Having the difficult conversations 

Professor Ilaria Boncori, a professor of Management and Marketing and Deputy Dean for Education for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Essex, is provoking debate with her research on the difficult conversations of gender, identity, sexual orientation and race, as well as hitherto taboo topics such as miscarriage. Here, she talks us through her passion for research and her approach to achieving that all-important, work-life balance…

I had a life before academia. I was working in Shanghai in a marketing and communications role when a friend asked whether I might be interested in teaching at Shanghai University. I was really rather terrified about the prospect of standing in front of 280 students, but I soon realised that I absolutely loved teaching and drawing from my industry experience. 

My education has allowed me to follow my passions. Within my undergraduate degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures from Rome, Italy, I was lucky enough to be able to focus on my passion for languages, so I studied Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan alongside English. I went to China with a postgraduate scholarship, but a SARS outbreak saw me have to return to Italy. I did a Masters in marketing and communications, and an internship at the United Nations, before returning to China with another scholarship. 

My career trajectory hasn’t really been very planned or straightforward.I would say that I have taken it a step at a time and remained open to unexpected developments. When I joined the University of Essex in 2007, at the lowest academic grade, I knew moving institutions would be better for my career progression, but I never found a good enough reason to leave! Over the years, I’ve added responsibilities and grown that way.

I’ve been inspired by those I work with, though sometimes I’ve needed a little nudge too! My female colleagues, particularly those with young families and in senior positions, have been a great source of inspiration and have helped me become more confident in my abilities, and in seizing opportunities regardless of my imposter syndrome! I was promoted to full professor in 2020 and I am a little embarrassed to admit that, had my current line manager not suggested thinking about professorship a couple of years before, I would have probably waited a lot longer to apply.

I never really thought that research would become such a significant and enjoyable aspect of my work, but with hindsight I can see that it was a game changer. At the moment, I am working on a few projects aimed at exploring particular embodied experiences in organisations or situations that marginalise specific groups of people including, for example, miscarriage, stillbirth, and infertility. I am also finalising a commissioned book on ‘writing differently’ in my field. This type of research has been very rewarding to me, and a testimony to the fact that one does not necessarily need to assimilate with masculine hegemonic ways of being an academic, or traditional mainstream ways of researching, in order to progress in academia. 

My PhD supervisor, Professor Heather Höpfl, inspired me to become the scholar I want to be, rather than simply pursue what is considered the ‘right path’ in my field. She showed me the importance of writing and researching what I think is interesting and important, rather than what is best for the ‘academic game’.

I strive to engage in activities that make a positive impact to others. both in my life and academic work.I am particularly interested in aspects of the individual experience that are silenced, ignored, or marginalised in organisations. Inequality and discrimination are rampant worldwide, often fuelled by political landscapes, financial interest, and socio-cultural structures. I believe that individual efforts and voices can make a difference in challenging the status quo and problematise our praxis at the institutional and systemic level. 

Sharing personal experiences in the workplace can lead to better organisations.Often personal experiences, such as the devasting impact miscarriage can have can be silenced or considered taboo in organisations. Management, professionalism and work should not be seen as depersonalised, disembodied and lacking emotion. By sharing and shedding light on these personal experiences in the workplace, we can take a humanistic approach to organisational life and support people in a more effective manner.

Some of the equality-focused conversations I am part of now would have not been possible a few years ago.I have tried to take on roles and responsibilities that help ignite change. My university is by no means perfect, but I have found a genuine openness to dialogue and change. I have been able to propose and implement initiatives to foster equality and inclusion in teaching and learning, and have been involved in drafting strategic plans and consultations on various projects. I have worked with colleagues to create or modify university-wide polices and procedures on a wide range of things including gendered language (titles and pronouns) and baby loss and infertility, all to foster a more enabling environment for staff, students, and visitors.

There is still a long way to go before people have equality of opportunity. Academia is a place of privilege and discrimination. Although we have seen an improvement in the statistics over the past decade, the overall picture is still rather bleak: the vast majority of senior and leadership positions in the sector are occupied by white, cisgender, middle-class men of a certain age. 

Ihave become a lot better at establishing and maintaining my boundaries. Since having my daughter four years ago, I do not work evenings or weekends unless there is an emergency – that is family time. My husband and I are a great team, which helps. I have had to make some changes over the years, to become more efficient in my work and with my time management. Also, I constantly negotiate with myself on what is essential and desirable in the various aspects of my life and try to be kind to myself regardless of my hyper-perfectionist-critical nature! Sometimes I have to say no to some roles, projects, or collaborations, in order to maintain an acceptable workload and protect my wellbeing.