Not All Women

Something truly terrible happened to archaeology last week: one of our largest and most visible organisations, the Society for American Archaeology, spectacularly failed in its duty of care to several attendees at their annual meeting. The situation has become international news, and every minute of their continued silence is losing the SAA crucial social capital, as well as members –  both finite resources they may never earn back.

For those not on social media, here is a round-up of the incident. For me, worse than the indefensible actions that were taken is the fact that the tone-deaf, victim-shaming, pompous and reptilian responses from the SAA were decided on by two women.

Two women who should have had absolute awareness that how they acted, the side that they chose, and how they exercised personal leadership would send the clearest message possible to its membership and the rest of the archaeological world about who *really* matters to them, who they are serving, and most of all – for whom they were creating a ‘safe space’. This brings me to the central point of a conversation I’ve been having with several colleagues over the past week:

Not all women are showing up to take care of other women in professional circumstances. Not all women are reaching down to bring others up. Not all women are honest with themselves about how their actions are designed to hurt rather than help other women. Not all women embedded in patriarchal organisations realise that they have become the enforcers of a system designed to block, demoralise, disempower and police women.

Not all women are allies.

And, we shouldn’t give these women a free pass, just because they’re women. Especially when plenty of male allies, who work very hard to help, protect and advance women in archaeology are not afforded the same generosity simply because of their gender.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, due to the fact that I’ve experienced prolonged professional antagonism and harassment by women in British archaeology since I co-founded DigVentures in 2012. There’s no need to go into specifics, but these actions are generally grounded in snobbery, designed to prevent me, and my organisation, from winning business, keeping contracts we’ve won, damage our reputation and poison my relationships with key stakeholders in the sector. It’s always behind the scenes – women misusing their power and position – but never, ever reaching out to me directly to actually fact check or have a solution-oriented conversation.

None of these women know me, or anything substantial about my organisation and our work. Luckily, many colleagues in the sector who DO know me, and the work of my organisation, have enough respect for us to share this information so that I can head off the damage. Nothing stays ‘secret’ for long when lines of professional conduct are clearly being crossed. So, if you have questions or concerns about my work, it’s not hard to find me. I am an adult and quite prepared to handle difficult conversations. Feeling protected by organisational permissions to behave like this is no excuse to be your worst self. I run a team of 12 people, 90% of whom are women. There are families who depend on me. I care quite a lot about what happens to them, and I’ll fight for my team every step of the way. Even – and maybe especially – against women who work inside sexist structures to take down other women.

By way of context for why I feel so strongly about this issue, I started my working life in finance, in New York City, in the early 1990s, in a total ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ environment. I know what it is to be belittled, cornered and attacked, and I’ve developed survival skills as a result. This form of strength is important to me, and I don’t consider it anathema to being a professional woman – which is the reason I have thrown myself into being a female leader and embracing what female leadership can be (and using this to design my business) with such commitment – and why I am so enraged when I see it abused. We cannot keep eating each other alive if we are going to present a united front and advocate for all women in archaeology. There has to be trust.

Leading from the Front

I have been very clear about my opinion about the failure of leadership in archaeology, and it’s not just those in positions of authority I’m talking about. I am talking about personal leadership – what each of us does every day, when no one is watching. Not just on special occasions, or public opportunities to perform what you’re doing for the sisterhood, and not just for the people on top of the hierarchy who have their name on the door.

Like all of us, I am not the finished article but I’m trying to learn, get better, and head out into the world every day and actually make a difference. I have said in previous posts that I believe we are all capable of standing for something, of drawing a line in the sand and not letting anyone cross it. Exercise your personal leadership in the moment when it matters – not afterward in the pub. I’m not posting this now to fish for compliments or score SJW points. I am simply tired of the hypocrisy, and the timing of what happened at the SAAs is motivating me to call it out.

Like leadership, feminism is a practice as well as an ideology. The kind of behaviour reinforced at the SAAs is damaging and embarrassing for all of us who seek to lead as women. If we are all truly embracing the mission of holding each other up professionally, the first thing we should do is put on our big girl pants and pick up the phone to each other to ask for answers, and then potentially make hard decisions that might contravene the hardwiring built into ‘procedure’ and the way things are ‘always done’. I think this is the minimum level of respect we should all demand and give.

Building Our Wolfpacks

As the Instagram post above highlights, there are ‘wolfpacks’ growing out there in the real world, women who are vocal and proud about the support they provide for each other, of embracing the dangerous and exciting idea that “We were never Little Red Riding Hood – we were always the Wolf.” It’s time to change the game, and part of taking back our power has to be learning how to wield it – not by modelling male behaviour, but emanating from a deeper and more fundamental place, acknowledging rather than shaming the fact that our power is vested in being female. To deny or moderate what femininity contributes to power is to turn yourself into a shadow, trying to earn respect by enforcing rules and agendas, being meaner and ‘tougher’, chasing affirmation from men that will never come. We cannot lead intuitively from that awful place. Just ask Theresa May. Just ask the female staff members from the SAA who crashed and burned last weekend.

I agree with Kristina Killgrove’s statement in her resignation from Chair of the SAA Media Relations Committee that the changes being wrought by the #MeToo movement is the most important cultural movement of this generation, and I desperately want to see archaeology, with a 50% female workforce, not only embody this but become an absolutely inspirational example for other sectors. We’ve made great steps forward, but maybe now we need to take a step back and look at ourselves in the mirror: what have I done today to help? What have I done today that I could have done better? It’s clear much more work needs to be done, and fast. Race you there…

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Written by Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

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