Dr Meredith Jones: an Australian academic in London
Dr Meredith Jones is a Reader in Sociology at Brunel University London, where she runs the Research Centre for Global Lives. She has written books about the social and cultural aspects of cosmetic surgery, hair, and blood, and speaks internationally about feminism, popular culture, and bodies. I caught up with Meredith to talk about her work, London and women in academia.
Meredith moved from Sydney to London just over three years ago. I asked her how academic life in the UK varied from her Australian experience.
"The short answer is that it's harder. Teaching and researching at a UK university is challenging in all sorts of ways. The students here pay far more than their Australian counterparts: this means that most of them work part-time and many, especially in their final year of study, actually work full time.
Levels of stress, depression and anxiety seem higher for students here than in Sydney: I deal with students facing these issues every term. My aim is always to support students, especially women students, to leave university with high-quality degrees.
In terms of research though, there is lots more access to grant money in the UK and the EU - that's fabulous. There is funding at much greater levels than I could dream of in Australia. I have made partnerships with researchers in other universities in the UK, I travel all over Europe to give papers and meet other scholars, and I find that my academic imagination is more fired up here than it was in Australia.”
I asked Meredith what advice she had for other women interested in exploring academic life outside Australia.
"The UK is probably the easiest country for Australian women academics to move to. The language is the same, many of the systems are similar, and I think that teaching standards are about the same.
For women moving here my advice is to do lots of homework!
Find out about the personal tutor system and the external examiner system, as we don't have them in Australia. Get to know the REF and what's going to be expected of you. But most importantly, embrace the many many extra curricular academic events that the UK and especially London has to offer.
So for example I attend British Library events, I go to Wellcome and V&A exhibitions and talks, and I often attend conferences and symposia at universities other than my own. In any week in London you can listen to a feminist philosopher one night, attend the opening of an exhibition the next, go to a concert the next, and participate in some performance art, all for free - and you'll still feel like you've missed out on stuff.
The UK has a reputation for being far more entrenched in school tie or class-based networks than Australia. Recent publications of the pay gap by many universities also paint a challenging environment for academic women. I asked Meredith how women can maximise their chances of success in UK universities.
"Hah! That’s the golden ticket question.
Be tough about what you want to teach and how you want to teach it. I’ve found that some of my male colleagues are good listeners and do understand when change is necessary, especially in relation to BME teaching and teaching about gender and sexuality.
Put on interesting, exciting events if you're in a position to do so, and be collegial as well as doing your own research and writing.
Work in a research team whenever you have the opportunity. Learn to say no! Don’t be the yes-woman who takes on that troublesome PhD and the awful admin jobs (although of course you have to do your fair share!)
Be a good feminist: ask not what feminism can give to you, but what you can give to feminism, and then get on and be active about doing it.
Give yourself time to adjust: the weather, the accents, the students, the administration. It’s taken me three years to feel that I'm not literally upside down."
Ultimately, universities suffer a huge intellectual loss when they fail to equally reward and promote women. We all lose. I asked Meredith how universities can stem this haemorrhage.
"Affirmative action. It’s the only way to actively recognise, acknowledge and address the problem. In real terms that would mean giving most women at universities immediate pay rises and promotions, as well as actively employing more women."
Ever curious about how women build their vocations, I asked Meredith if her own career path was born of design or accident.
"Design. My mother was able to attend university as a mature age student because of changes to fees during Gough Whitlam's prime ministership. I fell in love with universities because of experiencing them through her eyes during that time. So from a really young age I knew that universities were 'my place' but I did lose my way a bit...
At 30 I’d had a terrible divorce, I was left with an ordinary degree (ie not Honours) and I got a lowly job at Sydney University scholarships office. I had a little girl to raise and life was pretty hard. I met all these students coming to ask questions about their PhD scholarships and I’d help them out with the admin.
I realised that I wanted a damn scholarship myself! I wanted to do a PhD! So I did an honours add-on year with Elspeth Probyn, in Gender Studies at the University of Sydney, and then I went on to get my own scholarship and I did my PhD with Zoe Sofoulis. Both of those women are still much-loved academic mentors."
Now enjoying an international career, I asked Meredith to outline her academic highlights.
"I worked with an incredible team of researchers led by Ruth Holliday on a project about cosmetic surgery tourism. We met so many powerful and determined people (men and women) who had made this quite frightening decision to undergo cosmetic surgery abroad, in order to improve their lives. We've just finished writing a book about our findings - it's called Beautyscapes and should be out with Manchester University Press later this year.
Another highlight was my decision to host a Kimposium! when I first came to the UK. It was a symposium about all things Kardashian. I had to argue quite hard about the academic, social, and cultural significance of the Kardashians and sadly I learned too much about Twitter trolls who seem to hate academics and Kardashians in equal parts. I'm writing a book about the Kardashians at the moment."
Many Australian women are keen to explore opportunities in the UK. It's always fascinating to ponder how we can use our "Australianness" to our advantage here. I wondered if Meredith felt there was anything about her life in Australia which had prepared her for life in London?
"Australian women are tough. We can stand up to men and to bosses really well and we're generally quite good at making ourselves heard. I think that Australian women - probably because of the outdoorsy and sporty culture - are often raised with less 'girly' stereotypes."
The cultural opportunities within London draw women from all walks of life. I asked Meredith to share her favourite parts of, or experiences within, London?
"I love working at the British Library. The reading rooms are so beautiful and so far the collection has included everything I've ever needed. I also work in the reading rooms at the Wellcome Trust, which are quirky and gorgeous.
My favourite music venue is Festival Hall: my partner and I like to go to the organ concerts there; we get the 20 quid tickets in the choir so we're basically IN the organ. It's so loud that it's hilarious and scary - we can't stop smiling at each other when we're there.
The Mary's Living and Giving charity shops are probably my favourites for finding cheap fashion treasures, but there are good charity shops all over the place. And I like Spitalfields Market, especially Diane Goldie's stall.
I'm a vegan and it's so exciting to be in London right now because veganism is really becoming mainstream. I can't keep up with all the wonderful new places opening. I love Fed By Water, Mildreds, and the vegan thali served at Saras.
Once a year I take my godson to Sketch for a super-indulgent vegan aftenoon tea and immersion in totally over the top interior design.
My favourite meander takes me through the streets of London from the British Library through Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, Soho, Chinatown, Covent Garden, across the Thames, along Southbank and into Borough Market, stopping along the way at bookshops, the Tate Modern, and charity shops. Doing that on a cold sunny day is my idea of Heaven."
You can’t follow Meredith on her social links :-( because she recently abandoned social media in a huff but you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read her work at https://brunel.academia.edu/MeredithJones