• Stride

Stride meets: Dr Helen McCarthy

Updated: May 27

In our first lockdown interview, Sophie spoke with Dr Helen McCarthy.

Helen is a lecturer in modern British history at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of St. John's College, which she joined in 2018, after nine years at Queen Mary University of London.

Helen is a great role model for anyone looking at a career in academia - she is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Higher Education Academy, as well as being Managing Editor of the Journal of 20th Century British History. Helen's second book, Women of the World: The rise of the female diplomat, won Best International Affairs Book at the Political Book Awards 2015. Her third book, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood was released on April 16, and we’re sure it will be another huge success!

We’ve transcribed parts of our podcast for you below - if you’d like to listen as you read, click here.

Helen, thank you so much for joining us - I can't wait to hear about how you achieved all of these amazing things! I imagine a lot of our listeners who maybe are at university, or about to start University, might think that academia is a really attractive prospect for them. Could you talk us through a day in the life of a lecturer?

The daily life of a lecturer is very varied, it depends whether we're talking about during term time or in the university holiday. For term time, what I tend to be doing on a daily basis is giving lectures, maybe running a seminar, I might be meeting with students one-on-one to give them some feedback on their work or to discuss their dissertation projects. I'll probably have a committee meeting to go to, perhaps planning, teaching or thinking about some other administrative issue. I might be prepping lecture notes for the next day. I might be marking some essays, I might be replying to email. There's a great deal of replying to emails in my job!

If it's not term time, then I'm probably getting on with my research, which could involve going to an archive. As a historian, I spend quite a lot of time in archives and libraries. I might be writing books or writing articles - or I might be going to a conference to present my research to other colleagues in the field.

Wow, it sounds like you use so many different skills just going through the cycle of term time and holidays - and it seems like you have a lot of different ways of working that you need to manage. Is there one area of work that you naturally find comes easier, or an area that you've had to work hard to feel comfortable in?

I think most academics plump for the career because they really love their subject, and they really love the intellectual challenge - that's what draws them in.

Because the training to be an academic involves doing a PhD, which is three or four years of intensive research where you're working on one particular problem which really fascinates and excites you, I think that research is something which perhaps is the core of the academic career - but teaching is something which all academics love to do as well. I found it relatively easy to make the transition between doing my research and then trying to translate my research into exciting lectures and seminars, where I could really kind of convey some of the passion and excitement that I feel about history and about thinking about past to my students.

I think in terms of working out how to operate effectively in the administration of the university and in some of the more corporate managerial aspects of the university - because universities are sort of these big complex organizations - perhaps is an area where there's more to learn. And do you have a lot of that more corporate side of things.

You mentioned writing loads of emails, is this where that comes into play?

So, one component of the job if you've got a lectureship in the university is administration: what's quite distinctive about universities is that they're not run by professional managers. They're meant to be run by academics themselves. But, having said that, we do have to learn how to operate efficiently, we have to think about the service that we're providing to undergraduates. I think particularly since the shift to £9,000 tuition fees, there is a much stronger focus on students’ expectations and needing to ensure that we are providing the best education that we can possibly provide.

So, the administration aspect of the job can span a range of activities from the way that you might be responding to students’ needs individually, but also how you might be contributing to outreach activities, equality and diversity and inclusion and the policies that that universities might want to put in place. Even things like climate change - how the universities can be more environmentally friendly in the way they are run: that whole kind of range of issues facing any big organization. It's something that academics also have to engage in very closely. It's very exciting to feel that you're contributing to the advancement of human knowledge

It sounds like there are lots of opportunities for you to have a huge impact on not only your students' lives, but your colleagues' lives as well. What's the most rewarding part of your job?

I think for me, it is the intellectual stimulation that I get not just from doing my research, but also by talking about my research to students and colleagues, and participating more generally in the research culture of the university. What's wonderful about universities, and in a big university like Cambridge, is that there are so many researchers doing groundbreaking work across a range of disciplines: arts, humanities, social sciences, the sciences, and medical research. It's very exciting to feel that you're part of that, and to feel that you're all contributing together to the advancement of human knowledge. That sounds perhaps a little bit pious, but I mean it, it is what makes the university a unique environment in which to work, that sense of collective intellectual endeavor.

It sounds incredible - like you have an amazing community at your back.

I think that universities can be very supportive and inclusive, particularly in collegiate sorts of environments. But of course, like all big organizations and all workplaces, there are tensions as well. There can be misunderstandings, there can be turf wars internally, between departments, between different parts of the university. And I think also, because universities are a complex organization, sometimes different agendas are not necessarily always pulling together harmoniously. And we have to work out how to rub along together harmoniously, like in any other big organization

Absolutely. And I guess one of the things that you hear, as well as the office-politics side of academia, is that there can be a lot of pressure on academics to publish their work and to meet deadlines. How have you found the challenges of academia?

You're right. One is constantly being judged on the quality of your work. And we have this thing called peer review, so if you want to publish your research in a journal or with an Academic Press - which is what you want to do, because you want to get other scholars in your field across the world engaging with and looking at your research, but in order to do that, you have to submit your work to a journal. It will be read by a number of people in your field, and they will come up with a verdict as to whether your research is interesting enough, significant enough, or groundbreaking enough to be published. Sometimes those peer review reports that come back to you can be quite brutal. They can be devastating - but rejection is just part of the job. Of course, it's wonderful when your article is accepted or when you get the offer of a book contract from a prestigious University Press. But, I think you do have to have a certain amount of resilience emotionally, to be able to handle those moments of rejection, where you just feel like saying, “Oh, no-one likes my research. Why am I doing this? What's the point?”

Oh, it sounds really tricky. I don't think that I would be anywhere near resilient enough to handle that. It sounds as well very different to the experience that anyone would have at the start of their academic career, if they do choose to go to university. Was there a tipping point where you realized what pressures of academia we're going to be? Or did you feel like you went into it with your eyes quite open?

I decided to take a few years out after my first undergraduate degree in history - although I really loved it, I wasn't 100% sure that I want to be an academic. So, I worked for a think-tank for a couple of years in London, which was a great experience, and I learned a lot from that. But it crystallized in my own mind that I did want to do a PhD, that I did want to develop my own research project and gain a real depth of understanding and expertise. And I wanted the discipline and rigor of doing a PhD. I think that once I started the PhD, I did become much more aware of the career and I was much more observant, of what was going on in the academic labor markets, much more aware of how the career was structured. So, I think that by the time I finished my PhD, I was fairly well prepared - I was fairly clued up on what I needed to do in order to succeed, but it requires a huge amount of luck. And I was very lucky.

I know when people are doing PhDs, they often have a supervisor or a pair of supervisors. Was there someone who particularly guided or mentored you?

Yes, my PhD supervisor, a very distinguished historian called Pat Thane, was brilliant, and I had various other teachers at my university who supported me. But I think actually what was probably most important for me while I was doing my PhD was to have a really brilliant peer group. I had a lovely network of friends in London who were also doing their PhDs at that time, and we had a little postgraduate seminar and a little postgraduate network. It was very, very important to have that support structure in place and to have a sense that there are other people who are going through all of this at the same time, we can share tips, we can share our fears, we can be happy for each other's successes. And we can be supportive and sympathetic when things don't work out. And actually, I think that's probably the most important thing to have in place when you're doing your PhD.

That sounds really helpful and healthy to have around you at a very stressful time. Is it a support network that you carried forward in your career?

I think that our support networks change over time. I have lots of wonderful colleagues here in Cambridge, I had lovely colleagues at Queen Mary as well. I think once you become a parent, you inevitably sort of reach out to other parents, because it's nice to be able to have a bit of a moan occasionally with people who are going through some of the same things with you again. I think the exact form that your support network takes probably shifts over time, but in academia one does build lifelong friendships, which do mature over time. It's sort of wonderful to be able to lean on people who understand the career and understand the pressures.

It’s great that you can be so reflective about the support you’ve received, and given on the way to reaching the point in your career that you're at now. And obviously, you've had so many achievements - to me, as someone who's outside of academia, I looked at your bio online and went, “Well, wow, Helen has done everything!” What's the biggest achievement to you?

I think what I'm most proud of is not any particular book or any particular prize or success with applying for a grant. I think it's actually being able to keep going in my career during the periods when I was off on maternity leave, and then coming back with very young children.

I had my first daughter in 2010, and my second daughter in 2012, and so there was a sort of five year period, I would say, where life was very intense. I had these young children who were very demanding, and it was also a kind of crunch moment in my career - I was moving out of the early career postdoctoral stage into the mid-career stage, which I think is very important for when you're trying to establish yourself in the field, you're trying to get a bit more visibility for yourself in the field.

I was extremely well supported, I had a fabulous workplace nursery at Queen Mary, my husband is a very hands-on father, and we had grandparents living not too far away. I had quite a lot of flexibility in terms of the hours that I was teaching but, nonetheless, I think looking back, I was able to be quite smart in how I made the most of the opportunities that I had and the time that I did have.

I think you have to be quite strategic about what you say yes to and what you say no to. I got very good at saying no to things and got very smart, saying yes to the things which would really count, the things that would really help me to build my career. So, a good example would be becoming editor of the journal in my field, 20th Century British History. I took that on at the stage when my children were still quite young, but actually, it's a job that, gave me quite a high profile in the field, but one that I could do from my laptop. You know, it didn't actually involve huge amounts of travel, it was something which I could do from my laptop at home late at night, early in the morning. I think, looking back, I'm quite pleased that I did manage to keep that momentum going at what was quite a crucial time.

Whenever I've said no to something, I've always immediately felt a sense of relief afterwards.

You hear a lot about the art of saying no and strategic yeses, and there's so many different articles and books and YouTube videos and everything else about how to do it right. What worked for you when you were trying to develop that skill?

I - like many women, I think - am naturally a people-pleaser. I don't like saying no, I'm generally quite enthusiastic about most things. If someone wants me to do something, I really want to do it if I possibly can. But, I overcommitted myself. I was completely strung out. My childcare wasn't in place. I was burning the candle at both ends, and I really suddenly thought, “Okay, stop. This was a bad idea.”

I think the worst case was when I had agreed to give a paper at a conference in Oxford. I think my husband was away for work, both the grandparents were unavailable, so I had to get myself to Oxford and back to London again, within the course of about four hours, in order to pick up my children from school. And of course, my train was then delayed. It was a good moment where I just sort of stepped back and said, “Right, I'm not going to do this again, I should just prioritize by saying yes to things that I know I can deliver on, and I know will be good for my career, and all of the other things.”

If I was an entirely economically-free agent with no responsibilities to anyone else, I would be able to say yes to everything, but we all have responsibilities and commitments elsewhere. So, I think it's just recognizing that and also just, I think, being kind to myself about turning things down. Whenever I've said no to something I've always immediately felt a sense of relief afterwards.

It seems like if you work in academia, and you're doing a lot of research as well as potentially lecturing and organizing seminars and going to conferences, there's a lot of potential for the time that you're at work and the time that you're at home to become quite blurred. How have you found keeping your work life and your home life separate enough that you can keep a good balance?

I think that the huge challenge it's a challenge for people in all sorts of professions. In academia, it is the case that one can feel under pressure. Even if you can't get yourself to the library you somehow ought to be contemplating and reading and considering your research. I mean, I, for example, hardly ever read novels, because reading novels makes me feel guilty. I feel as though I ought to be reading something which in some way relates to my research or in some way will burnish my intellectual credentials forever. And that's awful. I mean, that's a terrible thing, because there are so many wonderful novels out there that I would be reading. So, I think it is difficult to make that switch. And in a way, because often, academics really love their research and are very excited by it, it can feel like a labor of love. So we have to be very disciplined with ourselves to say, “No, no, we need to step back.” We need to compartmentalize sometimes, and ensure that we have a hinterland beyond academia.

Do you find there are other things that you can do to relax that are the perfect marriage between reading for work and reading for leisure, where you feel you can enjoy without feeling guilty? Or is it very much like, “I should be in work mode, I should be switched on” ?

I probably shouldn't overstate this. I - like everyone - watch a fair amount of Netflix in the evenings!

One of the really positive things to change in academia since I've been in the career is the level of public engagement that academics do. So when I started out, there wasn't a particular expectation that you would be good at talking to the media, or that you would write books for a broader audience, or that you would think about how your research might be relevant to contemporary debates or public policy issues. I think now, there's much, much greater scope and opportunity for academics to do that. And also to do really creative things like collaborating with artists or with musicians or producing pieces of theater. So in terms of that sort of broader public space in kind of cultural consumption, there's so much that we can listen to or read.

I love listening to Women's Hour (BBC Radio 4), and there are always lots of very really, really interesting people, including a lot of academics who work on different aspects of women's lives and discuss questions about gender and about equality. I love listening to Radio 4 because there are some documentaries pretty much every week, based on really, really fascinating research or really expert knowledge. There are endless interesting festivals and book festivals where there are people talking, engagingly and imaginatively, about their research and their knowledge. I think there's a wonderful world out there of culture and for the mind.

Absolutely. And you mentioned collaborating with artists, and when you were working on Double Lives I understand you worked with the photographer Leonora Saunders to put together an exhibition about women's work at home. How did you find that? It sounds like something that I would never expect a historian to do!

It was a completely brilliant experience. So I met Leonora, by chance actually, at a conference about women in the workplace, which we were both speaking at. I really admired her work, because she's a photographer and artist who's really interested in how images help to shape attitudes or can challenge attitudes. A lot of her work is about challenging stereotypes around gender and around diversity more broadly. And she's also very interested in women's history. So we just kind of put our heads together and started thinking about how we might work together.

We came up with this idea of recreating the lives of women who've done waged work in the home over the past century or two. This was very much a subject that I was researching at the time, because women working at home became a very important aspect of my research into working motherhood more broadly, and I was very struck by how many women right through the 19th and 20th centuries, we're working for pay in their own homes doing very, very different things - but to a large extent in order to solve the childcare problem. So we thought, “How can we bring this history to life?”

We thought about reconstructing images by recruiting some women who themselves either work from home now or have some interesting connections with the history of homeworking, and we dressed them up in authentic costume from the era that they were representing. We produced this beautiful set of portraits which span from a mid-19th century needle woman who's in her garret trying to eke out a living by taking in sewing, right through to a pioneer lady doctor who's running her own GP practice from her home, right through to the end of the 20th century with the Mumpreneur. So the final image in the series is of a Mumpreneur, and this is the term given to women who began set up their own businesses in the very end of the 20th century, inspired by their experiences of becoming a mother, and very much in line with their lifestyle aspiration as a working parent.

You can see the series of photographs produced for Helen and Leonora’s project, “These Four Walls” here.

You must be quite an expert on how women's perceptions or how social expectations of female success has changed over time. Is that something that you think you could tell us a little bit about?

I think that it is increasingly acceptable for women to be ambitious and to talk openly about their ambition. This wasn't always the case. I would suggest that right up until the 1960s 1970s, it was pretty difficult for women to articulate that kind of drive. We can see in the history that powerful women, ambitious women have always been a source of anxiety, particularly where they were looking to encroach upon a professional world that had been dominated by men. We can see this in the history of Pioneer women, medics in the late-19th century, women like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or Sophia Jex-Blake, who were very passionate and committed to medicine as a career for women, but who were also aware that they had to tread very carefully, if they were not to provoke a huge amount of hostility on the part of the medical authorities. I mean, they did provoke hostility anyway, and women wanting to go into medicine really faced a great deal of prejudice and discrimination: right into the later-20th century medical schools actually had quotas on how many women they would take - even into the post World War Two period.

So, I think it is quite late in the day that the image of the career woman becomes increasingly normalized, and is not seen as a threat and or it's not seen as ‘unnatural’. But having said that, I think we still find in our contemporary culture, that there are women in high-profile public positions of power, who have always been a source of anxiety in the culture, because they're not behaving in the way that women feel socialized to behave. I was very struck by reading an article in The Financial Times a few months, ago which was based on a study which found that women who earn more than their husbands tend to lie about it. They tend not to reveal to friends or to colleagues that they earn more than their husbands, because there's still this kind of squeamishness or diffidence about women being more powerful than men. And I found that very, very striking that this continuing in the 21st century.

That’s an incredibly sad thing to hear. I don't know about you, but as someone who has been really lucky with the access to education that I've had, the career opportunities I've had, and having a very strong sense of equality with my partner, the idea that there could be any hang-ups around equality within a relationship is just so disappointing. I guess it's easy to lose sight of the fact that even within society today, there's so much variation on these attitudes. It's really shocking.

You mentioned a couple of names before, but when you’ve been doing your research, has there been any one woman from history who's really struck you as being someone who was like a particular role model for the career woman?

Well, I think Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who I mentioned earlier, I found her very fascinating because I knew her name as one of these famous “female firsts” - she was the first British trained woman to have her name appear on the British medical register, and she's very well known for that. But I was very struck to discover that she got married in 1817, and she then had three children - and she was actually relatively old when she had her children, I think she was 37 when she had her first child. She continued practicing medicine.

We have in the archives some letters that she wrote to her husband around the time that they were engaged and were about to get married, in which she expressed her very, very strong desire to continue working. And she felt it very, very important that she presented herself as a role model to other women coming up behind her who want to go into medicine - she recognizes that medicine is still this terrain that women need to conquer. And her husband is very supportive of that, he says that he likes the fact that she is a person of distinction, and he wants to support her. They have quite a privileged lifestyle: they both have private incomes. He's a successful businessman, so they're able to have servants and they had a very nice house and they had a nursery maid and so on. But, nonetheless, I suppose I was quite struck and admiring of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's determination and her perseverance. And how she was willing to do this at a time when, as I say, professional women had to tread very, very carefully, indeed, without imperiling their respectability as middle class women.

It sounds like she had that combination of being incredibly driven and incredibly capable, but also being so lucky to be in the right place at that time where she had those opportunities available to her and her husband was a champion. It's so sad to think that, relatively recently in history, someone who was in that position would still have had to rely on the permission of their husband or perhaps their fathers or another male relative to access those opportunities. I guess that's something that we do still see today and a lot of different situations.

I think if you look at the history of the dual-career marriage, right up to the 1960s and 1970s there is this sense that these are very peculiar, unusual people who are adopting a very unconventional way of living. And, you know, there's quite a lot of press interest. There are sociologists who start studying this strange phenomenon of the dual-career couple in the 1960s and 70s. We see a hypersensitivity to the microdynamics within the marriage, the jealousies, the resentments, the tensions that two partners, husband and wife, both pursuing career success might generate.

And there's this sort of wonderful study of graduate women carried out by Mirra Komarovsky, who's an American sociologist. She really founded the field of women's studies in the US in the 1950s and 60s, and she notes how female US college graduates are very careful not to compete too strongly with their male peers, because if they feel if they compete with their male peers, then their male peers won't want to marry them.

This is almost entirely identical to something which the Cambridge economist Alfred Marshall says to Beatrice Webb, who was a famous female socialist intellectual in the late-19th and early-20th century. He said this to her, “If you compete with us, we won't marry you.” There's a warning- this, in a sense is a horrific possibility that resounds through the decades right into the late-20th century, perhaps even today. That if we compete too hard with men, then they won't marry us.

It's like your social status is being held hostage. Especially at that time - and I guess even today - it's a very cruel thing to say, “If you are going to build up and pursue your intellect and your passion and professional interests, in a way that threatens us, we're going to take the part of you that might desire a relationship, and that wants to have a social life and to fit in, and we are going to restrict it.” It’s so manipulative and cruel, but I suppose, like you said, it speaks to the level of anxiety that these powerful women were provoking by taking the steps that they did.

I think it just reminds us that women make their careers within a broader landscape of gender. You know, we are living in a world in which men and women are socialized differently. We still are. And I think that's just something we have to keep in mind when we think about gender equality in the workplace and how women can get on in careers.

And bringing that thought to the present day, how have you found academia for gender balance in the workplace? It's an area where we kind of have this idea of the old men in tweed, kind of sitting around in nice armchairs and discussing things - although perhaps that’s quite a stale mental image!

I think you’re right, there's still a huge amount of unconscious bias at work in the university. Even if you google “university professor” you get photographs of exactly what you described: middle-aged men, white men in tweed jackets. And I think that women are beginning to push back against that stereotype.

There are a huge number of women - I think something like half of the academic workforce are female- but women only make up about one in five of the professors, which is the sort of top rung of the academic career ladder. And I think that there is a tendency for women to progress slower than men in academia, partly as a result of taking career breaks if they do have children. And I think also the longer term responsibilities and demands of having a family, means you can't necessarily spend your evenings or weekends writing those paradigm-shifting academic papers that are going to make your career.

It's something which of course, fathers still have to deal with as well. But we know that women do more unpaid work in the home than men. Also, just to kind of go back to that point about socialization, that getting ahead requires you to perform a certain level of intellectual self-confidence. It's partly about making people take you seriously, getting people excited about your research, presenting yourself as someone who's doing really groundbreaking work, someone who, when they stand up and open their mouth, they're authoritative. Someone who knows what they're talking about. That's what academia in a sense, and I'm afraid to say I think that men are socialized to do that in a way that women are not. I know that's a sweeping generalization, but when I'm observing candidates for jobs giving presentations, I think women still find it difficult to blow their own trumpet, and to talk up the value and significance of their scholarship and to present themselves in that way. I think that race is also a big issue there. I think if you're a woman of color, it's doubly hard to push back against that unconscious bias of what a successful academic looks like.

I think that the solution is not necessarily to imitate the male behavior. I don't think that's the way forward for women. I think actually, the challenge is to develop your own voice and to use that voice. So, it's not a case of strutting around and trying to mimic that male academic style, but finding a way to be professional, to be authoritative, to take yourself seriously and to project yourself as someone worth listening to. You can do that by developing your own voice and staying true to yourself, I think.

Helen's tips for finding your voice
1. Find opportunities for public speaking 2. Seek feedback from the people you work with or give presentations to 3. Make a list of people you admire and identify what they have in common - and how you can build the qualities you admire in yourself

It's something that I imagine would seem like a really daunting prospect at that very, very early stage in your career. How would you recommend that someone just starting out in academia or any other industry tries to seek opportunities to develop their voice: are there any things that you can think of which would help them to do that?

Firstly, I think getting lots of opportunities to do some kind of public speaking, even if it's just talking about your research for 10 minutes to a group of other postgraduates, that can be a really good place to start. Standing up in front of a room, talking about what makes your research interesting, exciting, significant.

After that, you need to start going to conferences, and giving papers where you're presenting your research to other people in the field. And that can be quite daunting, but it's really important to do, and I think so is getting lots of feedback from people that you trust. So, asking friends, colleagues, your supervisor, to give you open and frank notes on what you did well, and how you can improve. The more that you can do that, then the more you can begin to work on those skills, which will stand you in very good stead as you move forward in your career.

The other thing you can do is identify people, senior people who you really admire, and who, who you think, speak really well and are inspiring. Bring a list of those people together and try to work out what it is that they do that enables them to perform well. And if you can specify that, then think, “How can I emulate those really positive behaviors, how can I be more like x?” That's something that you can do as well.

That sounds like an amazing tip that will translate really well into loads of different aspects of people's lives outside of trying to find your voice - having a really positive set of role models who you have selected intentionally, where you can identify their strengths and try to model your development on them would be really powerful!

Did Helen's advice and experiences resonate with you, or spark any questions? Let us know!

You can contact us in the Ask section, or DM them to us on Twitter or Instagram. We’ll be recording podcast episodes where we respond to your messages, so make sure you subscribe!

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