“Gender” in/and the Study of Religion: Introducing WoNJAR

In this series, the Bulletin asks scholars if and how they critically engage “gender” in the study of religion. Contributors consider how gender intersects with method & theory, pedagogy, professional practices, or matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., and how such intersections are handled within the study of religion. For previous posts in this series, see here.

Introducing WoNJAR

by Helen Lee and Joanna Pedder

WoNJAR stands for Women’s Network for Junior Academics of Religion, and is based in Leeds, England. Three of us – Joanna Pedder, Rebecca (Bex) Anthoney, and Helen Lee – founded WoNJAR two months ago, and each of us has various thoughts about the challenges women academics in Theology and Religious Studies face more generally, as well as personal experiences, that led to our forming this network. Here, we introduce WoNJAR and our goals for the network.

Who is WoNJAR?

Helen: WoNJAR began because two of our group wanted a project to sustain them academically between the MA and PhD. Joanna is currently working on her MA dissertation (due in December) and Bex already completed her programme back in July. Bex had also worked outside of academia for a substantial period of time between undergraduate and taught postgraduate level, so she knows what it is like to miss having an academic focus and being part of an academic community. At the start of 2017 Bex and Joanna applied for PhD programmes, which they found stressful and lonely. This links to numerous anxieties about entering the academic world and how welcoming it might be in practice, especially for us as women.

Particularly the following:

  1. The ‘inside voice’ that tells us our work is not at a high enough level to be considered for a PhD, despite grades saying otherwise.
  2. ‘Imposter Syndrome’- the feeling of not belonging and eventually being found out and rejected. I for one never cease to be amazed when tutors are excited about my ideas.
  3. Specific confidence issues related to class and family background (at MA level I am already more highly qualified than anyone in my family has ever been). There is also the fear of not securing a decently-paid, permanent position at the end of a PhD, the question of having children and when, the issues that could arise within a long-term relationship with another aspiring academic… and the list goes on. Perhaps it is the nature of aspiring academics to overthink, and especially for women, who are socially conditioned to observe with micro precision the risks of social rejection or of taking up too much space in the world.

All of the above factors have been noted by Guest, Sharma and Song in their study of women academics in TRS in the UK context (2013). In particular, Guest et al have discussed how these factors feed into an academic culture where male researchers outnumber female researchers as status increases (ibid.).

Talking about these issues together has encouraged all three of us, and has reinforced the truth that none of us are alone in this journey, which feels crazy at times, and requires massive leaps of faith when working to acquire a PhD or have an academic career. To start our venture we met with Dr. Rachel Muers, who has been very supportive of WoNJAR, and agreed that a network was probably the best approach. We also agreed to base the network in Leeds for practical reasons; all three of us live in Leeds, are Leeds alumni, and we are familiar with the university’s facilities and ways of facilitating conferences and events.

What will WoNJAR do to address the problems facing Junior women scholars of religion?

Joanna: We deliberately call ourselves a network to develop mutual support amongst Junior women scholars. In my own experience, and I think Helen and Bex can also attest to this, upon starting our MA/PGT programmes, we realised how lonely it can be as classes and face-to-face interactions are fewer and far between. WoNJAR stands against this isolating culture through a forum of mutual encouragement to speak about Junior women scholar’s own research and experiences of researching. This, we hope, promotes the representation of women who are interested in academic research on religion, so those considering further research (be they final year undergraduate, Masters, or PhD students) are not alone in their ambitions. While I am acutely aware of the gender imbalance in my own research area of political theology and am accustomed to it, I see WoNJAR as an important opportunity to break out of the predominantly male surroundings of political theology conferences.

WoNJAR plans to host conference days, which will allow for interdisciplinary perspectives on topics within the study of religion, and provide contributors the opportunity to share their own passion with other engaged researchers. This will provide the opportunity to ask constructive questions and build confidence and assertiveness, but in a setting of trust and mutual curiosity in our respective research interests. Another dimension of the conference is orientated towards career development skills and experiences. Our aim is to dedicate part of the conference day to an aspect of the academic experience, with professional input on matters such as submitting a journal article, writing books, and delivering conference speeches.

Online networking will also play an important role in WoNJAR. Being neurodiverse myself (I have dyspraxia-dyslexia in addition to anxiety and low-mood), I understand that not everyone has to contribute in the same way for their contribution to be valuable. The WoNJAR site will be opening for blog submissions (and perhaps other digital formats). The plan is to have a mixture of set topics and open contributions regarding both research interests and academic interests, similar in scope to our conference days.

Finally, to those interested in our project but who aren’t perhaps set on an academic career, do not worry! Completing a degree, be it a BA/MA/MPhil/PhD can be challenging and rewarding experience alone. WoNJAR was established to create a supportive academic environment in the study of religion specifically for both ‘pre-career’ (BA/MA) and ‘Junior academics’ (PhDs) with this in mind. The point is that we are here to take you seriously, precisely because we are not established academics. However, we have also corresponded with early-career academics (post-doctoral) regarding their potential involvement in our project. Post-doctoral academics are certainly welcome to contribute, especially with regard to mentoring. We encourage anyone interested to connect with us on Twitter and Facebook and at our WordPress Blog. Stay tuned for events and opportunities!

Joanna Pedder is studying for a MA in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. She researches religion and political theory, with a particular interest in Catholic mysticism and its intersection with conservatism.

Helen Lee is studying for an MA in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. She researches issues of religious identity and is currently writing about Islamophobia in the UK.

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