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Women in research: Emily Mendenhall

February 14, 2022 | 6 min read

By Emily Mendenhall, Christopher Tancock

Emily Mendenhall, medical anthropologist and Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

"The higher one climbs in academia, the more apparent gender discrimination becomes..."

In this miniseries, we take a look at the issues experienced by women in research and will try to unpack some of the problems they may face in accepting and discharging editorial roles. We hope to highlight these issues, explore solutions and continue the conversation about how we can best enable gender balance in editorial teams without overloading any of the participants. We welcome all constructive comments and suggestions.

Emily Mendenhall was interviewed by Christopher Tancock.

1. Tell us a little bit about your background and current role…

I am a medical anthropologist and professor at Georgetown University. I have studied the interplay of trauma, psychological suffering, and chronic illness in urban contexts for many years. Most of my work has focused on low-income residents in Chicago, Delhi, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, which I describe in the book Rethinking Diabetes: Entanglements with Trauma, Poverty, and HIV. Currently I am co-Editor-in-Chief of Social Science and Medicine - Mental Healthopens in new tab/window, leading the Medical Anthropology and Critical Social Science Office.

2. What does a “normal” day look like for you?

I usually wake up around 6 and do a short meditation before reading a book I’m teaching, write, or review articles until my girls wake up. We snuggle, get ready, have breakfast, and touch base about feelings, plans, and school before I walk them to the bus. After I drop them at the bus stop, I take my dog for a quick run. Then I either head to the office at home or on campus. I usually reply to email, check in on journal reviews, and make sure there is nothing too backed up. I’m usually in meetings throughout the day or teaching, so depending on the day I prep for teaching, review the work of and meet with students, teach undergraduates, or work on my research. Every day is different, and I like the spontaneity of academia. I pick my kids up at 4:30 or 5, and take them to their activities (violin, swim, karate). Sometimes I read journal submissions in the car when waiting for my kids. Then I make dinner and hang out with my family until my kids go to sleep. I only work at night for an hour or so if there is a pressing deadline. However, usually I read, hang out with my husband while he plays the banjo, and paint.

3. What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment?

I would say my greatest accomplishment is bringing people from different disciplines or ways of thinking together. Putting together the Lancet Series on Syndemicsopens in new tab/window in 2017 was definitely a career milestone. However, writing a book about my hometown—coming out March 16, 2022—also feels like a really special milestone, bringing my work full circle. Check it out! Unmasked: COVID, Community, and the Case of Okobojiopens in new tab/window is a cultural analysis on COVID denialism in my hometown in northwest Iowa (USA).

4. How did you come to be involved with the journal?

The journal editors reached out to me and invited me to lead it. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, with two small kids at home and an already full plate, so I invited two colleagues who I have worked with for years to launch the journal together. It was a good decision—working together with them is a highlight!

5. Do you enjoy being an editor – what are the best and worst aspects?

I’ve only served as an editor for a year, and I really enjoy it. It’s great to read more broadly and deeply across disciplines, and to learn about how people are thinking and writing about mental health. Working at the intersection of multiple disciplines and ways of thinking is a privilege.

6. How have you been approaching the issue of gender balance and diversity on your journal?

We don’t only think about gender diversity but also race, nationality, where people work, and disciplinary background—having multiple perspectives leading the journal is crucial for reviewers and engaging in dialogue about ideas as well as ensuring that myriad voices are valued and elevated. We spent a long time discussing what representation means and how to ensure diverse voices are heard among the Editors-in-Chief in building our Editorial Board.

7. In your opinion what is/are the 1-3 biggest obstacles facing women who want to participate more in editorial roles?

The higher one climbs in academia, the more apparent gender discrimination becomes. I’ve noticed that more men lead journals, and I think this is very much related to the informal networks and recommendations that are at play in who leads and why. From my experience, many women scholars with children or other caregiving responsibilities are also calculating what they can balance and often, because women juggle so much, editorial responsibilities on top of teaching, research, and service can be a lot. For instance, my university gave me zero institutional support to take on my editorial position. Thus, my editorial work is on top of my normal responsibilities as a professor.

8. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self – or other women who might be in a similar situation – what would that be?

Since becoming full professor, I’ve been finding a lot of balance and peace in cultivating time for art. I’ve been mostly doing painting and pottery lately. I’ve always practiced yoga, but I didn’t think I had time for my art when my kids were very small on top of my academic stress. But it brings so much balance and well-being to my life. Motherhood, teaching, research, and service can be overwhelming but finding space for yourself to truly breathe is crucial to feeling balanced.

9. Do you think that the pandemic has helped or hindered the cause of gender equality in editorial teams?

Definitely hindered. Women have been steamrolled by the pandemic, especially because the caregiving burdens so often falls to us. My husband is also an academic, and I’d say we have a fairly balanced relationship and parenting style, which is why I think I’ve been able to balance my work throughout the pandemic. However, my sister also found us an au pair during the pandemic - which was crucial for balancing two careers.

10. Do you think it is easier now for women to undertake editorial roles?

I’m not sure if it’s easier now for women to undertake editorial roles than it was in the past, or if women are now beginning to be asked to take them on because there is more visibility of the historic inequities. Women are often passed over because they aren’t close enough to the people who are in power. The highest positions are often negotiated among people in power, so breaking through that glass ceiling takes a lot of might. Hopefully with more women in leadership positions, we will see changes across the academy. However, we don’t just need changes in gender, but also whose voices are represented more generally, including more representation of people of color, across socioeconomic groups, nationality, and so on.