Dr Heather Inwood (1999)
University Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Chinese Literature & Culture and Trinity Hall Fellow
“Figure out where your priorities lie and don’t be afraid”
How do you look back on your time at Trinity Hall?
As a happy, busy blur! I felt so lucky to be here I had to pinch myself almost every day, but it was really the people who made my four years at Trinity Hall so special. They included a close-knit circle of friends, an endlessly kind and supportive Tutor and Director of Studies and all the College staff who went out of their way to look after us and keep us out of mischief (the Porters deserve a special mention here!).
Why did you choose Chinese Studies?
I enjoyed most subjects at school but found myself torn between languages and music at university: in the end, Chinese Studies pulled me in as it was completely new to me, challenging, would allow me to use my linguistic skills and learn lots about history and culture – and might even help me realise my childhood dream of becoming the next James Bond.
How did your time at Trinity Hall impact on your career?
Well, I quickly went off the James Bond idea (I promise!), but I did realise that four years of university wasn’t going to be enough so made plans to continue studying in China after graduation and go on to do a PhD. Both Trinity Hall and my own Faculty, what was at the time the Faculty of Oriental Studies (now Asian and Middle Eastern Studies), made me appreciate the value of a warm, supportive academic environment and inspired me to try to put back into the education system some of what I had got out of it myself.
Do you have any advice for other women looking to work in your field?
Academia is a tough world, perhaps especially so for women. My advice would be to first make 100% sure that an academic job is what is best for you, and if a job doesn’t materialize after a certain period of time (the length of which only you can determine), then you shouldn’t feel any shame in transferring your skills and talents to a different profession. If you are lucky enough to get a permanent teaching and research position, then it’s really important to keep asserting yourself and putting yourself forward for opportunities that come along, but also to be confident saying ‘no’ when you need to. Women often find themselves taking on a lot of the more caring, pastoral roles in academia, which can be very fulfilling and deserve more credit than they get, but tend not to lead to academic fame and glory in the same way as bringing in big grants and publishing important books and articles. The main thing is to figure out where your priorities lie and not be afraid to mould your career around them.
Who are your female role models?
First and foremost, all the wonderful women who have taught and tolerated me over the years, starting with my primary and secondary school teachers in the Cambridgeshire villages where I grew up and continuing with my fellow female academics around the world who motivate me to do better in my teaching, research and administrative work.
What does gender equality mean to you?
Not having to wonder whether gender has played a part in the assumptions, limitations and language you encounter on a daily basis. Not having to deal with the realisation that something you had blamed on yourself was actually more related to someone else’s perception of your gender. Gender equality is often measured in obvious ways (metrics and the like), but inequality is much more insidious.
What is your greatest career or academic achievement to date?
I’m pretty chuffed to have my current job in the department where I studied as an undergraduate and as a Fellow at Trinity Hall, but the challenges I’m proudest of having overcome have been studying as a Masters student in contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University as a non-native speaker of Chinese and working as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the US straight after finishing my PhD. I did a lot of learning on the job during the first few years there (something that continues to this day – this is one of the joys of being an academic!).
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Live in the moment and don’t spend so long looking forward or back that you forget about what you’ve got going on in the here and now (I think I have family members who would like to remind me that a bit of planning never hurts, either). And look around you too, as it’s easy not to notice the people who are not finding life as easy as you might be at the time. Most of all, just be who you are and try not to care quite so much about what other people think!