Early career women in research environments: the agony of social capital

by Ivana Hadjievska

Down the rabbit hole 

In the cold and rational world of Science the only thing that matters is result. Quality results from a professionally conducted research that aims to stretch out the state of the art in the field and bring in “the discovery” to the world, do not pre-question the human condition of the most important medium between them and the scientific work, the researcher itself. So, one could say that a good scientist, scholar or researcher is the one that brings in quality results to the filed. I started thinking deeper on this topic last month, on the 11th of February, the International day of women and girls in science: while I was resting my eyes from my own research work and I indulged into the social media frenzy of posts on the same occasion, the only thing that fascinated me more than the life and work of all the women from all parts of the world through history, was the extent of inequality in their human condition, no matter the quality of the results they brought to the world with their curiosity and risk taking while working. Now back to the indisputable equity proposed by the products of science, we can extent the reasoning from the beginning and say that in the world of scientific research the only thing that matters is the result and it does not matter from where you – as a researcher – come, what’s your sex or race. The results are the final crystallization and creation of the industrious, bearable, sometimes stoical, but always hard work done in various “places of knowledge” as laboratories, libraries, archives, universities, institutes, which are in most of the cases state institutions of knowledge. I write this as someone that spent an awful lot of time in all of the mentioned institutions in the past six years in Macedonia,[1]as a student of history and as an eager researcher in the final months of the writing of my master’s thesis, but above all I write this as a young woman from a “county in development”, a liberal euphemism for the transition from Yugoslavian socialism to the capitalist margins of nation-state Europeanization, where history is presupposed as “the sacred affair of the nation” and as someone that has experienced specific challenges while working on my scientific results because of the stated. With my last statement I have disrupted the golden rule: I have brought the work on my scientific results in collision with the fact of my sex, my humble (economic) origins and the power of the state to control knowledge and memory politics. What I am asking from you with the reading of this text is to also disrupt the ideal construction of science and accept the existence of different privileges for different groups participating in scientific curiosity and also to accept the institutions of knowledge and memory not as idealized places of pure knowledge, but as places where power relations are more dominant than the “quality of the scientific results”, and I will show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.           

Part one: The enclosure of knowledge 

In the book “Caliban and the witch”, Silvia Federici writes about multiple enclosures that took place in Europe during the primitive accumulation in the “transition” from feudalism to capitalism: together with the enclosure of land, body (especially women’s bodies in terms of reproduction control), we can also think of an enclosure of knowledge.   Women passed on an immense amount of knowledge and collective memory,radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production and labor reproduction, and the witch hunts and public punishments were part of the process of the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations,of the historical sense of commonpast.[2]

Today, we can talk about enclosure of knowledge and epistemic injustice[3]in every case where a group is socially and economically striped from participating in the politics of memory in societies where memory and history are institutionalized and the transfer of this knowledge is organized trough top-down approaches and exercised only by those with institutional and administrative power. An explicit example is the history of the Roma victims in the Holocaust in particular, and Roma history in general: national histories of countries that faced Holocaust and have inhabitants that were victims, almost never sympathize with the hurt, pain and humiliation faced by Roma victims during the Holocaust. Those historiesare never part of the official narrative – The History, but parts of very marginal, local and ghettoized collective narratives, almost never shared in the “official classroom”.[4]         

The mechanisms of knowledge enclosure can be detected in the official narrative, especially working on its cleansing from topics that can “hurt” the national image of the praised male singularity in the nation-building process.[5]Interesting example for that represents the experience in national archives in Balkan countries from the cultural theorist Suzana Milevska. In her overview of the locations and research processes on the topic of gender difference in the Balkans she states:

“Most of the national archives in the Balkans that I approached allowed me to entertheir well-kept premises. However, I could only proceed with my research project if I wasdealing with the issue of the representation of women. Only the most valued contents of theBalkan archives (the ‘big historic truths’ about the origins of nation and national identity,nation-state, territory, national heroes, or ethnic minorities), were considered out of bounds.Regardless of the relevance of the issue of representation of gender difference from alinguistic, anthropological, cultural, psychoanalytical, or feministic academic perspective,the archive authorities in the Balkans treated this issue as if it was of little importance andof no scientific value, even naive in nature. They behaved as if it mattered little how thisissue was explored and developed by the human and social sciences of the West.The archive authorities in charge of verifying external researchers would rigorouslylook at my application and usually, after presenting a letter of intent and an official letterconfirming my identity and the aims of my research, I would still have to wait several daysfor approval. However,no threat to archival policy was ever detected, neither within theinitial application, nor in the contents of the archival materials researched. The decisions toapprove my research might have also been based on my national, cultural, and professionalbackground, discarding the conceptual framework of my research as irrelevant.One can of course argue that this is a common bureaucratic procedure practised byall archives. However, it is important to stress that bureaucratic rigidity in historic, nationallibrary and museum archives in the Balkans is accompanied by a strong political influence.This is often accompanied by strict control over the management and leadership ofarchives. Archive directors are usually appointed members of ruling political parties. Theyare often appointed regardless of their professional competence. Each time another partywins an election, the directors are usually immediately changed.Although the directors aregiven responsibility and power to lead these institutions ostensibly in the name of some”inherent” idea of the “national interest”, in actual fact these appointments are simply anextension of governmental politics.”[6]

Rada Ivekovicexplains how the mechanism of exclusivity towards diversity works in the field of institutionalized history in her essay “What’s the genderofthe nation?”, portraying how does the exclusivitytowards women in the discourses ofnation-buildingfrom the history books is transcended in to the subtlemanners ofthe exclusivity ofmen to teach and interpret the “important affairs” ofhistory.[7]As a researcher of social history and history of women I have personally faced the same mechanism: in the low accessibility of source documents on those topic, followed by archival dis-organization and administrative chaos,[8]resulting in low interest of the institutions to work on source collections about topics beyond national history; in the proclaimed minimizing of the importance of those topics from the official academic environment; but most of all I have faced the mechanism in the ways power hierarchies are formed and how researchers are placed in those hierarchies based on their social connections and their willingness to “play the game” i.e. to participate in the ‘enclosure of knowledge’. 

Part two: Balkanization of academia and research work

I come from a small place. I have perused my ‘scientific curiosity’ with every atom in my body. I have spent four years in the state university in the capital city of the country and those were four years of immense reading, studying and getting the first experiences of how does scholarly and research work looks like and how can we use it for good. I want to stress that I don’t have any family tradition of historians, or any “grandfathers in the structures of the field”, because many of the academics working in the institutions have that kind of social capital, and of course that we can judge their work only tough scientific standards, but “we couldn’t help but wonder” about the privilege of their social connections in the access to institutions, research sources, funds, working opportunities and so forth, Svetlana Slapsak uses the term “the provincial apotheosis of academia” to describe the condition.[9]A great analysis of the challenges that students are facing in the power relations in Macedonian universities after a scandal with abusing power states: “To fall into someone disgrace or to too much of inclination, for students is truly a matter of luck”.[10]In many examples coming from countries where the economic investments in education and in all institutions of knowledge are really low despite the organization of the “state interest” in them, bad experiences while studying or working in them are a symptom of bad economy, bad employment policies, of the extension of governmental and ruling party’s politics to employ their “reliable staff” and also reliable voters in the safety and the privileges of state institutions (and state salary).[11]The institutions of knowledge and research exposed on those politics and policies are turned in grotesque and Kafkaesque places where everyone that got the job by party membership, nepotism or other privileges that downright exceed the professional merit of the candidate, aspires to be ‘a cadre’ and forgets his or hers professional inadequacy for the job. In condition like that, research takes the backseat and unprofessional behavior takes the front.[12]The first to be hit by this system are young independent early career researchers[13]in general despite their sex and early career women researchers in particular, especially if both of the groups come from economically vulnerable backgrounds and live outside central areas where those institutions are based. On the other side, early career researchers practice and participate in independent research and create scholarly content, by publishing, presenting research results abroad or at national institutions at home, without being paid (especially in publishing). They participate in the fulfillment of the ‘national knowledge pool’ with quality research without being reworded or being employed[14]and most of the time they are suffering from ‘burnout’ form the endless chasing of the next opportunity or project work while unemployed. In my experience while researching for my master studies, bad experiences first and foremost arrived from low working ethics, unprofessionalism and administrative and digital illiteracy of the staff – women and men – rather than gender discrimination behavior, although we must be aware that gender discrimination is bound to occur as symptom in system like that. I had to organize my travel and commutation expenses from city to city and I have been denied of researching in some institution even after I have been correctly registered in as a user, I have been drowned to small talk and then ‘mansplained’ to “reconsider my topic and approaches” in quite patronizing manner and with great confidence, from institutional staff professionally and educationally far outside my field of work, I have been called “child” or “girl” instead of my name and surname by staff, my personal information have been misused and similar situations. In every institution I have visited there were also staff of truly committed professionals, but they are the exception that proves the rule. To work on my research, to create scholarly content, to bring results and teach about them, I have to pass long, long way. I can’t imagine situations like this happening to “respected older colleague” in the field, or to a colleague researcher with “better connections” and no one will ever question their quality, seriousness or social interactions. But if you are woman, new and independent researcher without institutional funds or any background, it doesn’t matter how good and professional you are, because everybody has the right on opinion and expertise on your work, the topics you’re interested, even how you look and how you (should) behave. Interesting phenomenon brought by the provincial appeal of the petty academia is the leveling and equalizing of the research topics or a relevant field issue with the one active on it, if you are a researcher of women’s history, you’re not expected or even not welcomed to have opinion on “more important maters”, you will not only hit the glass ceiling, but also be ridiculed about it. This pattern of behavior met in academic and research environment can be explained with the term “gendering of professionalism”: 

“The old boys club appeared to be alive and well; it was a befriend-and-defend network that I felt I could never enter. But, as Foucault said, “power is everywhere”and “comes from everywhere”; it inheres not in institutions themselves, but in the interactions that constitute institutional life. Hierarchies — of gender, race, and class — are established and reinforced through hirings and firings, handshakes and outfits. Receiving a lower salary isn’t the same thing as feeling uncomfortable in a pantsuit, but both experiences stem from a power structure that keeps men on top. The historian Joan Wallach Scott once warned that scholars couldn’t insert gender into their research as though adding a new room on a house already built; they’d have to begin again from the bottom. If the university is to commit itself to gender equality, if it really wants to redistribute power, then everything must change, from the broadest policies to the smallest habits. Traditions will have to be broken; the past will no longer be perfectly reproduced. Working from a new blueprint can mean challenge and error, but it can produce unexpected success. I have no idea what the new university will look like, but I’m eager to see it take shape.”[15]   

The agony of the social capital show’s itself most in a system where economic neglect of education and research and impunity erode working ethics. For researchers that don’t want to play the (dangerous) quid pro quogame of gaining and giving social capital the doors of data, information and other vital parts for research will stay closed most of the times, so will the doors for research advancement and job opportunities for the best candidates.  

From ostracism to programing affirmative actions 

I also found inspiration for writing this text in the following events: 

In February a scholarly event took place in the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts (Srpska Akademija Nauka i Umentnosti (SANU)), a conference about the role of women scientists and scholars in society and in national history, (“Naučnice u društvu”, 11 – 14 February 2020, Belgrade; organizing board: Institute of Ethnography). Svetlana Slapšaksummarized the outcome:   

“Four generations of women have been brought together; they have met, recognized each other, researched together and evaluated their work. Collective memory was renewed and gowned in fast rhythm, disciplines have been connected. Unknown heroines have emerged and became common good; the shameful list of offenders, patriarchs, sexists, manipulators, careerists and traitors has been filled up. Should that mean something to SANU [Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, I.H.]? Of course: it means that the criteria are evicted and it will never go back to the self-protected confidence of only one cast. (…) we should think about the needed solutions posed by the conference. First, spreading and taking up space. Evicting the criteria and by one simple parallelism asking for Women’s Academy of Science and Arts (WASA), without any national designation (eventually regional or wider) and without compulsory designation of the cast (everyone is welcomed if excellent). The name must have a historical meaning, that’s why “W” for WASA.”[16]    

The conference put light on the challenges of equal participation of women in science and research work and in the perceptions and evaluation of their contribution to society, cooperation. Networking, regional cooperation and women mentors ware mentioned as important factors. 

            Another event that motivated me and encouraged my creative anger to write, was the first time ever organized march of female students in Macedonia under the banner “Female students are not to blame” (“Studentkite ne se vinovni”, 8thof March 2020, Skopje, organized by theUniversity Student Assembly). Students aimed at putting light on normalizing and successful concealment of misogyny and sexism in Universities and marginalizing women in the educational system, consent and power abuse. This event has showed that it is possible to turn the sense of injustice and helplessness into public voice and collective discontent that urges us to act. 

Economic and gender discrimination brings the feeling of being ostracized and dissident, of always fighting and spending your energy on two fronts: fighting privilege and doing your actual work. Research has shown the importance of women mentoring women and creating free help networks. Searching for a platform or a model for connecting early career and independent researchers without institutional background with independent unions of science and education could also be part of the solution.       


[1]All the experiences, examples and statistics used in the text are related to the specific economic and political condition of the institution of knowledge in Macedonia, in the period 2014 – 2020, and most of them are personal and gained through research work in the institutions. Some regional examples of experiences from the Balkans and affirmative measure are also mentioned as guides to better comprehension of the region and the history of today’s challenges faced by women scholars.      

[2]See more about the emergence of the term, the evolution and use of enclosure mechanisms in Europe, Silvia Federici, Caliban and the witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 68–69. 

[3]Scholar Miranda Fricker coined the term epistemic injustice, the concept of an injustice done against someone “specifically in their capacity as a knower” by those in power to do so. She identifies two forms of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice wherein a speaker receives an unfair deficit of credibility from a hearer owing to prejudice on the hearer’s part; and wherein someone has a significant area of their social experience obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation. See more: Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, (Oxford University Press, 2007). 

[4]See more on the politics of memory towards the Holocaust of Roma: Ivana Hadjievska, “(Im)Political bodies. Bodies (un)hurt. Romani genocide in the politics of memory and institutionalized memory”, in Зборник на стручни трудови,прва конференција за сеќавање, одговорност и препознатливост на Ромите жртви на холокаустот жртвите на холокаустот во Република Северна Македонија(Битола: Национална установаУниверзитетска библиотека “Св. Климент Охридски”, 2019) [Available online: https://bit.ly/2xCZVNh, 13.03.2020] 

[5]“TheBalkanist singularly male discourse”, a term used by historian Maria Todorova, see:Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, (Oxford University Press, 1997), 15.  

[6]Suzana Milevska, Gender difference in the Balkans, A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Goldsmiths’ College – University of London Visual Cultures Department October 2005, 6–7. 

[7]Ivana Hadjievska, “Black Swans in the Structures of the Workplace: Women in Academe Beyond Pathos”, Treća, 21, 1 (2019): 141–148, 143, passim РадаИвековиќ, „Полот на нацијата“, Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, 1, 1 (2001): 146–164, 17 [Available online:https://identitiesjournal.edu.mk/index.php/IJPGC/article/view/20/12,21.09.2019].

[8]I mustattach hire one of the grates contemporary challenges for all researchers from Macedonia – the decision of the government from 2012 – to move the State Archive from its standardized building with needed parameters to a new, small and unsuitable building. Journalist and staff reported the bad conditions of displacement and storing of the archival material that was dangerous and initiated decay in some of the archival material. In the new conditions of using the archives, the accessibility has been made difficult, especially for researchers that don’t live in Skopje. See more: „Петиција против пренамена на старата зграда на Државниот архив“(04.11.2014), Вести, Младински образовен форум. Radiomof.mk [Available online:https://www.radiomof.mk/peticija-protiv-prenamena-na-starata-zgrada-na-drzhavniot-arhiv/, 13.03.2020] 

[9]“Više nema granicaobjavljivanja, ostale su još samo granice zapošljavanja, napredovanja, titula, novca iprovincijalne akademičarske apoteoze.” Svetlana Slapšak, Žene u Akademiji. Tekstovi (24.02.2020), onPeščanik, Pescanik.net. [Available online: https://pescanik.net/author/svetlana-slapsak/, 13.03.2020].

[10]Фросина Крушкаровска, „Студентките не се виновни“. Активизам(10.03.2020),on Окно.мк,Okno.mk. [Available online: https://okno.mk/node/83419?fbclid=IwAR2jG8q9a89xPrFKy2xcTvJ5PYXKnhpUi8ch4jgYm_q6EqKJ-RMHwOSOlKo, 13.03.2020].

[11]See statistics and published analysis on the shalanges and the perspectives for academic and professional advance of women and girls in Macedonia: Елена Б. Ставревска, Кон родовата еднаквост: пречки и перспективи во академскиот и рпфесионалниот напредок на жените и девојките“, (Скопје: Институт за истражување Импакт, 2019)[Available online:https://stella.mk/documents-and-publications/14.03.2020];  

[12]See more: Silvia Federici, “Education and the Enclosure ofKnowledge in the Global University”, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 8, 3(2009), 454–461.

[13]I define Early Career Researchers (ECR) as students and scholars who are at the undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate level (depending on national context) up to 5 years post-PhD.

[14]According to state statistics in Macedonia women with high education earn approximately 22% less than man with high education; although women are more educated than men, and more women hold MA and PhD titles, men are the majority of the employers (78%). See: Reactor – Research in Action. „Дали е Среќен 8 Март?“. Publications. Reactor.org.mk [Available online: https://www.reactor.org.mk/Publications.aspx?id=4&&catID=114.03.2020] passimСтруктура на заработувачката на вработените, 2018 година. [Available online  https://bit.ly/2TiH7u014.03.2020] Државен завод за статистика, 2018. Анкета за работната сила. [Available online https://bit.ly/2vo5RJ714.03.2020].

[15]Magi Doherty, ‘Professionalism’ is gendered — and women lose.The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy. The Chronicle of Higher Education [Available online: https://www.chronicle.com/?cid=UCHETOPNAV, 21.09.2019]  

[16]Svetlana Slapšak, same.

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