Women in the Spotlight: Julie Gottlieb


Julie Gottlieb is a Professor of Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. She talks to us about her upcoming projects and her work into addressing gender inequality in the workplace.


Tell us more about your role at the University of Sheffield

I’m a Professor of Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. My own research concerns mainly the interwar period in modern Britain, looking at politics, gender, psychology, and the mental health response to the accelerating international crisis.

I’ve been in a number of roles in the Department of History and in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sheffield. One of the most interesting and satisfying was when I was Chair of the Faculty of Arts EDI Committee. This is a role that I took very seriously, and I was particularly interested in addressing issues of gender inequality and the obstacles in women’s place in moving up the promotions ladder. I had experienced some of these challenges in my own career, and I could bring my experience to the table. I was particularly happy and eager to mentor younger colleagues or colleagues who were finding it difficult to break through that proverbial glass ceiling.

More recently, I have been Impact Lead in the Department of History, as an Impact Case Study myself. There are significant EDI issues in this area of work as well. I have long been concerned about the “impact of impact”, the vulnerability of minorities in public-facing and public engagement in an increasingly hostile public and social media sphere, and the assumed voluntary and emotional labour women tend to take on more readily in delivering impact and knowledge exchange.


What do you enjoy most about working in your sector?

My key partner in my project, which is called The Nervous State, is the renowned playwright, writer, and director Nicola Baldwin. Over the last few years we’ve been working together on an evolving project on dramatizing a source that very poignantly illustrates my thesis that the battles that precipitated the Second World War in Britain was a war of nerves.

It first started with Nicola dramatizing a source that I had rediscovered, which was F.L. Lucas’ Journal Under The Terror, 1938 (1939). Lucas’ Journal had been published in 1939 and had since been all but forgotten. It occurred to me that there were so many parallels with my own, our own moment in time. Lucas was a Cambridge academic, a literary scholar, a public intellectual, a writer in all genres, and he undertook to write this diary for one year, and it was always meant to be published. He probably anticipated that he would be recording the deterioration of world affairs and the deepening political crisis, but what he probably didn’t anticipate was that during the course of this year his wife, Prudence, would experience a nervous breakdown. This breakdown would lead also to the breakdown of their marriage. What was most compelling for Nicola Baldwin and myself—me as historian and Nicola as creative artist– was to try to make sense of what the connection was between the political crisis, the crisis outside, and Prudence’s crisis within, namely her nervous breakdown. This for me has been a fascinating process. First we developed the play, and engaged other dramatists, mental health practitioners, and secondary school teachers and their students. It was always intended to work with multiple stakeholders. From there we teamed up with the Historical Association and teacher educators to curate teaching resources. The ambition with these resources is to embed emotional and psychological literacy in history teaching about appeasement and the count down to war. The resonances of living in times of crisis, in an era of permacrisis, should echo with students and their teachers.

The next and present phase of this project is Nicola’s short feature film “The Nervous State”, which is a dramatization of Lucas’s Journal, allowing the film medium to evolve an innovative, evocative and relatable telling of the story.


How important is innovation within your role/sector?

Ultimately, innovation in the arts and humanities is a different kind of concept and works differently than in say STEM subjects. I would stress that we can be very innovative in history, both in form and content. In the Arts there are opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary work which makes the world a much more accessible, welcoming and therapeutic place. Joining forces as I have with the heritage sector, with psychologists and psychiatrists, with people in the arts making art, can conjure a much better understanding of the world we live in.


What professional achievement are you most proud of?

International Women’s Day is a good moment when one could pause and think about what professional achievements one is most proud of. It’s more about gratitude than pride for me; I certainly have had some amazing experiences, and many opportunities that I’m grateful for.

A definite highlight in my career was acting as historical consultant on the statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, which stands in Parliament Square, and has become a site of historical interest, but a magnet for civic engagement, political protest, political engagement, and education. I’m actually wearing a necklace based on the banner Fawcett holds on the plinth “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”. Indeed, that whole experience, from working with Gillian Wearing to the unveiling, to the media interest, and to taking my own family to visit the statue and be able to tell them their mum had a hand in this national monument, these have been my most treasured moments as a women’s historian, and as a historian participant. It is amazing to think that this monument will be there for generations to come.


What, if any, are the challenges of being a woman working in your sector?

On International Women’s Day it’s natural that we should think about these questions in terms of our own experiences as women in this sector. The challenges have always been there, but they’ve changed, and they evolve at different stages in your career.

It is certainly clear that it’s harder to become a professor. As women we start out with as many, if not more, women lower down the ranks than male counterparts. Getting promoted and being taken seriously and having the time to balance life and work is challenging and won’t go away. However, in the 20 plus years I’ve been a university lecturer working in the sector I’ve seen real and tangible changes, improvements. I’ve seen a lot more regard and an attempt to address issues that mainly women face in achieving that work life balance. Examples include more parental leave, and schemes to give parents returning from leave more time for their research.

Again, there are many people, women especially, who are shut out of the process because of those work-life balance challenges. For those who do stay in the sector, I think there’s a lot more recognition and acceptance that adaptations should be made nurture and keep talent in the universities and in the UK.


What advice would you give to other women working in your sector?

One piece of advice is to persevere, and not to lose hope or lose faith. It can take a long time to settle in to get that permanent job, to get a long term situation, and to continue doing something that you love. That being said, I’ll say this to women at all stages and ages; there’s so much more you can do with a history degree, whether it’s an undergraduate degree or postgraduate, that is not at all a squandering of their investment in education, but indeed a realization of that. Look at everything that’s happened in the last few years, expanding the remit and the understanding of what Academia can do and needs to do, the way it should engage with the world beyond the ivory tower. I think women are particularly well situated to create those links, and to blaze new trails in knowledge exchange, for instance, and make the impact real and tangible.


Can you please tell us more about your interdisciplinary research into the history of suicide?

I re-retooled or reframed my own research by thinking about the impact of political and social crisis on mental health, both collective mental health and individual cases. It has been really exciting to carry out the kind of interdisciplinary work where we use evidence of historical crises to inform the way that we deal with and try to overcome present crises again, both on the collective and on the individual level. So, my interest in the history of suicide has been a way of trying to make that connection between past, present and future. Hopefully this will inform policy in the long term. In the short term, the recognition that our moment in time is not unique or unprecedented, that the aberration isn’t crisis but the opposite, has value for collectives as well as for individuals. There have been great crises in the past, and people have been able to recover and recuperate. In any case, I hope my historical research can contribute to generating a sense of community, understanding, and dialogue between the Arts and the medical sector, for instance.


To hear more about The Nervous State, see: https://player.sheffield.ac.uk/events/nervous-state-collaboration-performances-and-impact