbalance. The recent decision by the Church of England to allow for women bishops offers hope that a symptomatic imbalance in the ratio of male and female students and academics, that may have skewed the ratio of some institutions in the study in comparison to the national average (13), is likely to change over the coming years by providing significant role models to an aspiring generation of women scholars.
Institutions and organisations are eager to pick up discussions to maintain a strong and healthy disciplinary diversity, and the annual ‘Socrel Response Day’ on the theme ‘Achieving Gender Equality in the Academy: Intersections, Interrogations and Practices’ (October 4, 2014) in London is an event of primary importance to raising awareness and facilitating discussions that prepare responsible leadership in academia for a future in TRS. Plans and preparations for a mentoring scheme, central amongst the recommendations of the report, are encouraged in order to facilitate and prepare students and academic staff to face the challenges in pursuit of achieving gender equality in the academic engagement with TRS and beyond.