Café des Théologiennes: Addressing Gender Imbalance in Theology and Religious Studies

It is now well known that women are underrepresented in academia, including in Departments of Theology and Religion. The 2013 study, ‘Gender and Career Progression in Theology and800px-Helena_of_Constantinople_(Cima_da_Conegliano) Religious Studies,’ conducted by members of Durham’s department of Theology and Religion (Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song), drew particular attention to such issues and has become an important resource for subsequent discussions.

Café des Théologiennes, originally Café des Femmes, was set up a few years ago by research students in our department. The group aimed to provide a space for female Theology students and staff to meet together, share their experiences, and learn more about each other’s work. Staff and student presentations, as well as professional development seminars, based on the experiences of females in the department and in academia more generally, have been central features of the group since its inception. The group has continued to grow and develop over time, responding to changes in the life and makeup of the department. The change in name to Café des Théologiennes was designed to recognise that those participating in the group are not just ‘women,’ but are specifically female theologians. The group has run several Postgraduate Research Days, allowing any of the department’s postgraduates to present some of their work to other members of the community. Moreover, the academic year 2014-2015 saw the introduction of termly ‘Open Seminars,’ where male members of the department were welcomed to staff presentations organised by the group. Such changes represent both the professionalism of the Café and an understanding that gender imbalance cannot be tackled by women alone, but must be a concerted effort made by all.

This year, we have chosen to further evolve the programme of CdT. Café des Théologiennes wishes to support the integration of females within the Department of Theology and Religion and to develop a departmental community where all members feel supported and encouraged. Whilst still allowing space for female postgraduates to present their research to one another, we have been keen to develop a general Postgraduate Seminar alongside these female-only events. The Postgraduate Seminar allows one male and one female presenter to share some of their research with other members of the department. The aim of such a seminar is to bolster the postgraduate community, providing an opportunity for students to meet and learn more about each other’s work. Such a space for research students in the department has not been available prior to this and we believe this to be an important contribution that CdT can make to the department as a whole.

Café des Théologiennes is an extremely important group that has had multiple benefits for those participating in it over the years. The underrepresentation of women in academia continues to be a problem. Although there is now increased awareness of the issue, the imbalance can never be redressed if we do not take action. CdT reminds us as individuals and as a department that we must support female colleagues. The academic and social benefits of CdT for women in the department cannot be denied. The group has given female postgraduates and staff in our department the chance to get to know one another and to share their personal experiences, as well as their work, in a supportive environment. The confidence that this has given those women is significant. However, Café des Théologiennes should not simply be of benefit to women alone. It highlights to us that we must support and encourage every individual within the department, establishing and maintaining a community that promotes equality for all and recognises the value of each person’s contribution. Café des Théologiennes represents one of the ways in which our department and its research students are attempting to address a well-known problem in our discipline. We hope that over time, we will see significant changes in our own department and in academia more widely. Until then, we will continue to work to support one another and to develop a stronger community among postgraduates studying Theology and Religion in Durham.

If you have any questions about Café des Théologiennes, or if you would be interested in presenting for us, please email cafedestheologiennes@gmail.com. We also have a Facebook group and a page on the departmental website where information about our forthcoming seminars may be found.

Katie Woolstenhulme and Madison Pierce

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