Hello, this is Talking to Titans, a podcast from University College London with me, Cathy Giangrande, UCL alumna, art historian and conservation scientist,
And me Gudrun Moore Professor of genetics at UCLA Institute of Child Health.
Over seven episodes, we're talking to women who are leaders, decision-makers and role models at UCL roles which are still dominated by men and academic institutions.
We're asking these incredible women questions about what motivates me every day, how they've managed to work in male-dominated environments, and whether they've made sacrifices along the way.
In this episode, we're joined by the Dean of UCLs Faculty of Social and Historic Sciences, Sasha Roseneil, hi, Sasha. Hello. That was a slightly abbreviated title because you do a lot of things both inside and outside UCL. Could you tell us a bit more about your current roles?
So I'm Dean of Social Historical Sciences as you said, which is a faculty of eight departments and Institute's really interesting array of departments from economics at one end history of art at the other end. My my kind of other title at UCL is professor of interdisciplinary social science, which I think we feel like the kind of best title I've had so far because I really am an interdisciplinary social scientist. My kind of academic career has been built on a foundation that that is it summer intersection between sociology, politics and history. And increasingly, I became interested in psychoanalysis and my forte is I trained as a group analyst and psychoanalytic psychotherapist.
You began your career in academia when women's studies or gender studies was really in its infancy. What was the general attitude towards the field at the time?
So I finished my PhD time at LSE in 1991. And got my first job then, and I think it was really the very beginning of what was then Women's Studies in the UK roundabout then. There were very few programs at that time. But but many universities were starting to have courses during the 1980s on women. And so I remember as an undergraduate doing a course on women and society and women and the law, and then I went on to do my PhD. And it was it was one of very few kind of feminist PhDs being done at LSE at that time. Inaudible late 80s. That was still how it was, yeah. And I was working at my first job was at Leeds University, and then got involved in setting up the Center for interdisciplinary gender studies. And I became the first director of that
what Motivated us that sort of moving from the Research Center as opposed to chase was,
yes, it was it was being aware that there were a lot of feminist researchers across Leeds, which is a big university, who didn't know each other and I felt like I knew them because I was pulling all their modules together to create this degree and I was working with them, but they weren't really talking to each other
It was it was very exciting. I mean, it was a moment, I feel very lucky in a way that it was that in the 1990s, there was a kind of opening up in universities. But in the 80s, you couldn't you couldn't even get the students who weren't allowed to recruit the students. So it was very good to be able to be kind of trying to innovate in these interdisciplinary spaces at moments where that was more possible.
Was there resistance, though? Do you think? Did you find resistance along the way? Yes.
Yes. There were certainly people in the disciplines, particularly my home Department of Sociology who didn't see the point. Some of it did certainly come from a place of how could there possibly be enough to study but you know, it's been three years talking about women and gender. Right. And I mean, personally, I, you know, when I think back on it, I personally had quite a bit of hostility to me as a young feminist academic, from from when there was there was a member of the department who, and I've never talked about this publicly before, but who persistently for many years, did all sorts of things to try and undermine me. And I mean, I first found out about this because [was that a male or female?] a man, who was using my research, in his teaching to make to ridicule it, basically. And I got told about this by students who were doing his course. And I've, you know, over several years, different cohorts of students would come show me different examples. So you really have a thing about
How did you deal with that?
I didn't do anything about it. You know, I was, I was a lecturer. He was our senior member of staff. I was, you know, in my sort of mid to late 20s. He also sort of sexually harassed me a bit. You know, it's the typical kind of Christmas party kind of stuff, but again, I just kind of brushed it off. The point in which I did go I did actually goes my head of department and make the complaint was when I was crossing the road in Headingley in North Leeds come quite close to the university and he drove past and kind of swerved as if to drive to me [oh my god]. And I mean, he didn't actually want to run me over, but he wanted to frighten me or he learned to have a car and shouted something, you know, that he thought was funny. You know? She, she said, Well, that sounds really awful. What do you want to do about it? And I said, Well, I don't really know what what are the options? Should we could, you know, take out a grievance against him, but she said, but, you know, it will probably be a horrible process for you. And, you know, we don't know what will come of it. So I thought about it and decided not to do anything.
What happened to this man?
Nothing happened to him. I mean, he he carried on his career until he retired. And I carried on working at least for a long time after that, too. I mean, fortunately, I did become more and more involved in the Gender Studies Centre. So maybe kind of, somewhat unconsciously, I was finding a way to move out of the Department of Sociology and, you know, set it set up the central and I was director of the Centre, so I effectively kind of made myself another space to work in. Although that wasn't the reason I did it. But you know, I think it was, it was good that I did it. And then, you know, as part of a team of researchers got a very large research grant. So, you know, I kind of became very involved in that, you know, it was a five-year project that ended and a few years later, I moved on from Leeds. And by that time, you know, actually, I'd become a professor, and, you know, I was much less touchable by him. I think it's something that stayed with me, but I don't think it's, it's, it hasn't traumatized me. And I think I'm lucky that it didn't totally derail me. But I do think things like that still happen. I'm absolutely sure. But I hope that we do have better recognition, that sort of thing happens and more formal structures of support for women who might.
Do you think that by having those formal structures... In fact, that happens less because people are aware that there is an outcome if they behave that way.
I don't know. I mean, I think we probably have a situation Now is that women are more ready to report it. I mean, that's what we've seen with the metoo movement, I think probably a sort of 2627 28-year-old woman would these days would be a bit more likely to report it than I was, I would hope they would be, I would hope they would have had, they would have a more robust response from their head of department, more encouragement to, you know, to actually follow through. And in fact, the head of department might actually have said, Well, I'm going to pick this up, not that it's you take a grievance as an individual out against this other member of staff, actually, you're reporting something to me, that we need to deal with some of your research looks at why people so often resist changing and making adjustments in their lives. Can you expand on that? That's, I mean, that's very much a direction I'm going in as I become more interested in psychoanalysis and you know, as a kind of practitioner, as a clinical practitioner, working with people who often have quite clear ideas about what they think would be good for them, but somehow aren't quite able to make the changes necessary or acting in ways that are against their best interests. And that, you know, that's what people do in their personal lives, but also what people do politically. And you know, it's not just me that has identified the fact that many people kind of vote and act politically in ways that aren't in their best interests. I've also, you know, a long longer term sets been interested in how do people kind of creatively change the world for the better with that idea in mind? What would you suggest? How do you encourage people to take those steps towards change? What sort of areas of change are we talking about? Are we talking about people's change in their personal lives? Are we talking about changes in institutions which will prevent social and political change? They're all different processes. But, you know, I think the challenge that many women have is the question of agency is knowing feeling like we have some agency to act in the world and to make change and whether that's as individuals you know, that we actually can change our our personal lives that we don't have to be held, you know, always to decisions we've made in the past or to the country. That we were kind of brought up and born into, but also, you know, in organizations, you know, the universities, for all that kind of structures and hierarchy and processes are actually very, you know, extraordinarily open places compared with many other organizations, institutions, and people with good ideas can make things happen. But at the core of it, there has to be some originating kind of belief that it's possible in the individual person, some people that's a real struggle to find that and hold on to it.
What do you think it is about UCL that makes it so free thinking or ability for people to be free thinking?
I think it's in our social organization, I think it's in our, it's in our collective practices. It's an interesting place because London's expensive, it's a difficult place to live for many people, you know, it's busy, it's intense. So it UCL attracts particular sorts of people who want to be in this kind of amazing, diverse global city. I choosing to be here, you know, that that collection of People is what makes us who we are.
We talked about gender, but we didn't really touch on sexuality
Working on sexuality has been a kind of big theme in my work. And I mean that, for sure comes from my own experience as a lesbian. And going back to what we were talking about, about the sort of harassment night experience, I think that that was very definitely about my sexuality. Again, I felt lucky to be able to work on sexuality as time where it became more possible, it still felt very risky, or at least I was told that it was risky. I was told that by my supervisor, that you know, you shouldn't make too much of the sexuality stuff in your work, you know, emphasize the other stuff. But I I have always been open about my sexuality. And, you know, I think that was pretty unusual in 1991 when I got my lectureship to be out as a young lecturer. But it also was, you know, I think it was, it made a difference quite a lot of my students lives at that point. And as time has gone on, the world has to So much so much. And it doesn't mean to say that there isn't still discrimination on the grounds of sexuality there is but you know, it's also about where you reaching your own career. You know, I don't feel that it's holding me back at all. I still think it's important to talk about though, because there are still many people met, you know, many people for whom it's not easy to say I'm a lesbian, you know, and even I actually still sometimes, I mean, it's Yeah, I'm married now, which is something I never imagined would be possible. Yeah, it's like completely inconceivable when I was a young lesbian age 15 coming out. And that's still strange to me also, as a feminist, the idea of marriages is you know, I've spent a lot of time being very critical of marriages and institution now I'm now I'm married. And you know, there's still a slight discomfort about that. I think younger, younger people don't have I think, however much I might like to think I'm you know, fully okay with everything. You grow up in a particular context and that stays with you. We all have the legacies of of all the all the areas That we've lived through in us. You know, they still Yeah, yeah, there's still much to be done and it would be easy to be complacent. You know, someone who is now the ID you know, like, everything's fine for everyone. It's not it's clearly not fine for everyone at all. It's just my life has got a lot easier
Given how busy you are, how do you manage your work-life balance?
What immediately comes to mind is my dog having a dog is hugely important in terms of having a walk first thing in the morning, especially in the summer is lovely and grounding and having some contact with nature. And also having some contact with you know, the nature that is having a dog in your house, which is where you know, everything's not under control. There's mad and there's dirt and you know, things happen that you so that's all good for me. I cycle to work most days except when it's raining, which has been doing recently a lot. So, some exercise, outdoor time I swim Quite a lot, outdoor swimmer too. So, you know, I think all that's really important. I think actually having friends who are not academics is also really important. You know, who don't take it all quite as seriously as you do and your colleagues do. How about
Sacrifices for your job? Have you made a lot of those?
I don't, I don't think I'm a self-sacrificing person. I think that the things that I do I choose to do, and I haven't I have an awareness that I'm choosing to do them and I could do otherwise. When I applied to my PhD, which, you know, my kind of undergraduate tutor said, you know, you'll never get funding for that. But I applied for anyway, and I did get funding for it. But I also, you know, I had a backup plan, you know, I thought I had a place to go and train to doing a kind of law conversion course I thought I'd be a barrister. So I always kind of had a sense that I could do something else. And I've kept I've held on to that. I don't know what I would do now. Probably, you know, full full time practice as a psychotherapist. So it is important, I think to know you could do other things and to know that, you know, if I'm working working too hard. There are real external constraints often pressures. But I'm choosing to do this job which has many, many amazing things about it. I could choose otherwise.
I like that idea of having plans, different plans.
And I sometimes worry talking to people. I mean, having an academic career is really tough and there are lots of people who want them and not everyone will get one. And you do have to be very single-minded. But at the same time, if you're too single-minded, then you don't open up yourself to the possibility of other things you might do. Again, it's psychologically healthy.
Was there a time when you had a moment of crisis? Did you go to how did you sort that out?
One of the most challenging periods in my life and and certainly in my working life was when my mom had a really serious accident. She broke her neck and was basically paralyzed from the neck down and spent two years in state mental hospital. So I was working in Leeds, when this happened. I was very busy at work travelling backwards and forwards from from Leeds to state mental which was not an easy journey and I reduced my hours I went part time at work because I just couldn't do you know, a full time job and the amount of time I would spend with my mom and she was in hospital for very long time. I mean, people are not usually when they have a spinal injury they're not usually in hospital for that long we've actually never left she ended up dying in hospital. That time I spent with my mom in hospital is so precious to me and, and at least I look back on it, I think I don't regret not having spent time with her. You know, I spent a really good amount of time with her. And in fact it was because she was in hospital I decided I really had to leave Leeds and get a job in London. And so I applied for a job I got a job at Birkbeck and moved to London, but I started the job a month after she died. So you know, the timing didn't work terribly well. But I was ready to leave leads to it was actually a good thing to leave leaves and come back to London.
Sounds like you're pretty positive thinking person to me.
I think I probably am. Yes, yes, I am. Yeah,
you've got a bit of a head start if you can be positive about things. I think that's right. I mean, it doesn't mean that we all have to be cheery and you know, falsely happy every day. I think that you know, trying to create some kind of happy clappy culture is not my way either. Because I believe it's important to confront the darkness and the difficulty and the trouble and not brush it under under the carpet and pretend it's not there because it does always rear its head.
And so yeah, absolutely. So you know, I think ignoring the difficulties and just trying to brush over and be be happy and cheery is not the way What else would you advise I mean, for people that hit a low in their life and career in particular, I suppose as as a psychotherapist, I would say, you know, consider help, actually, as a dean, I would say I would probably also say consider help but it's just different types of help you know, people sometimes they need help that is very specific about, you know unsticking from from a particular work problem in a problem in their research or you know, something, you know, that actually another academic can help them with. Sometimes it's something that runs deeper. And you know, there should be no shame at all and you seeking professional help. And you're not thinking that there are quick fixes. You know, we live in a very quick fix world. And as a psychologist, psychotherapist, I don't think that a lot of the issues that people struggle with are necessarily amenable to quick fixes. Sometimes they are but you know, actually, generally, the quick fixes and the ones that you try first and then if they don't work, you know, then then you have to embark on something that might be a bit longer and a bit more challenging.
Sasha, thank you so much for joining us. It's been fantastic. Very nice to meet you. Well, I have to say she was incredible, and I think what I really thought was wonderful was she really bared her soul for us and told us stories that like she said she hadn't spoken to anyone about or spoken about before in public.
And I think it's very useful for our listeners who might think that they've experienced something similar or we might potentially experiencing something like this in in the future in their careers to sort of maybe have an eyes view of how she dealt with it and how it can be dealt with now where you can go for help where you go for help getting support friendship, friendship, mentoring, I really think that's, that's been a quite a theme. Yes. And what she said and I think it's very important.
And and I think her idea of having plans because sometimes things don't go the way you expect or want them to and so you know, having a plan B and maybe even a Plan C sometimes is good. And I think as you go through life, you have to have different plans because life changes you change and I think her openness about change and people willing to change and accept different situations is a really positive thought.
Thank you very much indeed for joining us in this episode of talking to Titans. In the next episode we will be speaking to Nicola Brewer, UCL’s Vice Provost International.
For more information please go to https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-minds/titans. If you liked this episode, leave us a review in your podcast app, share it with your friends and tweet at UCL with the hashtag #TalkingToTitans. The series was a Whistledown production.