for Social Change

with Professor Eleonora Belfiore

“In our group, everybody is equal, and nobody pulls rank. There aren’t many places you can do that. And that kind of warm welcome and sisterhood in academics is needed because it's a tough gig sometimes.”
Professor Ele Belfiore, at our ancient Aberdeen campus, where she is Interdisciplinary Director for Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity

Committed to the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion in Higher Education, Ele is one of the founding members of the Women In Academia Support Network, a trans-inclusive and intersectional charity that brings together over 12,500 women and non-binary members from across the world to support one another and pushes for gender parity and more equitable working conditions in Higher Education. 

What does ‘going beyond boundaries’ mean to you

‘Breaking boundaries’ is a bit of a modus operandi for me: starting with real, geographical boundaries, as I’m an Italian living in Scotland. I arrived in the United Kingdom in 1997, as an Erasmus student. I wanted to see the world and explore, and thought I’ll go to the UK, where I ended up at the University of Exeter and completely fell in love with the Universities here. It was so freeing compared to Italy where it was more about learning information and sticking to textbooks: the idea of being unleashed in a library and coming up with your own view and conclusions was so exciting.  

Those were the other boundaries that were being broken for me – the boundaries of the mind: this notion that it’s not just what your professors know and the knowledge they inject into you; but you can create your own knowledge. It was very much a dismantling of boundaries; of thinking, of the mind, and of disciplines, because I always had such a big variety of interests, that span different disciplines. 

My first degree was in Classical Studies and Literature, my Masters was in Administration and Policy, and my PhD was in Cultural Policy, but with elements of the History of Thought, and I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly whether I am an Arts and Humanities Scholar or a Social Sciences Scholar. It’s funny because different people view me as one or the other, but I never correct either set of people because, quite frankly, I’m not sure myself! It’s not always a comfortable position to be in, but I love it.  It’s the way my brain works, and it has suited me. My brain doesn't see or respect boundaries and classifications because they feel a bit random to me, and unnecessary.   

The best discoveries happen that way. I never imagined, for example, that I would get so much from a book on the philosophy of accounting that I had a chance encounter with during my PhD – but it ended up having a huge impact. It’s like a quest – you don’t always know where your next source is coming from. When you have a research question and you’re looking around; something catches your imagination for a reason because, subconsciously, your brain has noticed a connection. And at that point, whether it’s about Fashion, Physics, Literature, or Engineering – it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, we're all engaged in knowledge production. I'm not interested in policing those boundaries, because I'm the first to be happily picking at whatever is exciting and bright and attractive.

Have you ever had a barrier that you felt you needed to overcome to get to where you are today?  

I think it's a little bit harder if you're a woman, and harder still if you are an outspoken woman, who will say things and raise issues. I didn’t necessarily see the problem early in my career but there is evidence from many institutions that once you reach a certain level, women can no longer progress in the same way as their male counterparts. At a previous institution I saw this first hand, so much so that it was described as a ‘mass exodus of women’ as so many at a certain point in their careers had to move on in order to progress. Some institutions are better than others, but having experienced this myself in the past, I realised – ah, this is what everybody has been talking about. There's not a lot you can do about the fact that you're a woman (not that you would want not to be!), but it can be a challenge.

Being outspoken as a woman can also go against you – but after a while you learn to own it. I know that at meetings, I'll be the one who raises their hand and asks the questions, but it’s good to have different views and shake things up. I do believe in the power of making a nuisance of yourself on a regular basis!

I’ve also, at times, felt a bit excluded because of my ADHD. I had an example here actually, where I spoke about how the application form for the role here didn’t include an option for disability to include neurodiversity, and the next thing I knew, it had been changed. An applicant later told me it made them feel seen and meant a lot to them, which it shows that inclusivity doesn’t have to cost millions of pounds. Even the smallest changes on one form can make a huge impact to people.

“I think it's a little bit harder if you're a woman, and harder still if you are an outspoken woman, who will say things and raise issues.”

Professor Eleonora Belfiore

What kind of boundaries do you think young women face today?

I think the cost of education is prohibitive and will have a socially regressive impact. Whenever there is a particular trend in society, it ends up negatively impacting women. In the same way that Covid impacted women most of all, the cost-of-living crisis now is going to be particularly difficult. So I think we need to keep an eye out, and be mindful of that.

Is there a particular person or thing that has helped inspire you or get you to get you where you are now?

One of the things that has been truly transformative and shaping for me has been being involved in the Women in Academia Support Network. It started as a bunch of academics who met online, after being chucked out of existing groups, because they said things that were too feminist. So, we formed our own group on Facebook. One moment there was seven of us, and eight years on there are now 15,000 women from across the world.  

It has become a place for women to share their experiences in academia, and now we’re an official charity. We won funding from Facebook to develop the community, which also helped fund some elements of our book – ‘ResearcHER: Authored by Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN)’. We have a partnership with Emerald Publishing, and we were shortlisted for the ITV National Diversity Awards, out of 14,000 nominations.  

Seeing the power of solidarity and kindness, and what is possible when there's a community, has been incredible. It shows what's possible when people work and support one another. Academia is strange because on the one hand, we say we value collegiality, and we're all about partnership and collaboration and working with people. On the other hand, there's a lot of competition, because we have to compete with our colleagues – whether it’s within our own department for internal funding, or colleagues in the same disciplines and fields for external funding. So, there can be a lot of focus on looking after yourself, which can mitigate against kindness and helping one another. 

 Through the group though I've seen great examples of people really helping each other – individuals sharing their successful applications with others wanting to apply for similar schemes for example, despite them being potential competition in the future. Whenever you feel a bit despondent and discouraged, and you question your life choices, the Women in Academia Support Network reminds you what's good about academia and what it has the potential to be.  

We are a collection of 15,000 very intelligent, very opiniated women. You can imagine it can be a bit of a madhouse at times, but there’s so much kindness, generosity, and wit – I’ve been crying with laughter at times. It’s a community and the beautiful thing is that, because it’s Facebook, it’s names and not titles. We have Vice Chancellors and PhD students, but in this group, everybody is equal, and nobody pulls rank. There aren’t many places you can do that. And that kind of warm welcome and sisterhood in academics is needed because it's a tough gig sometimes.  

Professor Ele Belfiore, with her book – ‘HERStory – ResearcHER: Authored by Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN)’.

Ele and the Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN) have a partnership with Emerald Publishing, leading to the first ‘ResearchHER’ book, available to buy at Blackwells bookshop on our Aberdeen campus.

We are living through a very divisive time, and despite the Arts being integral to bridging the gap in our understanding, the strength of their impact on society can, at times, be undervalued. As Interdisciplinary Director of Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity can you tell us about the power of the Arts and Social Impact?

It’s absolutely true that during difficult times, the Arts have even more of a role to play. What I think we should remember is that whilst Arts funding is hugely important, art will continue to be made, even without it. Artists will never stop creating. What you hope public funding does is expand opportunities, and help make it stretch more widely, both in geographical and social terms, so that more people can produce and consume Arts and culture. 

No matter what happens, the Arts will never stop doing its job. A lot of artists are extremely engaged with the world, and they need to be supported. There's a big role for universities here too, because in some respects, we have very similar endeavours, which is to generate a better understanding of the world around us. Science and knowledge creation is one way to learn about the world, and artistic representation is another way – it helps us make sense of the human experience and the world around us. They are not incompatible, they're very complementary. They work best when they work together.  

“It’s important to show that there's more than one way of doing research. There's more than one type of researcher; you don’t always have to wear a lab coat.”

Professor Eleonora Belfiore

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do in my role, is to encourage people doing disciplinary research to adopt art-based methods; where creative activities, methods, or practices can be used to better understand the world, or a way to communicate science. We've been doing some work around health communication for example, such as for vaccinations. If you engage people creatively in a way that makes them think and that doesn't make them feel patronised, then they’ll pay more attention.  

There's so much that universities and artists can do together, that we are trying to do. It’s crucially important, especially when the Arts and Higher Education are struggling financially. But if we work together, we might be able to attract research or other kinds of funding that are external to the city, and bring those resources into the city to do things that neither the arts sector nor the university can do on their own. That's what we're trying to do in our partnership with the city of Aberdeen, and that's the message from the Aberdeen Cultural Summit held in early March -  that by working collaboratively, we can all do more than we could do on our own for our city.

The theme for the event was Why Not Aberdeen? as I have noticed, as an outsider, there's something about Aberdeen and its unwillingness to celebrate itself. It's a storytelling exercise. We need to change the narrative, and we need to do it together for the benefit of the city. And it’s artists who can help us tell that story in a different way, because I think it's holding us back. I found myself a lot of the time asking, why not Aberdeen? Why wouldn't it be us? Why wouldn't it be the city?  

“Science and art are not incompatible, they're very complementary. They work best when they work together.”

Professor Eleonora Belfiore

Tell me more about your experience of Aberdeen as a place and a culture… 

I’ve never been in a place as welcoming as Aberdeen. There’s so much activity, so much live music, so much exciting stuff happening – especially for a city of its size.  

I don't know whether it is because it's a port city, so it's a place that's historically used to people pitching up and spending some time here, but it's just so open to new people turning up and saying, oh, I'm going to live here. It's very welcoming to foreign people and passersby.  

What I love most is that I have made more friends and deeper connections in two years in Aberdeen, than I have decades spent in other places. That's the type of thing that you won't know until you come and live here. 

What can we do to support inclusivity and the Arts? 

I think what I would want to stress is that we are aware that in terms of being inclusive and diverse at the University, there's still a lot of work to do. But there is a strong willingness to do it, as well as to engage with the city and with artists, and utilise creative methodologies across multiple disciplines. It’s important to show that there's more than one way of doing research. There's more than one type of researcher; you don’t always have to wear a lab coat. 

You might not be great at writing papers, but you might be a documentary maker and you can be a researcher because that can be a hugely valuable research method. It’s also the small things that count. We don’t necessarily need huge campaigns and millions of pounds. People should continue to come forward with their thoughts and ideas, as actually a lot of the things might actually be quite easy to fix – if we’re willing to continue to listen humbly and take in that there might be something that can be improved, then we can make a lot of progress.  

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to women, either thinking of going into academia, or more generally becoming who and what they want, what would it be? 

I would encourage women to go for it - academia can be much more accommodating than you think. Especially in terms of neurodiversity, and brains that work in slightly different ways. During lockdown, so many of my colleagues had a diagnosis like myself, which makes me think that there are a whole group of neurodivergent women in academia that institutions aren’t necessarily aware of. At the same time, there’s something about academic life that lends itself to different types of brains, because no one day is the same as the next. While a lot of is challenging and being improved, it can also be flexible and accommodating to all sorts of people, including quirky people who might struggle in a 9 to 5 – so embrace who you are, your brain, and you can make it work for you.  

“I’ve never been in a place as welcoming as Aberdeen … What I love most is that I have made more friends and deeper connections in two years in Aberdeen, than I have decades spent in other places”

Professor Eleonora Belfiore