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Celebrating Inspirational Women Series 2022: Professor Abbey Hyde

Friday, 18 November, 2022

News Item Celebrating Prof Abbey Hyde

Please join us in celebrating International Women's Day 2022 with a series titled "Inspirational Women". First in this series is an interview with Professor Abbey Hyde.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I was born in Cork in the 1960s into an Ireland heavily shaped by male privilege – church, state, law, and education exercised heavy control over women. Like other girls and women around me, we largely took for granted and accepted the order of things. New feminist social movements like the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s were demonised in public discourses, as was feminism because this threatened to rattle patriarchal structures and institutions. I really wanted to be in the women’s lib camp even back then, but you’d need to be very brave indeed to admit to that (and I wasn’t brave enough!) because people of all genders had been socialised to accept women’s role as ‘complementary’ and implicitly inferior to that of men - it was a stigma to identify as a feminist. I was privileged in that the secondary school I attended was very forward-thinking as far as education for women was concerned. Girls at my school were encouraged to do STEM subjects and some of my classmates went on to study engineering, accountancy, and medicine along with more traditionally ‘female’ subject areas such as nursing, teaching, and the arts. That said, it was still a very gendered education with certain standards of behaviour expected of girls and women. 

Following my Leaving Certificate, I was offered a place in law at University College Cork (UCC), but shortly after registering for that, I was on the train to Dublin to start general nursing at Richmond Hospital and never looked back. After nurse training, I undertook a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social policy at UCC. This was followed by a master’s degree in sociology, also at UCC. I then worked for three years at the University of Edinburgh as a lecturer in health promotion. In the early 1990s, I returned to Dublin to do my Ph.D. at the then titled Centre for Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). My Ph.D. was a sociological analysis of single women’s experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood and exposed me to feminist theory and gender politics that influenced my later research and indeed everyday life.

What are your goals for this year?

That’s a hard one! I don’t have any major goals for this year, but I do hope that the small things that I do in both my home and working life make a difference, and I hope to learn from my mistakes and hopefully not make too many! I also hope that my actions do not undermine the well-being of others and that I continue to listen to perspectives that are different to my own and remain open to changing my mind about things.

Why do you think it is important to have female role models?

Role models are important to show what women can achieve. In spite of very positive developments in gender equity/equality in recent decades, girls and women are still born into a society where women are less visible than men in positions of authority and are still ‘othered’ in everyday life. The situation is exacerbated for women of colour or with disabilities.  On International Women’s Day, it is important to reflect on the impact of intersectionality – the cross-cutting of different sites of disadvantage such as race, class, and gender, and the need for women role models from a range of communities. 

It is also really important that representation of women in senior roles is given consideration, be it in the media or in work organisations, especially in areas where male privilege has prevailed. This is a subtle way that normalises women as leaders and shapes (probably unconsciously) the aspirations of girls and young women who are finding their place in the world.  I look forward to the day when gender patterns in the running of society are so equitable that we don’t need women role models anymore.

Is there a woman during your career that has inspired you?

I have encountered some amazing, inspirational women over the course of my career, and it is hard to single any individual woman out. There are several women academics currently at the School who are forging ahead with their careers, including early career academics and it is really heartening to see this. It is not only the women who are successful as far as career advancement is concerned who inspire me – those who work tirelessly in the background doing the heavy lifting to support academic work, or to improve life for students, service-users or vulnerable groups, but are (regrettably) not rewarded enough for this who are also inspirational by their professional ethics.  It is this kind of work that needs to be made more visible, recognised, and rewarded.

Early in my career, I was heavily influenced by feminist writers whose work I read, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Patricia Hill Collins and Carol Gilligan (I heard Carol Gilligan speak at TCD thirty years ago which was exhilarating). Feminism has always had diverse perspectives, and while debates about sex and gender have evolved since these classic texts to encompass emerging complexities, these works are still important sources to understanding the historical legacy of why women still lag behind men in terms of status, pay, pensions, and career advancement. 

If you could wind back the clock, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I am not sure that I could give any advice – I think if at aged 16, I had the consciousness about gender inequality that I now have, I would explode with frustration! Telling my younger self to be more confident might have helped, but gender-based put-downs and exclusion would probably still have happened and even been exacerbated. Challenging gender inequalities is an uphill battle without institutional support, but institutions won’t change without a groundswell of challenging discourses and the collective voice of individuals.

Why do you think you were asked to participate in this series?

I suppose it is because I chaired the School-based Athena SWAN self-assessment team, which is the first real attempt at the School to shine a light on the gender inequality that prevailed in the recent past. I really hope that this endeavour yields results and makes a difference and provides equal opportunity for women at the School. As always, I am indebted to my colleagues at the School who have been very generous and who are supportive of change and who work so hard to make the School a good place to work.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom for the next generation of female nurses, midwives and healthcare professionals?

Actually, I’d rather address the current and next generation of men in nursing, midwifery and healthcare and beyond as these have a very important role in gender equality. The supportive men in my personal life, both living and deceased - and I have been very fortunate here  - have had a large part to play in any successes I have had. I have also encountered men in my professional life who understand and are committed to addressing the challenges women face. While male privilege is not shared equally by all men, it is important for men to recognise and acknowledge their privileged position,  and be willing to share power even if this means moderating their own ambitions and, in some cases, a sense of entitlement, rooted in their primary and occupational socialisation. We know from research that women and men tend to have absorbed a different set of ambitions and expectations for themselves. The evidence – and I would encourage everyone to read this evidence and related scholarship - tells us that women in academia tend to be less confident than men, and their doubts about their own professional competence are exacerbated by institutional culture. Men need to be aware of the impact they have when they belittle the perspectives of women, when they subtly or overtly silence women, when they allow men’s voices to disproportionately dominate decision-making or occupational discourses, and when their actions advance the careers of other men to the detriment of the careers of women.  I imagine that many men are unaware of the impact they have in reproducing gender norms, and some of this behaviour may be unintentional and conducted because of unconscious bias. My hope is that those who proclaim to be gender blind in their decision-making become gender-aware and conscious of possible biases, and of the historical and continuous processes that mean that men and women are not starting from the same position when they arrive at work contexts.  

Because men are disproportionately represented in senior positions, they have an important role in shaping an organisation so that women’s careers are not jeopardised by factors that disproportionately affect women. These factors include bearing and breastfeeding children, and work time lost owing to miscarriage, infertility treatment, menopause, hormone therapy, family caring, domestic violence etc. We are only a few generations removed from a situation where women were excluded from public life by a societal belief that they were ruled by their hormones. Now it is timely to acknowledge and validate women’s experiences that impact on their paid employment and make appropriate accommodations. This is a complex area but well worth exploring and men have an important role in making this happen (If I can sneak one reference in here its Lotte Bailyn’s 2003 paper ‘Academic Careers and Gender Equity: Lessons Learned from MIT’ – really worth a read).

And while I’m at it (!), institutions also need to avoid strategies of trying to ‘fix the women’ to fit a masculine culture. Criteria conventionally used to identify ‘leadership material’ need to be reviewed.  I know modesty doesn’t get you far in academia, and women do need to clearly articulate their achievements, but recognising where they are at is perhaps far more honest and should be applauded as insightful. Confidence should not trump achievements, and the obstacles faced disproportionately by women need to be factored in. 

I’m delighted that UCD is committed to gender equality and I look forward to seeing real progress in this space. 


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