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Actually, when was the last time you had a male colleague write a memo of a meeting?

2024-03-07 20:00:00

Recently, Gabriella Kiss, Associate Professor in the Department of Decision Sciences, published a personally motivated paper in an international book on different academic career paths. To mark the book chapter and Women's Day, we talked about the challenges that a woman who is raising her children alone may face in her scientific career.

Budapesti Corvinus Egyetem

The editors of the recently published Doing Academic Careers Differently: Portraits of Academic Life, an international collection of essays, set out to map the characteristics of academic careers in different countries. This time, however, they were not looking for classical, objective academic texts from the authors, but for personal experiences of researchers, individual portraits. An important aim of the book is to give voice, space and hope to a vision of a more diverse and inclusive academic system, and to explore alternative ways of academic careers, such as being a black researcher, a female academic, an artist entering academia or a middle-aged lecturer joining academia from business. A number of papers explore the metaphors for thriving in academia, i. e. mirrors, ducks or permaculture. A contribution by Gabriella Kiss, Associate Professor in the Department of Decision Theory at Corvinus, has also been included in the book. The Corvinus lecturer-researcher chose an interesting aspect of her academic career as the subject of her essay: the challenges she faced in her academic career as a female researcher raising her children alone, and the choices she had to make in balancing work and private life. Although it is a personally motivated piece of writing, it highlights the particularities of the academic world in Eastern Europe and the factors that shape women’s academic careers. 

In science, writings with a more personal tone are considered unconventional. What are the antecedents of the book’s creation?  

We’re talking about the book titled “Doing Academic Careers Differently”, the idea of which emerged during the pandemic period. The primarily management-focused British editors were interested in two main aspects: firstly, they wanted to explore how well-defined academic career paths are and what factors shape these trajectories, and secondly, they were curious about the personal experiences associated with this. On the other hand, they also wanted to push the boundaries of scientific writing: an important part of their call for papers was not to produce objective scientific texts, but more personal texts. Henriett Primecz forwarded the editors’ call for papers to me, believing that given my professional background, I might have something to contribute to this book. Initially, how openly I should write about my personal life was a dilemma for me. However, as I reflected on my career path, it became clear to me that as a single mother, my work and personal life were deeply intertwined for a long time, closely impacting each other. I finally decided that this would be one aspect of my story. In addition, my chapter also addresses the situation of academia in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the so-called trade-offs that arise during the career path. I thought these aspects of a university career might be of interest to others.  

The central theme of your writing is the analogy of sack races. You write that you have often experienced professional challenges as if you had been dragged to the starting line of a running race with legs inside a sack. Looking back, what were the factors that led to this feeling?  

This sack was woven from many factors. Some of them arose from the societal peculiarities of post-socialist countries, while others stemmed from the laws of the academic world. My children were very young when I got divorced, and I soon had to face the fact that everything in this country is designed for the traditional family, and the world doesn’t really take into account that there are single parents. After a divorce, it is typically women who raise the children in Hungarian society, they become the primary breadwinners, while they typically take home lower salaries than their male colleagues, which is not very high as university lecturers anyway, especially as a beginner. I only mentioned a few external factors, to which were added the peculiarities of the academic world. For example, this profession relies on continuous presence and keeping up with the latest academic literature, putting female researchers at a significant disadvantage due to the time lost during maternity leave. The paternalistic family support perspective also plays a role in this. In the Hungarian academic sector, women are marginalised to such an extent as their careers progress that even the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) has noticed this trend and conducted separate studies on it, with researchers like Beáta Nagy participating.  So this is not just my “sack”, but that of many of my colleagues as well. 

One sentence from your writing really stuck with me, when you write that you don’t aim to be the best researcher, but you want to be a good enough researcher. Is this a decision made out of necessity or a good-hearted compromise on your part for work-life balance?  

I tend to measure my own achievements against the work of the best foreign researchers in my field of expertise, which is fine in the sense that I set myself high standards in research, but it can sometimes lead to frustration. If I had solely focused on research over the past twenty years, perhaps my international career would have taken a different path. However, many important experiences would have been missed in my life, such as teaching, which I really enjoy, or becoming a research manager at the former School of Business Faculty, for which I owe a lot of personal connections and experiences. In Decision Theory, we teach that there is no such thing as a perfect decision and that human beings have limitations. We can be satisfied with our decisions when we don’t aim for perfection but rather for satisfactory outcomes. So in that sense, there have been compromises made out of necessity in my career, but what I do here at Corvinus, I think I strive for the best, I consciously set the bar high for myself.  

As a result of your academic work over the past years, from this year onwards you will be working in a research-oriented academic career at the university. What advice would you give to a female colleague who is just starting her career in academia, what to pay attention to?  

I once read a study by Andrea Pető about how much invisible work in the academic world is assigned to women colleagues or taken on voluntarily by women. These are typical community or helping activities, such as administrative or mentoring tasks, which are very important. However, they may be less considered, for example, during promotions, and like many other activities, they can divert focus from research. Since then, I consciously observe, for example, when a male colleague takes on the task of writing the memo of a meeting, but this happens quite rarely. So, one piece of advice I would give to female colleagues starting out is to, wherever possible, confront both spoken and unspoken societal expectations and try to maintain focus on their career. Setting boundaries from the very beginning is crucial. On the other hand, in the first few years, they shouldn’t hesitate to try themselves out and experiment in as many areas as possible until they figure out which corner of the academic world interests them the most, and whether it’s worth making those particular trade-offs. For me, what makes this career exciting is that there’s room for creativity and one can passionately immerse themselves in it. I think everyone should find what brings them joy in this job. 

Extract from the book chapter of Gabriella Kiss:

“Several times in my academic career, I have felt like I’m either not on a good track or else running with my legs tied in a running race. If I try to visualise myself on this route, I can imagine myself in a “sack race”. This funny race is usually based on a situation where every racer must pull a sack to his waist and must run from start to finish that way. In that scenario, all riders start with the same handicap as everyone must run in a bag. However, academia is not quite the same as this. In the “race” to build an academic career, all of us must run on the same track, one envisioned by a recent policy, but a few of us run with different handicaps, while others are unencumbered. From my perspective, we are in a running race with each of us on our track, and I am the one who is running in the sack, while others are running without one. It’s not a funny game, it is a real race, but I have a handicap.

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GEN.:2024.04.14. - 01:02:23