Life Isn’t Fair when You’re a Woman in Archaeology

women in archaeology

When asked to draw and describe “an archaeologist,” Dr. Susan Renoe (2003) discovered that students typically draw a white man either a la Indiana Jones or crazed scientist like that seen above.

My parents always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up – a doctor, a lawyer, even the president of the United States.  What they didn’t think they needed to tell me in the 1990s and 2000s was that I would have to work twice as hard as the men in my field to get where I wanted to be.

You can see the statistics about the numbers of women in archaeology:  according to the 1994 census completed by the Society for American Archaeology, 64% of professional archaeologists are men, and 36% of professional archaeologists are women.

You can read the tales of other women in archaeology:  in a conference roundtable of the American Anthropological Association, Dr. Sarah L. Surface-Evans and Dr. Misty Jackson heard “stories of how members of the public assumed that they were not ‘in charge’ of a field project that they were, in fact, running.  Visitors would walk right past the woman directing the project, and ask questions of males in the group, particularly if the male appeared older than the average field crew member, because the visitor was looking for the ‘project leader.’”

But nothing prepares you for the shock when you encounter discrimination against female archaeologists firsthand.

“You can’t be an archaeologist – archaeologists aren’t pretty.”

Or so said a man on a dating website who was trying to flirt with me.  Dude, I would rather you take an interest in me for my brain than for my body.

“Long hair and big boobs?  Real archaeologists don’t look like that.”

Or so said a male professor of archaeology whose class I subsequently decided to drop.  Professor, “real” archaeologists come in all shapes and sizes; what matters are their skills.

“Look at those hands – you better let me use the shovel because you’ve clearly never done a day of manual labor in your life.”

Or so said a male amateur archaeologist on whose projects I will never step foot again.  Sir, I can wield a shovel, haul full buckets, and push a wheelbarrow as well as any member of my crew; I just happen to be a student for the other two-thirds of the year.

It’s not easy to be a woman in the “Old White Boys’ Club” of archaeology.  I have been picked on by peers, made to prove my worth to superiors, and disrespected by members of the non-archaeological public – all because I am a woman instead of a man.

But for every time I have wanted to give up, I look to my mentors – my mom who was a woman in archaeology when it was far harder than it is today, my advisor who leads the premiere program in Great Lakes archaeology, and my boss who runs the longest continuously ongoing archaeological excavation in the United States.  These women made it in a man’s world, and so can we.  It’s our job to make this world a little fairer for the next generation of women in archaeology.

women in archaeology