“My home has been being an academic, and being a feminist and being a gender scholar. Lots of other things, too, but that feels like home as much as a physical place,” explained Paula England, NYU Abu Dhabi’s new Dean of Social Science.
England’s past experiences read trailblazer in every sense of the word. She was the Director of the Women’s Studies Program and the Alice Paul Center for Research Center on Women and Gender at University of Pennsylvania and chair of the NYU Department of Sociology. She also served as President of the American Sociological Association from 2014 to 2015 and was an Editor of the American Sociological Review. She has previously taught at NYUAD and has been involved with the institution as affiliate faculty ever since NYUAD has existed.
England grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States. Professionally, she followed in the footsteps of her father, who was also a university professor. Her mother was a homemaker, and this fact has been foundational to England’s feminist and intersectional sensibility: “Back in time, we didn't have much choice about that, although I think she wanted to do it. But, and as was common back then, he got the education, and she didn't. She came from a working class family. And she would have liked to go and do nurses’ training in college, but there wasn't any money for anyone to go to college.”
Her background had a big impact on England: “But the people in the Midwest in the United States, many of them came from Scandinavia … They are of Swedish and Norwegian descent. I bring that up, because there is this kind of Nordic cultural thing, which is, you know, kind of being very calm, and not assuming or bragging [much] … And that was really all around me … Those are really still my roots.”
She found a way to reconnect with her roots later in her life through something that is an important part of her life now: modern mindfulness.
“I was kind of a searcher,” she explained, elaborating on her practice of mindfulness, especially to be more compassionate towards others and to not let any minor disagreement or challenge get in the way of her work and personal goals.
England moved away from home for college to a liberal arts institution in Washington, Whitman College, followed by graduate school at the University of Chicago. After graduating in the 1970s, she eventually joined the University of Texas at Dallas, an institution that was just being built from the ground up.
“It was a startup, just like NYU[AD] was 10 years ago. A lot of the people they hired were young. And so we, these young people kind of starting a university, didn't really know what we were doing,” explained England. She ended up staying at the university for 15 years, the longest academic job that she has had to date.
After UT Dallas, England sailed through a number of different institutions, from the University of Arizona, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, to Stanford University, working in a number of roles, before finally joining New York University more than a decade ago.
But what does she really consider home? For England, that’s not a simple answer.
“When I was in California, I thought I would maybe stay there the rest of my life. When I went to New York, which was partly in conjunction with my life partner, Matt, who I met about 15 years ago while I was in California, he was needing to relocate jobs. We both got a job in New York at the same time … And I suspect that I will return there after I'm finished being Dean. However long that is, retire there.”
Yet as she moved through these various institutions and spaces, she brought with her a set of values, and ways of thinking that continue to define the nature of the work she engages in.
Washington State was where England first came to terms with a feminist sensibility: “I did not define [myself] as a feminist in high school. I never even probably heard of feminism. By the end of college, [I] self-defined as a feminist … But I literally never had a university class on gender, I wasn't offered one.”
England is considered to be a pioneer in setting up a sociology of gender through her research and work in the field of gender equality and closing the gender wage gap. The lack of a field of study about gender within sociology necessitated the employment of an interdisciplinary approach.
When England wrote her dissertation on gender inequality in the workplace, there were only about 10 or 12 articles about the sex gap and pay in the social sciences. And so, she innovated, combining her knowledge about stratification and sociological methods to begin developing a
mode of sociological inquiry into gender.
England highlighted the lack of a legacy and mentoring she faced: “I didn't have a lot of support for the idea that these were important questions, or people to guide me that knew about it.” While the lack of mentoring was an impediment, she remained grateful for the space that her advisor provided nonetheless.
It was a challenge she overcame on her own, eventually finding a network of like-minded scholars for support: “When many of us came into universities, we were really the minority in our departments. And so we kind of reached out to find other women scholars to be friends with and for some support, like I was in a feminist reading group for a long time.”
But her feminist ethos is different from her mode of social inquiry, as England explained: “When I would say I was feminist, more of what I meant was, these are my values, and this is what I hope will happen in the world. But that's somewhat separate from how I analyze the world.”
Since graduate school, the spirit of interdisciplinarity has been a core part of England’s academic work — which has been markedly influential. “I would go and read what the psychologists were doing, and the economists and the sociologists and the public policy people, sometimes the philosophers and so I think a lot of us became more interdisciplinary.” These multi-disciplinary networks became more formalized, especially through experiences such as the MacArthur Grant, which England described as one of the best experiences of her life. It was the same affinity for interdisciplinarity that motivated her to join NYUAD as the Dean of Social Science.
England feels deeply connected to NYUAD’s mission and vision, especially having seen the vision being built over the past decade, especially with its focus on research.
“I think part of what I've resonated with all along about NYUAD is what [is needed] to start up a new university. And both: tak[ing] care of the teaching needs of the students, and also create groups that are doing research,” she explained.
Her experiences in established research universities with excellent academic programs guides her academic strategy at NYUAD: England hopes to develop and work on new doctoral social sciences programs, which will bring more opportunities for research, for both doctoral students and faculty researchers.
“What I want to accomplish as Dean is to help the Social Science Division at NYUAD to become an even more excellent place for research than it already is and build our reputation in more areas than we already have a reputation in; help the faculty that are already here to thrive, develop their own careers [and contribute] to scholarship all around the world. I want to increase gender diversity in the faculty where it's somewhat lacking … I want to try to be smart and skillful about things that I do to try to increase diversity, equity and inclusion,” England explained, underlining her overall strategy as the new Dean.
Feminist, academic, searcher, enterpriser, innovator: these are some of the hats that England has worn throughout her life. She brings a rich amalgamation of her insights and experiences from these numerous positionalities to the Deanship — all of which will greatly influence her work and her style at NYUAD.
Huma Umar is Managing Editor and Laura Moncada is a Staff Writer. Email them at email@example.com.