Kalissa Alexeyeff is an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research centres on gender and sexuality, globalisation and development, with a regional focus on the Pacific.
She has published extensively on gender, identity, transnationalism and cultural production, including books on dance in the Cook Islands and tourism across the Pacific.
She recently co-edited the award-winning, Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay, and Other Pacific Islanders, which explores alternative sexualities and gender identities in the Pacific region.
My PhD training was in anthropology, researching dance and globalisation in the Pacific. For my fieldwork I went and joined a Cook Islands’ dance group for eighteen months. I had always wanted to be a ballet dancer and danced from when I was three until about seventeen. I auditioned for the Australian Ballet School and didn't get in, and ended up dropping it very dramatically; I just said, "That's it." So the PhD was like therapy for not ending up a ballet dancer!
During my PhD, my supervisor left the country, and they were replaced by another who wasn’t as close to the project, so I felt very much on my own. Since then, I’ve worked to create networks and find mentors. While not always official, these are people you feel like you can talk to and ask how to do things. I think that’s hugely important. Often these senior people are really rapt that you're asking them questions and wanting their guidance, and the nice ones will always want to help you too. To me, it's less networking like “I must talk to that person”; it's more about creating community, knowledge sharing and being mutually supportive.
The biggest challenge in academic work is having a family. The university, like many other workplaces, is not designed as a family-friendly place, even though they may have those policies. So you have to make it that way yourself. I remember hearing an old professor say, "I've been blessed by not having any children." There is a sense that academia is a monastic calling and you just think about your work all the time. And there are still senior women who have the idea that you have to fit into the university rather than the university having to fit around you, kids, and so on. They had to prove themselves as female academics by being genderless.
But what we’re now trying to do is say no, this is a patriarchal institution and it needs shifting. It is changing as more women, parents and carers say, “we’ve got other parts of our lives that are important too”. You have to own it: read the policies, make sure you say, “I'm within my rights to do these things”. There's still the sense that you're not performing enough, but the other side of it is it gives you some balance, so there are positives too.
Impact and Legacy
I’m proud of the recognition I’ve gained through awards and fellowships. Being accepted into the PhD program at the ANU was very exciting; getting my first research fellowship at the University of Melbourne was fantastic; and then of course, getting a Future Fellowship!
In terms of future research impact, academic ideas can take years to seep into the general community, so I hope that my work will end up contributing to debates on understandings of sexual diversity and gender. It is amazing when you get an email from someone in Alaska, or somewhere far from Australia, saying, “I just read your article in my undergraduate subject, and it was so great”. What matters a lot to me is that people I work with, who I have interviewed, appreciate the work I have done. Most Cook Islanders probably don’t read my publications, so I’m proud of other practical opportunities that have come along, such as a report I wrote on migration for the Cook Islands government. My Future Fellowship project looks at gender and labour mobility in the Pacific, and involves working with local NGOs on policy development.
More and more I've been thinking about how to make my work relevant in the non-academic world – community engagement, and, the new term, outward-facing programs. I’ve worked with a museum, I’m doing a project on gender-based violence next year, and I spent a semester in 2016 teaching in Samoa. Recently I was contacted by a girl I went to school with who is a social worker in a school with a high Pacific Islander population. She just wanted to know what Pacific Island society is like, what challenges these kids might have. So it's thinking about different ways of doing things, not solely straight academia, but offering advice and expertise in other sectors.
Advice to Younger Women
I recently had a flashback to when I first wrote an article, maybe 20 years ago, and how devastated I was with the feedback. It’s hard, but learning to accept criticism is crucial. It is incredibly devastating and you think your ideas are set in stone, but you have to be able to turn around those often debilitating comments and go, "Okay, I can do something, I'll make a better article." I always think of it like actors going for auditions. They get so many knockbacks, and we do too. It’s toughening yourself up to not give a shit as much and use it as a way to improve.
You often think you're not good enough, or doing enough, or writing the best stuff. “Imposter syndrome” - it seems like a very gendered thing, but I'm sure that there are men who have it as well. I feel like I’ve got to a point now, being Level C, where I go, "Okay, I'm so bored of having those thoughts running through my head. I think I'm imposter, who cares? Just do my job and do it as best I can."
For people going into a research career now, I think the things that sustain you are the networks: having circles of people that believe in you and that like you. I would encourage people to believe in themselves too. You see some people starting their graduate studies who are hugely confident. In a way that certainty has to be curtailed in order to produce better and better work. But high levels of self-doubt and lack of confidence are just a waste of time. I know it sounds corny, but my advice is be nice to people and believe in yourself.