International Women's Day 2020 Spotlight: Karen Smith
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, for the week leading up to IWD (8th March) we will be spotlighting a different female colleague in the School of Law and Social Justice each day on our news stories page.
Today’s spotlight is Karen Smith, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. Karen has been working on her PhD for three years part-time, focusing on the lived experience of care-experienced women who have achieved a university degree and celebrating their stories. Alongside studying for her PhD, Karen is also employed as a social worker and youth worker, as well as being Chief Executive of a community interest company.
1) Tell us about yourself, how long you have worked at the University and what your research interests are:
I came to The University of Liverpool three years ago. I am a part time student and juggle my studies with my employment as a social worker and youth worker, activist, Chief Executive of a community interest company and parent - I home school my 13-year-old son. My research interests are very personal; I am a care-experienced woman and have been especially interested in the project for many, many years.
2) Tell us about your research / a project you are currently working on:
I am interested in what we can discover through reporting on the lived experience of care-experienced women who have managed to achieve a university degree, overcoming numerous barriers and obstacles thrown their way simply by virtue of being in care. I want to celebrate the stories of these women whose narratives are lost in social care files; only to be got by official request, redacted by law. Inevitably, children taken into care come from disadvantaged families where class plays a large role. For girls in care they suffer time and again being passed from home to home, reinventing themselves over and over again; never quite being their ‘own’ self. There comes a point for many of these girls when they lose their identity, forgetting where they came from, not knowing where they are going to and why they are there. Eventually having ‘no self’ at all.
Social class has always played a crucial role in the educational opportunities of girls and women and it appears that care-experienced girls and young women are discriminated against throughout their education being moved from homes more than ten times in a care experience. This has such a detrimental effect on their education as well as other areas like homelessness, unwanted pregnancy, prostitution and sexual exploitation. Given this impossible start in life, how do a very small number of care experienced women obtain university degree’s? We have so much to learn from these women who may be able to share best practice for social workers and foster carers. These women will forever suffer for their early life experiences; never quite belonging to one family or friendship group. Always reinventing themselves unless they can come to terms with who they are and how they arrived at that point. Traditionally, little research has been done directly with children and young people in care and in particular there has been nothing yet with high achieving women.
3) What inspired you to get into your research area?
I arrived at my research as a natural part of my own life journey. It became apparent to me that as I was completing my MA in Social Work I could find nothing about high achieving care experienced women. Women like me. I work with care leavers and part of my role is to try to encourage young people to aspire and achieve. Yet when I took a young woman to her halls of residence on her first day at university (what should have been an exciting day) I realised I was leaving her with a group of people with whom she might never fit in! I recognised the impact of class on care experienced girls and women in a way I had never perceived it before. As a feminist I realised that the only way I might ever be able to help these girls and young women is to work on the research to inform professionals and academics. The only way they might get the acknowledgement they deserve may be to celebrate their journey through their lived experience.
4) What would you hope your research / project might achieve?
I hope that my work would inspire and encourage those working with girls in care to ‘see’ them as potential women, with full adult lives ahead of them and plan for life-long outcomes; encouraging a sense of identity, belonging and stability as well as aspiration and achievement. I would also hope to celebrate the lived experience of care experienced women who to date have been lost to the system. I would like to see professionals recognise the discrimination that is faced by those in care, not see them as a statistic, and how this continues long after women leave care - particularly into health and maternity services.
5) What is your message to women looking to work in roles like yours?
I am really lucky. I am working on research that I truly love and believe in. It forms a large part of my life and my day to day work. I am surrounded by people in my home life, at work and my friends who share the same beliefs as me and we discuss women’s issues and social issues as well as social affairs as a matter of course. This encourages me in my work. My advice would always be to follow your heart. I appreciate that might not bring home the money! However, it is most certainly more absorbing. My advice is to be prepared to have your heart broken a few times though. Everything is not as it seems nor as you might want it.
6) The theme for this year is ‘International Women’s Day is #Eachforequal- what does it mean to you?
I’m an activist. I hold the position of Equality and Diversity Officer for Unison in Wirral and this year IWD means ‘celebrate’. Celebrate where we are at, the road we have travelled to get to this point today and the strong women who have come before us; what they did to make that change happen. But women need other women, and there needs to be so much more change. Women can come together in all sorts of ways to help and support each other, to make change happen. My one hope is that women at university will make an extra attempt to look out for those other women who look a bit lost or who maybe don’t have lots of friends or don’t seem to fit in. There is a reason for that. Go and introduce yourself. You never know, they might be your wife or your chief bridesmaid one day. Your best friend for life.