International Women’s Day – Tara Elisabeth Jeyasingh

| 09 Mar 2021

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To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with some of our amazing UNSW Canberra alumni, staff and students and asked them to answer your #WomenLead questions.  

Tara Elisabeth Jeyasingh is a passionate feminist and one of UNSW Canberra’s most recent alumnae, having graduated from the honours program in human geography at the end of 2020. Tara moved from England to Canberra to complete her honours and has now made plans to stay at UNSW Canberra to complete a PhD in cultural geography. 

Tara shares her advice on handling change, feeling dismissed, and speaking up about discrimination. 

Do you have any advice for handling change? 

It feels as though a lot in my life has changed recently – I’ve moved to Australia and started a PhD for a start – this past 12 months has certainly been chaotic. I really think it’s important to remember where you’ve come from, those important people, events, pressures, privileges and setbacks, which have made you who you are today. That’s my ‘big’ answer. On the other end of the scale, when life feels turbulent, it helps me keep track of all the small things that need doing, making plans and ticking things off, which helps me feel in control.   

As a young female in academia, do you ever feel dismissed or not taken seriously? How do you handle this? 

I have always been ‘girly’ – I love fashion, I like wearing make-up, I care a lot about how things look, I probably overthink too much – and I am proud of this. The biggest frustration for me is not being taken seriously because of this. Feminine ways of knowing the world are important and valid, but they are often treated as second best, not taken seriously, ridiculed, and dismissed as something frivolous. Growing up around an “if you’re smart, then why are you reading Vogue, you should be reading The Economist' type attitude affected how I viewed myself and my capabilities. This dismissal is intensified when working in the social sciences, arts or humanities. There is a presumption that if you’re following a career in these areas, it is because you weren’t smart or good enough to pursue something in a ‘real’ subject, in other words, STEM subjects. These are so important, and I support encouraging women into these subjects, but the arts and social sciences matter too – they aren’t second best or last resort paths. There are many different ways of knowing the world, and these are all important and valid. 

It's essential to have conversations with friends, family, and colleagues about why we only value one or two types of knowledge and encourage people to be evaluating their habitual ways of thinking and our prejudices and assumptions. The odds are, people who are dismissive of both femininity and social sciences haven’t thought much about why they do so. This is why feminism is important. It uproots these common-place assumptions and challenging them to make room for something new. Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret have a great book called Women Who Make A Fuss that my supervisor Dr Nina Williams lent me when I first started at UNSW, which impressed on me the importance of fighting for these different ways of thinking and knowing.  

Do you have any advice for what to do when you are repeatedly spoken over the top of in meetings? 

Unfortunately, I think being repeatedly spoken over in meetings results from our societies treatment of women and femininity as only second-best. However, similarly to one of my previous responses, I do believe that people of all genders have not necessarily thought all that much about why they are dismissive, why they repeatedly talk over others. Again, I think it’s really important to have conversations about our experiences and not shy away from conversations about feminism and femininity because this is how people evaluate their habits and turns of phrases. It’s not just about changing one particular practice, but whole cultures, which is daunting but important given all the crises that the world is today facing. 

If Parliament, the leaders of Australia, can’t get the culture right for women, what hope does any other organisation have? 

Politicians might lead Australia, but they don’t lead everything we do in our lives! The stories in the media which have come over the past few weeks are appalling and disturbing, but the rhetoric of only caring about these crimes when considering your own family, language such as  ‘mob mentality’ and ‘lying cow’ has really honed in to me how much of a gap there is between my views and experiences of the world as a young woman interested in feminism, sex positivity, and left-wing politics, and those of people in power. It’s crucial that we have conversations beyond our comfort-zone; organisations are the people that constitute them, too. Contributing to this column is important to me partly because it is a chance to help foster a better culture for women here at UNSW and beyond. We can all take time to think about how our language and actions contribute to such cultures. Simone de Beauvoir famously said that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. It is also true that one is not born a feminist or wants to make the world a better place – such a mindset has to be fostered and nurtured, putting ourselves into situations, thinking, reading and doing, to make a change.  

How do you speak up when you see or experience gender discrimination in the workplace?  

The most important thing is to speak up at all! All too often we let things slide, writing them off as 'just once' or 'not that big a deal' or 'I’m sure it was just an accident'. Recognising gender discrimination means that you are aware, but unless it is bought to attention, nothing will change.  

Why do you think men who work in female-dominated industries are feted, promoted and celebrated just for doing their jobs, while women who work in male-dominated fields continue to face challenges? 

I think this common trait comes down to societal values. Men are seen as using their multi-faceted talents in diverse and ‘groundbreaking’ ways, whereas in the same situation in reverse, women are seen as somehow out of place and out of their depths. And this again comes down to placing higher values on masculine ways of knowing and perceiving the world compared to feminine ones. Another important angle here is to think about who is doing the celebrating, and who the challenging – stories in the media are always told from a perspective, and we should think about where and from whom we learn about the world from, and perhaps trying to expand this. 

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