Dr Evelien Bracke, participant on the Leadership Foundation’s women-only Aurora programme, shares her inspiring story of learning how to speak up, be heard and step into power.
The story I am about to tell is a very personal one, and before Aurora, I would have never dared to share it. However, as I have benefited from hearing other women’s stories, I know it is important to share. And so here is mine.
I have long believed that if you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything. If I didn’t get where I wanted to, I just worked harder until I did. This world view worked when I was younger: I did well in school and was fortunate enough to have some great opportunities. After my undergraduate years in Belgium, I went to study in Ireland and was offered a funded PhD place. It was a tough seven-year process but I got there in the end, and submitted my thesis as freshly separated mum with an 18-month old baby.
Nothing prepared me for becoming a single mum in academia. Having followed my partner to the UK, I suddenly found myself at the bottom of the food chain. I needed all the money I could make to ensure my son – who was at the time suffering from mental health issues – was OK which lead me to take on low-paid part-time teaching jobs in different universities just to make ends meet.
I was unable to develop a social life in this new country where I knew hardly anyone and spent my time either at work or looking after my son. I went through four very tough, quite lonely years working in research and as senior colleagues looked down at and bullied me, I found myself unable to get a proper academic job. My former optimistic self-confidence plummeted and every day was a struggle for survival.
Out of this crisis, however, I created a project for which our students could go out to schools to teach Latin, and this turned out to be my life saver. It was successful, and grew each year. I received some research funding and was praised by the university, yet I continued to feel like the lowliest life form on earth, unworthy of existence itself. While my son was getting better and my enjoyment of my job increased having been made permanent (thanks to a truly amazing head of department), I still considered myself inferior to any other academic. My teaching project was getting bigger all the time; I found myself setting up other projects and having to talk to more people. I felt overawed.
When an email inviting staff to apply for the Aurora Programme came round in the university, something clicked. Somehow I knew this was for me.
I sent an honest application explaining my issues with self-confidence and how I was nervous taking my projects forward. I was accepted onto the programme. I was terrified.
The programme itself was challenging, and walking into the room for the first session, I almost walked straight out again. But hearing other women’s stories, talking to participants from different backgrounds in academia, doing the homework, and having to do serious introspection confronted me with a reality about myself which was different from the unworthy narrative I had constructed.
Suddenly I had to acknowledge that I am actually OK, I am allowed to have a voice, and there are constructive ways in which challenges in the workplace can be overcome. I became aware of challenges that women specifically face in a male-dominated working environment, and finally realised that the image I had created when I was younger was an illusion: humans are political animals – and with this awareness comes power.
A few weeks after the Aurora Programme, I started noticing that I was speaking up in meetings, which I had never dared to do before. I found myself putting my foot down on issues that mattered to me. It was as if a light had been switched on inside me, a light of empowerment.
I am learning to think critically about decision-making at all levels of the university and have decided that life is too short not to speak up. I have set up an organisation which supports the teaching of Classics in Wales, and am leading committee meetings and steering our agenda. I have joined an Athena Swan steering group and have plans to develop my teaching project. Most importantly, however, I have learned to be kinder to myself (it’s a work in progress) and step into my power, yet not in an aggressive but a compassionate, feminine way.
Aurora was an eye-opener, and I would thoroughly encourage anyone thinking of taking the next step in their career to apply.
Dr Evelien Bracke is a senior lecturer in history and classics at Swansea University. Dr Bracke took part in year two of Aurora.
This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.