Introducing the Gender Equality in Asian Studies Group

By Denise Ho, Margaret Mih Tillman, Brigid Vance, and Shellen Wu

One woman nearly broke down in tears as she described her travails attending a previous Association for Asian Studies conference as a new mother. At the time, AAS provided no nursing facilities during the annual conference. She could not find a place to pump in the conference space and in desperation had to track down and borrow a friend’s hotel room. Others had stories of their experiences doing research in Asia (where they were frequently asked, “Who is taking care of your husband!?”) and the difficulties women in particular encounter in doing fieldwork. Someone else mentioned the frustrations and lack of mentorship that come with working in departments of mostly older men. The outpouring of stories was a wake-up call and made us realize the real need for an advocacy group and network for women in Asian Studies. We hope to not only provide a forum to share our experiences and advice, but also to create a platform to push for change in the field.

The Gender Equality in Asian Studies Group began in 2014 at an informal gathering at the AAS annual conference in Philadelphia, where Shellen Wu and Denise Ho convened a long-running lunch meeting that was mainly attended by young women who circled in and out of the conversation. That discussion quickly revealed some common interests and concerns about gender equality in Asian Studies in Europe, the United States, and Asia. In 2015, the Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China provided part of the allotted space and time for their business meeting for a gathering of interested conference attendees. This widely attended event attracted an even larger group of men and women, who shared the stories described above. As a result of the 2015 meeting, we forwarded concerns about the lack of nursing facilities to the AAS program committee, which responded to these requests by providing a nursing room for the annual conference beginning in 2016. At the 2016 AAS, we hosted a discussion about publishing with the managing editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and an acquisitions editor from Stanford University Press. At each meeting, we have attempted to address a different facet of the various forms of structural bias women and minorities commonly encounter in academia.

This year we became formally affiliated with AAS. We hope to carry forward an effort first started nearly thirty years ago. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Association for Asian Studies Committee on Women in Asian Studies convened meetings that included such foundational leaders as Mary Elizabeth Berry, Dorothy Ko, Dorinne Kondo, Sheldon Garon, Sally Hastings, Gail Hershatter, Emily Honig, Sucheta Mazumdar, and Margery Wolf. Together, they helped to promote gender analysis in Asian Studies, and provided a platform for academic discussions of the subject. We are especially excited to welcome some of the original members of the AAS Committee on Women in Asian Studies to this year’s event. At the 2017 Toronto AAS meeting, we have invited Gail Hershatter (UC Santa Cruz), Matthew Sommer (Stanford University), Anne Feldhaus (Arizona State University), and Sally Hastings (Purdue University) to share their advice about professional development. Our goal is to pool advice for best practices for graduate students, early and mid-career academics, as well as those holding senior positions of leadership in the field. In addition, we hope to start a discussion about new trends and directions in the profession, and how we might best promote diversity and gender equality.

As beneficiaries of the groundwork laid back in the 1980s and 90s, our group seeks to address some practical issues that early career professionals are now facing, especially as they pertain to issues of gender equity and diversity on college campuses. 

We welcome questions and suggestions regarding further events at AAS meetings. Please contact Denise Ho (, Margaret Mih Tillman (, Brigid Vance (, or Shellen Wu (

The Gender Equality in Asian Studies Group meeting will be held on Saturday, March 18 from 1:00 to 2:30pm in the Linden Room on the Mezzanine level of the Sheraton Centre Toronto. Please note that the meeting is listed in the conference program under the name “Holding Up Half the Sky.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this blog post mistakenly stated that childcare subsidies for attendees at the annual conference were not provided before 2016. They were in fact made available by the AAS in 2009, and the post has been corrected.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday