Delving into gender – Dr Fiona Jenkins

Dr Fiona Jenkins is the Convener of the ANU Gender Institute, a virtual institute that promotes and contributes to the development of research and activity on gender issues. I caught up with Fiona to talk about her research, her role at the Gender Institute and what it’s like to be in academia!

Tell me a bit about yourself – how would you describe yourself to a stranger?

I just turned 50 and I keep telling people that, first because I realised I was nervous telling people I was 50 (and that’s because of the nasty way that women are judged as they age) and second because it’s really exciting in lots of ways. I feel like I’m just hitting my stride after many years of ‘juggling’. There is something really important too about becoming an ‘elder’ – someone with a lot of experience who needs to think about how to lead, inspire and guide up-coming generations. That’s a role that women often aren’t given much formal recognition for (witness the stats on women and ‘leadership’) but its actually a role they do play a lot. So I’m thinking about all this as a new and exciting phase of my life – I’m still juggling but now also lobbing a few balls!

How did you first enter academia? What was your pathway to arriving at the Australian National University?

I travelled into a doctorate because I couldn’t drop my fascination with philosophy. I always loved reading, thinking and writing it, and even though I was quite pessimistic about a career in philosophy I decided I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a few years doing just that at Oxford. I then got my first teaching job at Essex, a post-doc at Sydney, and Australia had me hooked! A job came up at the ANU that had my research interests written all over it and I came here in 2002.

What’s it like being both a woman in academia, but also a woman who specifically researches gender?

One of the courses I took as an undergraduate that was probably ‘life changing’ was on feminist philosophy. It was actually the only course taught by a woman I ever took. That fact and the really interesting topics – as well as the lecturer’s strong encouragement – probably are what made me think seriously for the first time of taking a PhD. When I discovered in 2008 from a report of the Australasian Association for Philosophy just how poor the representation of women in philosophy really was (at that time less than 10% of professors in philosophy in Australia were female) I got very interested in this as a personal and a research question. I think it’s very important to work out how to engage with your own situation through disciplines like philosophy, and I published a co-edited book on the problems for women in philosophy in 2013. The work I have done in this space has led me to engage in a bigger project on gender in the social sciences. Gender continues to shape all social relations, but this is widely neglected in disciplines like political science and economics. I’m still working out my understandings of these complex problems and I hope they’ll contribute to improving the situation of women in academia, which remains surprisingly poor relative to men’s.

Your current research (as described on the ANU website) is concerned with Judith Butler on one hand and gender equity in academic disciplines on the other – how do you maintain such diverse strands of research without losing the thread of one or the other?

I often do feel a bit challenged by my diverse research lives, but in fact there are interesting overlaps between the projects. For example, Butler’s work is a major contribution to theories of social normativity and delves deep into cultural ways of reproducing inequalities. Butler offers really important tools for understanding persistent gender inequalities in rich social terms.

What draws you to philosophy and gender studies?

Curiosity, pleasure, a desire to understand one or two things about the world… Philosophy is an amazingly expansive discipline, though its often done in ways that get very nit-picky and narrow. I’ve really enjoyed broadening my reach into gender studies over the last few years and using my philosophical training in ways that branch out and extend the field of what can be regarded as ‘philosophical’. Looking at gender issues is at the same time very grounding – and the facts about ongoing discrimination and violence make this a pressing space to work and think in.

Tell me a bit about the Gender Institute and your role there.

The ANU Gender Institute was set up in 2011 and I’ve been leading it since 2013. It’s a really great initiative which creates a ‘virtual’ network of gender researchers to catalyse work in a wide range of areas of gender studies. Beside this, we also seek to advance gender equity at ANU, often by providing seminars and lectures that can help people understand and change their situation.  We reach into all areas of the campus and have small grants available that any of our ANU members can apply for. We have fantastic connections with the wider community of Canberra and do a lot of work with government departments, NGO’s and grassroots feminist organisations. It’s great that the Gender Institute opens up that wider space of engagement with public life for everyone at the university, and provides also access to these public resources of the university for those working in and around Canberra. We also have terrific international visitors and networks.

What’s a project that you’re particularly excited to be working on this year at the Institute?

So many things  happening it’s hard to choose one! But we do have a really exciting Centre of Excellence proposal that some colleagues in the Gender Institute have been developing. It’s very hard to get these funded, but I’m optimistic that the value of the project will be recognised. It’s very much about looking to the future of feminist work on a global scale, recognising the ongoing, perhaps increasing challenges we face, and envisioning new ways of challenging entrenched gender relations.

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