Women in Archaeometallurgy

By Agnese Benzonelli, Associate Editor for Archaeometallurgy

At the time of writing, International Women’s Day (March 8) is approaching, which has led me to consider the topic of women in archaeometallurgy.

This topic is hotly debated, due to historical imbalances between the sexes, particularly with regard to specialisms of certain materials. My goal is to provide an overview of women in the field of archaeometallurgy, however this is not intended as a formal study, and rather a general overview of today’s state of affairs. I am also attempting to determine whether or not the situation is changing, and if we can expect a shift towards gender equality in the industry in the near future. I would like to emphasize that in this article I only discuss two sexes (male/female) and genders (man/woman) however many other widely accepted sexes and genders should be taken into account when discussing this topic in more detail.  

Gender is one of the aspects covered in an insightful article written by Sabatini and Modlinger (2018), aiming to explore what makes an archaeometallurgist, and how archaeologists contribute to scholarly discourse in the field through publications and outreach. The article collates answers from an anonymous questionnaire sent in 2017 to the ARCH­METALS LISTSERV members, a well-established network, with members ranging from scholars with formal degrees to members of the public interested in metallurgy. The article, covering the responses of 133 people, pointed out that, while there are a similar number of male and female doctoral students and post­doctoral students working in archaeometallurgy, there is a striking gender imbalance at higher levels, with seven times more males working as professors and lecturers (Sabatini and Modlinger, 2018). 

I became interested in if and how these figures have changed in the five years since the questionnaire and also more generally over time. Therefore, I asked a series of questions to senior colleagues based in different areas of Europe and the UK on what their observations were during their career in archaeometallurgy. This survey was not intended as a formal statistical study, but rather an informal overview of observations made by those that have worked in the field for many years and may have noticed changes first-hand. 

The current observations show slightly more female archaeometallurgy students compared to those reported in a 2018 survey (Sabatini and Modlinger, 2018), and a similar percentage in more senior positions. From roughly 70% women and 30% men among Master’s students, the percentage shifted to 60% and 40% respectively in the doctoral courses and 50% to 50% among post doctoral.

However, if we look at the students in other material specialisations and places, these figures change significantly. A strong female dominance is seen in students interested in glass, ceramics and textiles, from Master’s to PhD level, but this imbalance decreases at higher levels. From general observation of the different areas in which archaeometallurgy is studied at PhD level, across North America and China there is a similar trend to that previously mentioned in Europe. In Africa, there is a stronger male dominance, while South America is female dominated. 

In summary, as in most other sectors of archaeology, there is a majority of women among archaeometallurgy students, but the proportion changes as we rise up the academic ladder, where in long-term and senior positions males still outnumber females. Archaeometallurgy seem to follow the same trend as archaeology as a whole, in itself vary imbalanced, but a more detailed analysis is required to see the differences between the two.

Those interviewed reported that compared to 20 or 30 years ago when they started their career, there has been an increased majority of female students interested in archaeometallurgy. This change is also reflected, although in smaller proportions, in post-doctoral and lecturing positions. Therefore, the imbalance is slowly being corrected, but there is certainly still a long way to go and significant changes will become more visible on a generational scale.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from this brief presentation of gender status in archaeometallurgy. Firstly, the gender imbalance in archaeometallurgical academic courses seems to be intrinsic to the material. Secondly, most women, although they begin their research path through Master’s and doctoral studies, do not continue, or are not selected for, higher or permanent academic positions. 

In regards to the first point, it is clear that metals have historically been stereotypically male materials, in contrast to, for example, textiles which have generally been more female-led. While the difference in preservation between metal and textiles clearly contributes to the amount of study they receive, part of the imbalance is gender-related. One possible reason for the historic male predominance of archaeometallurgy is that scholars were coming from male-dominated professions such as engineering or physics, as no formal archaeological science or archaeometallugy courses were present until fairly recently. In the past, scholarly discourse was also very much male dominated, therefore in investigating and writing about materials, this contrast has been perpetuated, resulting metallurgy appearing as much more prominent than other materials. While the status, production, social complexity, trade, and display of metals were investigated, women focused on textiles as a domestic activity. As much as this is an equally important aspect of the study of a material, it is only more recently that other aspects of the study of textiles (such as the complex production process, their value and trade) have started to be investigated. Similar discourse occurs within other more female-dominated professions and specialisations such as glass and to a lesser extent, ceramics, possibly linked to their domestic nature. This segregation between men and women perpetuates the problems of today through our reading of the past. As the present-day situation becomes more diverse and equitable, our perspective of the past will gradually become more balanced, and hopefully less divided across gender lines.

As for the second point, the imbalance between female and male representation and employment in higher academic positions is widely known and discussed in greater depth in many official studies and essays. It is suggested that the root of the issue lies within the formal hiring and promotion process. A behavioural and attitudinal shift is required, particularly at senior academic levels, in order to give more opportunities and encouragement to promising prospective female students in those societies that remain male-dominated.