I recently read a fantastic account of how the archaeological career unfolded for one of my mentors. The career of this individual meandered in many different atmospheres of archaeology, from typical undergraduate training, to working for the US federal government, before finally landing a tenure track position in the University system. This account got me thinking about all of the opportunities and hardships this person faced as a growing archaeologist and how those experiences compared to mine.
I have been practicing archaeology since 2001, my first field school, and currently work in the realm of cultural resource management. I am self-employed but am closely connected to a First Nations owned and operated archaeological consulting firm. I chose archaeology as a career because I love to study history and how other people, or other cultures, go about living their daily lives. My degree is in anthropology and I feel my approach to working with heritage resources reflects many of the philosophies associated with anthropology. I did not chose this career because of capitalistic motives, although I recognized early on that one has to make a living doing something and there was a career to be had in consulting archaeology. My parents were career government electricians, so an academic career was never even something I had dreamed of obtaining. I simply wanted successful a career, (and a job,) just like my parents. But I wanted a career that I liked doing, and I was determined to make the best of it in archaeology.
My first job was working for the USDA Forest Service in Eureka, Montana. I was thrilled to have landed this job before I even had my BA in hand. My boss was a career CRM archaeologist and turned out to be a fantastic mentor. She told me, “Emily, all that stuff you learned in school, forget it. The theory is great, but we have to teach you how to find sites, record them, do the paperwork and move on to the next project on budget.” I thought, “OK, lets go.” It seemed really cool at the time that I was going to get paid to hike through the bush in some of the most beautiful country in the US and look for remnants of human existence (both precontact and post contact). I also thought it was great that I got to dabble in public archaeology-a necessary component to keep tax-payers interested in funding archaeology with their hard earned cash. To me, this was the best job I had ever had.
By my second season, I started to realize that there was real opportunity for me to climb the ranks with the federal government, (especially being a woman). But, I also realized that if I got too comfortable, my life would become too entangled to pursue a Master’s degree, which is something that can help a young archaeologist climb to the highest echelons in government work relatively quickly. By the end of my second year in Montana, I applied to grad school at the University of British Columbia and was accepted.
I chose to specialize in lithic analysis as part of my graduate training. I knew that lithics were everywhere across the globe and most of the artifacts I found working in Montana were of the stone variety (for precontact sites). I did not choose lithics because I liked banging rocks together and cutting up dead animals. I liked problem solving and I decided there was a real opportunity to put this artifact class to work gaining insight into past socio-economic and technological strategies. I just had to learn how to do it.
My big break came in 2008, when I got an opportunity to work on a lithic collection from a precontact village located in southwestern British Columbia. The analysis of lithic tool assemblages from this project became my Master’s thesis. The added bonus of this project was that it was part of a cultural resource management project. This gave me much needed experience in consulting archaeology in British Columbia. I thought this was my ticket to gaining respect with future colleagues and for obtaining gainful employment in the province.
Interestingly, once the project was complete (which took about 2 years), my co-workers (mostly all women archaeologists) and I had to start exploring the world of consulting archaeology outside of our salvage project bubble. We quickly learned about the good ol’ boys club and how there are certain expectations for how women archaeologists are to behave. I personally received comments about my interest in lithics and how it is weird because it is usually men that want to learn about lithics. I learned of female colleagues who were called ‘princesses’ in staff meetings with no recourse to the perpetrators. A colleague in Montana relayed a story to me about how women archaeologists were systematically pushed out of a private company she briefly worked for. I read a blog where a pregnant female archaeologist had to let her crew chief know of her pregnancy for health and safety reasons and was responded with, “I’ve never had to work with one of your types before.” All of this took me off guard because my experience with the forest service was very positive and encouraging. Before entering the world of private consulting archaeology, I thought that all of that sexism had either been quashed or had become very unusual.
To add insult to injury, I consistently witnessed male colleagues experiencing greater opportunities for mentorship with superiors while many women archaeologists struggled to gain respect through more traditional means such as demonstrating they are hard workers. I’ve talked with many female colleagues who leave the industry after having children because the expectations and hours associated with the consulting industry are not conducive to daycare and school schedules-I struggle with this one myself. I also have to acknowledge that not all of these situations are rooted in gender bias. Consulting archaeology is conventionally rooted in the old school tradition of ‘cowboy’ archaeology. Cowboy archaeology targets both men and women that are seen as ‘soft’.
These observations and frustrations aside, I do feel that a new generation of archaeologists is emerging. I have many male colleagues who are understanding and do their best to make necessary adjustments to keep valuable employees regardless of their sex, gender, or family situations. It is not all negative, but there is room for improvement. I feel lucky every day I am able to keep working in archaeology, look at rocks, ask questions about the past, and raise a family all at the same time. I just hope that we as an industry continue to recognize the contributions that women make in this field and progress towards a culture of inclusion rather than one of every man for himself.