20 May Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: (Im)migrant Women’s Informal Networks of Solidarity
[Başak Bağlayan is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Law Economy and Finance at the University of Luxembourg.
Gamze Erdem Türkelli is an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Antwerp Law & Development Research Group.
Başak Etkin is a PhD Candidate at Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, and the co-creator and co-host of the philosophy of international law podcast, Borderline Jurisprudence.
Aysel Küçüksu is a Postdoctoral Fellow on the “Human Rights Nudge” project at iCourts, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.
Ezgi Yıldız is a Senior Researcher on the “Paths of International Law” project at the Global Governance Centre,the Graduate Institute, Geneva.
Anıl Yılmaz Vastardis is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the University of Essex.]
This is the story of six Turkish (im)migrant women in international legal academia, living in six different countries in Europe, who came together in a WhatsApp message group. The motive? To channel the power of solidarity as a source of resilience. In a time when “diversity” and “inclusivity” serve as buzzwords in (academic and non-academic) professional settings in International Law, we felt that structures and practices of exclusion and other-ing persisted. Thus, we reached out to each other in an effort to resist what we intuitively felt was still there, despite what dominant rhetoric would have us believe. Importantly, we are aware that many of our experiences are not exclusive to us, and yet, we can only speak as to our own lived experiences as Early Career Researcher (ECR) (im)migrant women.
Basing our post in the tradition of autoethnography, our intention is to share how our informal solidarity network, initially built on professional ties and intersectional feminist ideals, but eventually grown to encompass common experiences and struggles, became a source of resilience capable of making up for lack of institutional support. Our experience is in line with research, which has shown that informal networks may provide (minority) women with the much-needed support otherwise lacking in institutional settings, including “personal validation, information and material support, as well as intellectual and political resources to understand and resist [their] position within the often hostile spaces.”
How Did We Establish Our Solidarity Network?
Our group came about as professional ties – meeting through conferences and other academic networks – coupled with encounters on social media channels stimulated our desire for a constant communication avenue. At the time (mid-2020), we lived in different countries, but some of us shared research interests. Our group “International Law Sisters” (or “Uluslararası Hukukçu Bacılar” in Turkish) – featuring an evil eye charm emoji in its title – epitomises an interdisciplinary outlook on the legal field; half of us do not have our first degrees in law, but ended up in law anyway.
With some of our research being closely related, we used the group to invite each other as guest speakers or lecturers, to organise joint events, to disseminate information amongst each other and across our networks. We also used this network to ask for and exchange advice on our professional life (more on that below). Over time, the professional nature of this “sharing space” organically grew to include weekly – or even daily – wellbeing check-ins, posts where we shared experiences and struggles knowing they would be met without judgement, as well as jokes that benefitted from our common cultural background.
On Precarious Job Opportunities
Given the state of academia in many countries, we know that academic jobs which offer long-term stability are few and far between. “Insiders” of important/core academic networks can determine not only whose research is made (in)visible, but also how recruitment and hiring processes unfold.
The field of international law is no exception. Networks allow their members to tap into the insiders’ knowledge on how hiring processes work, what the expectations of hiring committees and institutions are, and the tips & tricks a candidate should resort to when applying for a position. These networks are, of course, very hard for outsiders to infiltrate, with (im)migrant women (among others) often missing the social capital that makes these networks accessible. The traditionally ‘domestic’ nature of the legal discipline seems to further foreclose many job opportunities for migrant scholars – even in International Law.
Hiring someone that does not have the perfect command of the local language and does not ‘belong’ to the local legal tradition may require a mental leap often deemed insurmountable. The ‘good fit’ assessments in hiring practices, if conducted with prejudiced attitudes, may equally become exclusionary of those who do not reflect attributes (race, gender, cultural background, etc.) predominant at the relevant institution. Being a(n) (im)migrant woman in search of job opportunities that offer a longer-term perspective and some stability thus often ends up becoming a juggling act: trying to decipher unwritten rules and cultural framings that are not one’s own while maintaining a level of productivity that must nominally match but in reality surpass that of one’s local peers. In addition to these visible and invisible barriers is the reproductive labour that falls disproportionately on minoritized women’s shoulders be it in the form of care work for children, parents, other loved ones, or professional care work in supporting others (often other women, other (im)migrants, as well as students).
Our group was an expression of this “care work”, moulded into a mutual support system that we could tap into to substitute what we lacked in terms of access to power networks. Some of us were also members of other groups that offered similar support. These groups became sites for sharing vacancies and encouraging each other to apply. We shared reflections on successful and unsuccessful application processes, stumbling blocks, and interview questions we came across. Some of us sat through virtual mock interviews and trial lectures and gave feedback on presentations and teaching slides in preparing each other. Where our group mattered the most, however, was in offering a safe space and a support circle, where our struggles were common and we were seen.
On Getting Published
A successful publication record is a necessary, though insufficient, condition for a successful academic career. While this mantra is widely shared with all graduate students and ECRs, what remains hidden is how to get there. The publication process resembles an obstacle race through unknown and treacherous terrains of written and unwritten rules. Careful calibration is needed along the way when styling a manuscript, selecting a journal or a publishing house, and navigating the peer-review process.
The peer-review process and responding to the editors and reviewers, in particular, is a whole other ball game, with rules that are not traditionally part of the graduate school curriculum. The uneven experience influences publication outcomes. For example, according to the annual statistics of the European Journal of International Law for 2020, of 100 accepted journal articles, only sixteen articles were authored by scholars based in Asia, South America, and Africa. Of these 100 articles, 78 were authored by male-identifying scholars, and only 22 were authored by female-identifying scholars. These statistics of course do not reveal the extent of cross-cutting exclusions or what Kimberlé Crenshaw has termed ‘intersectionality’. Yet, they give an indication about the uneven distribution of opportunities and access.
The tricks of this trade are passed down by mentors or mentoring networks inaccessible to outsiders. Without access or even awareness of their existence, (im)migrant women often need to learn the process the hard way, through trial and error. This effectively implies that their career might not pick up as fast as those that are given mentoring opportunities or privileges that (im)migrant women do not have, especially when the latter are also first-generation students. This is something we tried to overcome through sharing past experiences and advice within our solidarity network. Our more seasoned members helped our early career members select publishing houses, correspond with the editors, prepare book proposals and respond to reviewers, including the condescending ones. Beyond strategizing about the publication outlets and the tone of communication with the editors and reviewers, we also shared advice on how to “pitch” our pieces and present our argument in an appealing way.
Our sisterhood was there in the post-publication phase as well. We encouraged each other to self-promote – an important reality and necessity of today’s academia – and promoted each others’ published work within our broader network and on social media. This informal network was there at every step of the publication process and compensated for the gaps left in our formal education and the lack of institutional support some of us felt.
On (Not) Being Cited
Even if one succeeds in publishing in reputable academic outlets, law faculties increasingly expect recognition through citations. Those are important indicators of engagement with a scholar’s research and they can help demonstrate one’s claim to originality of ideas and analysis. It is one crucial (albeit not sole) way in which labour gains recognition in academia. The gender citation gap has already been documented in political science and international relations. Women are underrepresented in citations in these disciplines despite being equally or more productive than their male counterparts. While we have not come across such a detailed study looking at the diversity of citations in international law, anecdotal evidence shows that men are cited more than women.
Based on our own experience, for (im)migrant women and women of colour, the citation bias is an even more serious barrier to academic progression. When established (male) academics make claims that have already been made by (im)migrant women or women of colour without citing them, they exclude these women from academic debates while appropriating their original contributions. We have experienced our work being ignored even when it is published in a top journal. Yet, we may also inadvertently be a part of this damaging practice. Therefore, we have to recognise biases in our citation practices and be vigilant about doing our part to tackle these.
To alleviate the barriers created by the structures of academic publishing, within our group, we acknowledge that citations ARE political and, where relevant, commit to citing each other and other underrepresented authors. Other measures include writing to editors after spotting such citation biases to draw attention to the issue or collectively raising awareness on social media. We received positive responses from editors and discovered that several journals were developing policies to tackle this issue. There is still much to be done on diversifying and decolonising citations but, within our group, we are grateful to have a safe space to vent frustrations and find support to resist citation bias.
On Family Support (or Lack Thereof)
The experiences we share and the advice we seek in our solidarity group go beyond those related to work. They encompass all kinds of issues including advice on relationships, mental and physical wellbeing, and childcare. The latter, for instance, has been a recurring topic in our group that has three mothers to six children (ages ranging between a newborn and a teenager). As stated above, the burden of reproductive labour falls disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Its weight is especially felt for (im)migrant women who are away from their country of origin and cannot rely on the traditional forms of support that close family and social circles can provide, especially when it comes to emergencies.
While we could not provide physical support for each other–living in six different countries–our lasting online support has proved invaluable during the past two years. We regularly exchange knowledge and experience on parenting as mothers in academia. For instance, the more seasoned mothers encourage and share snippets of wisdom, including exercises to ease colicky newborns. While more and more women seem forced to pick between becoming a mother and a career in academia, it is particularly important to help out mothers who (legitimately) choose both and to set an example for women who hope to follow. Without minimising the need for social and institutional support for women who choose to become parents, we recognise that not all women want to become mothers or parents and being child-free is a legitimate choice.
Finally, while half of the women in our solidarity cohort are parents, we are aware that care provision transcends immediate parents, particularly to ‘aunts’ who occupy a very important space in our shared culture but also in many other cultures. In that sense, alongside parents, our cohort has a fantastic group of virtual ‘aunts’ who also provide parenting support.
On Modesty as the Epitome of Cultural Difference
Whilst many of the structural barriers to (im)migrant women’s careers’ are tangible and quantifiable, the cultural ones remain elusive. Where robust institutional support and mentoring is unavailable to provide (im)migrant women with advice on hiring, promotions, development and dissemination of academic outputs, modesty can seriously stifle one’s career progress. Coming from a culture which praises modesty in women can make it difficult to ‘take a seat at the table’ or put oneself forward. How do you carve out a space for yourself in academia when self-promotion goes against the very values you’ve been raised with since childhood? How can we explain this challenge when the English language provides no satisfactory translation of the concept of “ayıp” (similar to, but not the same as “shameful”)? One way to go about providing an adequate explanation of this phenomenon is by going beyond intuition and collective experiences and turning to social psychology.
Cross-cultural studies show that differences among cultures allow for their classification as either more individualistic or collectivistic. In collectivistic cultures like the Turkish one, one common characteristic is being ‘high-context’: implicit and underplayed communication is central, which makes drawing attention to oneself or to one’s work feel inappropriate and therefore highly unlikely. Although these are not deterministic generalisations, they are still a valuable indicator of how cultures can shape individuals.
A group of peers that share the same background and lived experiences (working and living in individualistic cultures as persons raised in a collectivistic culture) can spot each other’s common culturally-coded responses and make each other aware of our reticence about putting ourselves forward. Whether this awareness inspires us to view our cultural difference as a cycle we need to break free from or as a productive quality that helps us interrogate the underlying premises of dominant structures, what is of paramount importance is that it makes us reflective. Indeed, the monocultural approach prevailing in academia that requires all of us to navigate the world with the confidence and values of the dominant class is inimical to the idea of diversity which we oppose.
Though we are a group of (im)migrant women, who face several challenges in our careers, the privilege of our position is not lost on us. We enjoyed access to higher education as well as opportunities and resources to travel, and we have joined academia. Even as (im)migrant women, our privilege is undeniable. We are lucky and, in having our solidarity group, we are also resilient. With our privilege comes a certain responsibility–to fight stereotypes, to resist and speak up against inequitable practices, and to work towards dismantling oppressive structures. And we are trying. If you’re reading this, know that we don’t take our privilege lightly. Quite the contrary, we feel a sense of responsibility to share our experience, so that others might feel inspired to do something similar.
Informal networks are invaluable for solidarity, as most formal ones cannot recreate the candour of these intimate spaces. Even though we came together as colleagues first, our modest network blossomed into a meaningful friendship, whose value goes above and beyond work. In an evermore individualistic academia, these humble communities can be a source of comfort and assistance. Sites of solidarity are sites of resilience. We should encourage more of them into existence, and celebrate the colours they add to the monochrome of academia.