Where are the women?

women at work
Women make a valuable contribution in all strands of the profession – we are not pioneers, we are archaeologists.

There have been women in archaeology since the earliest days of the profession. It is not hard to find information on many of them. I’m curious about two things though: firstly, why are they so often referred to as pioneering; and secondly, why do we still need to push the role of women today. Of course, everyone who embraces a love of the past is a matter for celebration but, given the current achievements of education, surely female members of the profession should be, in the best possible sense, unremarkable.

For many years, it was certainly true that senior posts were more likely to be filled by men. I’m not sure whether that is still the case, but, given that, in any profession, there are fewer posts as you move up the career ladder, I’m guessing that this sort of statistic can be swayed easily and could, hopefully, swing as the years progress. Maybe I am just optimistic. It is the lower ranks I am interested in, those who play an important role in decision making, policy preparation, fact finding, recruiting, training and practising. Are women still missing from these posts?

For many years, I have assumed that they are not. I’ve always known many, many, women archaeologists. As a student I was one of a dozen women in a class of thirteen. It never occurred to me that going on to work as an archaeologist might be difficult. To be honest, I never really thought about it. I just wanted to be an archaeologist and so I ploughed ahead. I don’t think I felt my choices were limited as a woman, despite a background that suggested otherwise. Maybe that made me a bit ‘pig-headed’. I’m hoping that students today don’t feel their choices are limited either, however they identify. I’d like to encourage everyone; there are plenty of slots, academically, experientially, lifestyle-wise, in which to slot yourself and have a go whatever your life circumstances. You do not have to start out at 18, over the years I have been collaborating with people who set out on an archaeological career at varied stages of life and from many different backgrounds. I’m sure there are statistics that will prove me wrong with all of this, but remember that statistics can be read in many different ways, they are subject to change, and the most important thing is not to be put off following your dream.

Back to the pioneers.

Yes, of course, for many women the nineteenth century was a time of reduced opportunity. This was not always tied up with family, though, think of all the women who worked to put food on the table. They were not exactly stuck at home, though their lives were not subject to the opportunities we like to take for granted. We tend to forget them when talking about those who pioneered professions and careers. It is true that there were many remarkable woman archaeologists who helped to pioneer the emerging discipline in its earliest years, but why do we feel the need to talk that way about the women archaeologists of the twentieth century?

I feel as if the use of the word somehow sets them apart. It is just a matter of semantics, but to me it suggests that these women were not mainstream practitioners. They were certainly outnumbered by men, and the worlds of publishing and teaching worked to foreground the contributions of their male counterparts. But, they were there, and today there are even more of them. I’m thinking that the time has come to move on – only when we acknowledge the contributions of the varied ranks of female archaeologists as unexceptional in terms of gender will others be encouraged to join a profession that is truly welcoming to all.

I’m depressed that some popular representations of archaeology perpetuate the myth of women as ‘the odd one out’. In the Netflix film The Dig two female photographers were removed to make way for a fictional love interest in the form of a male photographer. And the one professional (experienced) female on site is represented as a clumsy novice. I’m sure it is more dramatic, but it hardly does justice to the role that women have played in archaeology down the years. In Queen of the Desert, I felt that the camera was more interested in Gertrude Bell’s character, figure, and love life than in her archaeology or her politics. I’m looking forward to a production in which the women are taken for granted, skilled members of a professional team. There are plenty of examples, some are even quite exciting! I’ve worked on digs with women as well as men for all my life, on an early excavation we all had to learn to use firearms (not that I’d remember now). Archaeology has its own excitement and it is not hard to get it over to the viewer.

I see archaeology today as a profession in which the work of women is valued, rather than a world where women are something to be celebrated. We have other issues to tackle now. With this in mind, nevertheless, I do find it strange to see publications and teams that lack diversity of any sort. We don’t need positive discrimination, or even any great effort. There is a rich seam of talent to be mined out there, and, furthermore, different participants enrich the networking and socialising that go hand-in-hand with any project. To work with a team that comprises men alone is weird. To see out-of-date stereotypes promoted in literature, toys, or film, is disappointing.

There is sadly still a need to enhance the diversity of archaeology. At the start of a new decade, I’m hoping that change and inclusivity are in the air. It is not just a matter of considering the higher echelons of the archaeological pyramid – we need to start right at the base, the place where archaeology is relevant to everyone. I will be happy when we no longer need to remark on the presence, or absence, of particular elements of society in the archaeological melting pot.