Sarah is a lecturer in Policy and Politics in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Auckland. Her story is one of courage, learning and endurance and it inspires the socks of us! Gender politics, feminism, intersex identity, online spaces, PhD survival and thriving, societal problems and public policy are just a few topics that get Sarah's juices flowing. She completed her PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in 2020 and also studied at both the University of Illinois in Chicago as well as the University of Canterbury so she knows a thing or two about these topics 😉 We hope you enjoy this read as much we did!
I started off actually in computer science as my major for my first year of university, but this was back in 1994, and I honestly was bored out of my mind. Luckily I discovered physics, and specifically astrophysics, which I adored and ended up with a degree in. Along the way of doing this, I also sat in on classes in the social sciences, and particularly sociology, with my friends and I was fascinated.
A lot of the things I was figuring out about myself were explained, or I was given the tools to engage with, in these courses. Also my brain thought in systems, so understanding individual and group behaviour in structural and systemic ways just made sense to me.
I fell in love with the subject, and went on to get a double-degree in sociology alongside the astrophysics, which then resulted in grad school in the social sciences. True critical analysis is rarely taught in the hard sciences, instead problem solving is (which is quite different), and learning critical analysis as a skill has been invaluable even outside my studies.
What is it that I do now? I am employed as a lecturer at the University of Auckland. I currently teach courses in policy and politics, but I have also taught in the areas of gender analysis and social theory. My role as a lecturer is primarily two-fold, being a lecturer teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate students, but also being a researcher, performing research in my chosen areas. My research areas are located in areas of gender, policy, and particularly social uses of technology (my postgraduate research was often on social and political behaviour online, for instance). I absolutely adore both these functions, as teaching students is incredibly rewarding, and seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moments from students when they figure things out… Well, there is nothing like it.
But also I am literally paid to research and investigate the topics that fascinate me, and what could be better than that?
The major challenge though is the challenge all academics face right now: time. The workload requirements on us across the academic world are insanely high, resulting in so many of us being far in excess of the 40 hour workweek.
Basically I was a big nerd as a kid. While I competed in things like swimming, skiing, and sailing, my major love growing up was reading. I adored losing myself in books, mostly fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, as well as comic book superheroes. And even at primary school age I would turn my torch on under the covers in bed to read at night so that my parents couldn’t see that I was still up (though I am sure they knew!). I flipped between different thoughts about what I would be when I grew up, from palaeontologist, to bookshop owner, to some variety of scientist.
The major thing for me in the lack of information about being intersex was that I tried to make myself fit categories that I wasn’t, particularly thinking that I had to be trans (even though honestly there wasn’t a lot of information about that either back then).
Any time being intersex was mentioned, the dreaded term ‘hermaphrodite’ would pop up (not to mention being highly medicalised) and that obviously wasn’t me.
No one discussed the wide diversity of manifestations of being intersex (even the word itself wasn’t that common back then) including my characteristic. So, I thought I must be trans, even though hearing trans friends talk I knew there were very apparent differences.
My path to the article was pretty clear. I saw TERFs and transphobes in general often using intersex people as a rhetorical bludgeon to go after trans people, and my thought was that someone intersex needs to say something to stop that. And then my immediate next thought was that if I was thinking that, it probably would have to be me. An intersex friend helped me look over it when I had finished the first draft, and then a non-intersex (endosex) friend helped me shop it around some media outlets to see who might be interested in publishing it.
As to role models? Well, I have a number of fictional ones as I still read science-fiction, fantasy, and comic books as my primary relaxation. But as to real-world ones, I actually have a figure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG herself) on my desk, and my partner gave me a framed quote of hers as a gift. The strength, intellect, and standing-up for issues bigger than you are, not to mention her scalding wit, just inspire me so much. Is she perfect? Not at all, there is much you could critique of her. But then the same could, and should, be said of me in that respect at least.
How has being an intersex women impacted how you live your life now?
At the moment? Honestly not much. Being lesbian, and a soft butch lesbian, is much more salient to me in my everyday life than being intersex is. It is an important part of who I am, and my past, but being intersex isn’t a huge thing of my everyday.
I’d say who I am today is more a product of the things that occurred around being intersex as I grew up. I’d like to think I am a lot more resilient, strong, and independent because I had to be, as a result.
But I’m also more likely to think of the position of others in different social locations to me as a result of having been marginalised. I’d like to think I’m more empathetic of the experiences of others being different to my own thanks to having been different. Or at least I’d like to hope I am!
Is it something you associate a lot of your identity with? How do you feel about being asked to speak about that part of you?
As the previous answer suggests, honestly it isn’t a huge part of who I am. It certainly is a part of me, and I am open about being intersex, but I also acknowledge the huge variety of diverse experiences of being intersex. I was lucky enough not to be operated on as an infant, but many intersex people are, and it is honestly barbaric that they are. So often I feel because I haven’t experienced the things that are the most horrible parts of being intersex, maybe I shouldn’t have any kind of leading or speaking role in the community here. But also I temper that in thinking that maybe I should just help where I can, as I have the extreme privilege and security to be able to speak out, when so many others cannot. This is a tension that I am consistently trying to balance and ask of myself.
I took the break from academia because honestly I was burned out. I had been pushing myself into study, from my double-degree, honours, masters, and then PhD study in the US at full-speed, existing on small student allowance, student loans, and a stipend, working around such, and I had just run out of energy (not to mention living into your 30s on such tiny amounts of money is draining in & of itself, as anyone subsisting paycheck-to-paycheck will tell you). I also simply needed the break to figure out if academia was even what I wanted to do. I had gone through to that point without evening asking myself truly ‘is this what you want to do?’ and I wanted the time to figure out if that indeed was the case. I had just been taking up opportunities as they were offered to me without thinking too much what they meant for me in any grand plan. So I found myself halfway around the world in my early 30s in a PhD programme without really thinking through if it was for me.
Taking the break was invaluable. I didn’t even put a timeframe on it, I just wanted a break, to get a job, and figure out what I really wanted. And that’s exactly what I did for a number of years. What I discovered was that I couldn’t just do a job for the money, I had to have a sense of purpose and self-meaning in it.
In the end I decided to go back to do my PhD, this time in NZ. I remember crying from joy when I started in on my literature research in my topic area. I was back in what I loved, with the energy & drive to actually do it, and that mattered so much. I know that sounds a tad arrogant, but I loved my PhD. Yes, there were bonkers hours, and yes the workload was high, and good lord was the shock of income drop from working full time in well-paid jobs to a student budget painful. But I enjoyed so much of my PhD, even with all the stress (seriously, I was working on Boxing Day in my final year so I could get my PhD thesis in on time) that I wouldn’t really change much.
Well, it is not so much that we don’t give it enough attention, it is that media literacy and how to critically engage and understand with nuance and depth is lacking. A lot of the coverage is superficial and sensationalist, leaning into pre-existing prejudices, without allowing for both the benefits and problems with it. Further, the discussion tends to operate at the individual level (not to mention, the commercial/neoliberal), without understanding how it functions structurally and systemically, and how it is embedded culturally.
First; do things in addition to the PhD as part of your study. Everyone comes out of the PhD with a PhD. It’s the base-level starting point. So, doing things like getting involved with committees at the university, research and teaching assistantships, and (particularly) professional academic organisations, all really matter, and show how much you know and are willing to contribute to a university and field.
Second, and relatedly, socialise with people at the university. I went along to weekly morning teas so I got to know the lecturers and professors, as well as (importantly) the admin staff in my department (trust me, the admin staff know the university in detail far more than academics do, so having them on your side matters!). The people in the department knew me, knew my name, and that helped for opportunities.
Third, get a good support base, as you’re going to need it. This can include people like your supervisor (I was so lucky to have a great relationship with my supervisor), but also outside the university, who understand and support your commitment to your studies, and how that may mean you aren’t around as much, but love and support you anyway.
I made sure I had one day a week at minimum that I completely took off. I’m an introvert so I would do things like take myself out to brunch on that one day, go to the movies, read lots (fiction), have quiet drinks with friends. I made sure that one day was not filled with errands or tasks (or too much socialising) so I could properly recharge.
Fifth: structure. Being organised meant I could deal with the million balls you are juggling in the air. I simply don’t have the brain space to be thinking about everything I’m doing, so being organised let me farm that stuff out. I would not have coped otherwise.
And finally, your PhD is just a PhD. I know that sounds trite, but if you’re going into academia it’s just the start of things. It does not need to be your Magnum Opus, so don’t be too precious about it. Pick your battles with it about where you make your stand and where you don’t, sure, but the best PhD thesis is a completed PhD thesis.
Particularly as I get older by picking my battles. I simply don’t have the energy to do everything anymore, if I ever really did, lol. So, being strategic about where I put my energy, what issues I am willing to give my time to, is really crucial. That does not mean I don’t care about other things, but just that it is best for me if I don’t spread myself thin. I ask myself regularly “is my voice needed here?” or can I support the voices of others? I don’t need to respond to everything, or everyone (particularly this is something I’ve learned on the likes of Twitter … you don’t need to respond to people; do I care really what random people think?). I also have a system of keeping informed and news consumption using networks, journalists, RSS that allows me the ability to not become overwhelmed with the news fire-hose and moderate my engagement with such. I’d like to think I am still really informed, but this gives me the space and methods to do so in a deep way, but not on absolutely everything. It is really easy to get swamped by this stuff (and I still do sometimes, and just take a break at that point) when you’re the kind of person who deals with uncertainty by finding out as much information as you can.
Also, realising that EVERYTHING you enjoy will be problematic to some degree, and have a range of issues with it, so don’t expect perfection. Decide what you’re willing to tolerate, and be critically aware of it.
Oh goodness yes, imposter syndrome is a CONSTANT refrain for me. I am surrounded by incredible people, and especially women & queer people that I admire, that I swear must have days that are twice as long as mine in order to get done everything that they do. This is made worse that my immediate reaction to not getting something finished is simply add more hours to when I am working to get it done. Honestly I don’t have a solution to this yet, and a big part of me still just expects everyone around me to come to their senses and realise I am truly nothing special.
I think those of us who particularly haven’t historically been a part of these spaces feel like they aren’t for us, or that we aren’t good enough. The only advice I have, though I am seriously not good at this myself, is to stop comparing yourself to others.
We all have our own journeys, priorities, and work, so making ourselves feel bad by looking at others and comparing ourselves to them is often an apples & oranges situation. But yes, as I said, I am seriously not good at that myself, lol.
There’s a couple things that really make me excited about the future of Aotearoa New Zealand. First, is that we might be moving towards actual partnership with Māori. Not that we’re really remotely there yet. But we can see the nascent first steps in that direction. We have so far yet to go of course, and the destination is somewhere we honestly should have been at right from the beginning, but every small stepI see us moving towards an actual partnership is a joy to me.
The partnership we have with Māori is truly the undiscovered potential for uniqueness we have in the world, so that incredible potential is what thrills me with possibility. And make no mistake, that movement is something that we Pākehā need to be doing, as well as simply getting out of the way of Māori.
Second, is the diversity of experience and culture that tau iwi bring to our country. Having a wonderfully diverse nation of a range of cultures, that aren’t expected to assimilate, but bring their uniqueness & differences to us, whether they be refugees or migrants, makes me so excited. Seeing Aotearoa as the bringing together of Pākehā, Māori, and Tau Iwi is just amazing.
My worries are thus the opposite of such.I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think Aotearoa New Zealand is ready to be a republic yet, as we aren’t ready to have a true constitutional discussion around sovereignty and Māori that such a constitutional convention would require of us. We (specifically Pākehā) just aren’t mature enough around race& ethnicity to have that discussion. And if we don’t have it we’d just end up with a republic and a constitution that reflect the same colonial inequities and structural prejudices that we have now, just without the British Crown. In which case, why would we be doing it? As such, it is the streaks of xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, fascism, parochialism, and nationalism in New Zealand culture that really worry me. We can have some really strong instances of collective effort in this country, but individualism and narrow neoliberal economic thinking have strong roots unfortunately here, and they are ever more progressively revealing how dangerous they are.
If you had a song that played when you walked into a room and/or lecture ;), what would it be?
I wish I had a witty and snappy answer here, but my music tastes lean towards the darker side, so it probably wouldn’t be something I’d even have, ha!
What would be the title of your autobiography?
Lol, I’ve never even imagined I would have an autobiography. Honestly, do we need yet another autobiography from a privileged white woman?
What is the worst advice you have been given? OR What is the best advice you have been given?
I remember during the time I was taking the break from academia and had a jobby-job, people were talking to me about it being time for me to start purchasing a house in the suburbs, settling down, getting a car, etc. And I remember how much my skin crawled at the thought.
There was this uncritical pushing of the idea that there was one ‘normal’ way to live your life,
and to be successful you had to do these things, and that of course you had to get on with getting them. The fact that I really didn’t want these things was just met with blank faces, which would sometimes turn to thinking I was somehow (in not wanting to do these things) thus judging them for doing/wanting them. I wanted a non-normative life, I wanted something different from my life. Being pushed to compromise on that, to do the ‘normal’ thing, to fit in and play the game? Nope.
What is your favourite thing about each place you lived in (Netherlands, USA and NZ)?
In the Netherlands I loved living car-free.The dense walkable living, the human- (and non-car-) sized & centred urban spaces, the way in which public transport (especially trains, my girlfriend will tell you how much I love trains) connected to everything, all created this holistic way of living that is far superior to how we do things here in NewZealand.
In the USA I loved the city of Chicago. I just felt at home in that city in a way only a few places on earth connected with me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved other places in the US too, like the Pacific Northwest, and Boston and the North East, but Chicago felt like home to me. It still does, and I often get homesick about it. Sitting on an elevated train platform in mid-summer at dusk, the warm evening air, looking out over all the buildings to the midwestern sunset in the open big sky is incredible. Or mid-winter, the temperature WAY below freezing, my breath misting as I clutch a travel cup of coffee between my gloves, the sudden silence of the city as the snow falls, the creaking of the ice on Lake Michigan as it freezes. Or those incredible mid-western thunderstorms that would light the whole sky up.
In New Zealand I love our irreverency. You’ve seen those ‘Meanwhile, in New Zealand …’ memes? Where grand important earth-shattering things would be happening overseas, and yet in New Zealand we’d be getting into heated discussions about the Bird of the Year. Or our adverts where we poke fun at ourselves. We lean into the fact that we do silly small-scale things, and we love them. How many other nations have a national annual pie competition that the results of which get published in our national newspapers, and the winning bakeries put them up in their shop windows? (oh, and additionally I just unapologetically love the South Coast of Wellington …that’s probably one of my favourite places in the whole country).
What’s a random fact about yourself that people might not know about from your social media?
Lol, I am pretty open about things on the likes of Twitter, but honestly? My dream is to be a fiction author. Seriously, for all that I love being an academic, if I won Lotto I’d try to make a go at being an author.
What are you currently pondering about? Something that keeps coming back to your mind?
Urban design. Seriously, I’m often thinking about that. My PhD is in public policy yes, but urban design isn’t my speciality. Yet I constantly look at the built environment around me holistically all the time (my girlfriend will tell you I do this all the time, lol), and how it all connects together: walkability, public transport, cycling, densification of our housing, and how necessary it is to make our society a scar-free as possible.
And finally, who would you want to see share their story on Storyo?
Not so much a who, but I’d love to see non-white, queer, women and non-binary early-career academics talk about their lives, not just to show success, but to show the multiplicity of forms success can take.