Professor Sarah Pedersen: A view of women in academics

If you’ve had the pleasure of being taught by Professor Pedersen you may have been treated to the story of an occasion in which her research was taken out of context and made global headlines.

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RGU’s Professor Sarah Pedersen is about as insistent of her title as Captain Jack Sparrow is. She has good reason to be. Unlike the abundance of captains in Pirates of the Caribbean, female professors are very rare – making up less than a quarter of all UK professors. With International Women’s day last week, RGU is one of the few UK universities that can proudly say half of all our professors are female.


Today, Professor Sarah Pedersen is a Professor of Communication and Media, as well as serving as RGU’s Gender Equality Champion. Speaking about her roles, she explained that being a professor is much more than just teaching -administration and research are also involved. In particular, Professor Pedersen studies the way women use the internet for political purposes.


If you’ve had the pleasure of being taught by her you may have been treated to the story of an occasion in which her research was taken out of context and made global headlines. Professor Pedersen initially spoke to a reporter from the Daily Telegraph about women’s bodies in the media and changing body size over the last century.


A PhD student of hers then later informed her that she had appeared in a Lithuanian newspaper, apparently talking about a model’s body. This then escalated to Playboy reportedly having interviewed Professor Pedersen about the closure of the “breastaurant” Hooters, as she had apparently called it.


Of course, I had not given the interview” Professor Pedersen said, though “My husband was highly delighted that he could mention that his wife was in this month’s Playboy. My teenage son did not find it as funny”.


Speaking about her position as Gender Equality Champion, Professor Pedersen explained how she is co-chair of the Equality and Diversity Action Group (EDAG), and is involved in the Scottish Government’s long term plan to enforce equality at university. In Professor Pedersen’s case that includes looking at the gender imbalance in studying; such as largely female dominated nursing courses and predominately male dominated computing courses. When asked how universities are going to tackle this goal, Professor Pedersen said “It’s not a particular RGU problem, this is a society problem.


So it’s doing things like actually going back to primary schools and talking about why girls can work in engineering and why boys can be nurses. So we need a whole societal mind shift”.


Having digested all that, it may be surprising to know Professor Pedersen originally studied BA Hons History at York University, and then went on to do a Masters in Medieval Studies, with a specialisation in medieval drama. She does not recommend the latter for strong career prospects. After graduating, Professor Sarah Pedersen worked in publishing in Cambridge; first in books, then in magazines, until she became a senior editor at a magazine.


When her husband was offered a job at Aberdeen University, they moved up, with Professor Pedersen admitting she didn’t even really know where Aberdeen was. When they arrived, she discovered there wasn’t much of a publishing industry this far north.


Luckily, RGU at the time taught publishing” Professor Pedersen revealed, “So they had me as a lecturer in publishing. I have been here over 20 years now, working my way up”. Although the publishing degree no longer runs at RGU, she states she is much happier as a media lecturer.


Talking about gaining her Professorship, Professor Sarah Pedersen said “Another woman professor in the department at the time said to me ‘you have to use it. Because if people don’t see that there are women professors there’s an assumption that women can’t be professors’. So I do insist on it.”


When asked why there are so few female professors, and why nobody seems to know this, Professor Sarah Pedersen cited the difficulties on carrying out research and balancing a family life. Particularly if the woman needs to take maternity leave. She discusses how it is especially hard to gain promotions and produce large volumes of quality research, especially in sciences, if the woman has taken time off.


Referencing her own personal life, Professor Pedersen explained that she and her husband would take it in turn looking after the children equal amounts. Returning to the societal shift needed, she suggested there needs to be more support for women, such as childcare, and men taking responsibility and helping, rather than viewing it as a women’s problems.


Professor Pedersen also went on to identify a number of initiatives designed to help female academics. In particular, she said “women can sign up to do a course called Aurora, which RGU sends 10-12 women to every year, which helps them with their first steps in becoming leaders, and that’s really important”.


With the number of female professors at RGU, and all the equality opportunities for staff and students, there’s a certain optimism for the future of female professors, if the societal shift that Professor Pedersen discusses is achieved.


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