The Steppe Sisters Network
Who are we?
Steppe Sisters (founded 2017) is an international networking group dedicated to connecting all women and other underrepresented groups who conduct research in Central Asia (specifically countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States), Mongolia, and China. We bridge boundaries and encourage cross cultural exchange of ideas, resources, and support to encourage professional advancement.
The initial idea for Steppe Sisters originated over a dinner of plov (fig. 1), as Alicia Ventresca Miller and Ashleigh Haruda celebrated a smooth and successful research trip to multiple cities across Kazakhstan. As they recounted all the horror stories of previous projects they had been on and how many promising female colleagues had not progressed to permanent positions, they realised how important networks of women researchers were to retaining women in our profession. By helping each other with simple things, such as practical advice, to larger things, such as advice on writing grants or job applications, Alicia and Ashleigh realised that they already had the beginnings of a network, and jokingly called each other ‘Steppe Sisters’. From there, it was only a matter of time until we expanded to include others.
In early 2020, we expanded the steering committee, and have now grown to include 12 women researchers in the human sciences from across the globe:
- Ainash Childebayeva is a bioanthropologist interested in epigenetics of high-altitude adaptation and exploring population histories of Europe and Central Asia using ancient DNA methods.
- Aiya Raissova is a biological anthropologist/bioarchaeologist who uses 3D modelling techniques and other lines of evidence to better understand ancient populations in Kazakhstan.
- Alicia Ventresca Miller is a bioarchaeologist who applies biomolecular techniques to investigate how shifts in food production intersect with the emergence of complex societies.
- Ashleigh Haruda is a zooarchaeologist with research interests in how humans have modified and changed animals in the past.
- Cecilia Conte is an archaeologist with research interests in pastoralism, rock art, and interspecies and more-than-human relationships in Inner Asia.
- Dilnoza Duturaeva is a historian who researches trade roads and networks and their role in globalisation processes across Medieval Eurasia.
- Dilrabo Tosheva is an architectural historian who specialises in built environments of Central Asia in the Medieval period.
- Elissa Bullion is a bioarchaeologist who specialises in human osteology and mortuary archaeology, and understanding how labour, identity and environment shape population interaction across Central Asia.
- Katie Campbell is an archaeologist specialising in the urban archaeology of historic periods in Central Asia, and her research interests include ‘Silk Road’ cities, and the Mongols and the Mongol Conquest.
- Kristen Hopper is a landscape archaeologist who uses GIS and remote sensing techniques to research settlement and land use across ancient Southwest and Central Asia.
- Leslee Michelsen is an art historian, archaeologist and museum curator specialising in art and archaeology of Medieval Central Asia, and contemporary art and art making across Asia.
- Mariana Castro is an archaeologist who focuses on the archaeology of mobility, interaction and exchange in pre-Islamic landscapes of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Since then, our community has grown to include nearly 250 ‘steppe sisters’ across the world.
What do we do?
Our primary aim is to support early career women researchers who work in, and do research about Central Asia, and create connections between academic traditions. We support women-led academic development through different avenues. This includes:
- Hosting closed forums and discussion groups for all women and underrepresented groups that are limited to Steppe Sisters members. The rationale for this is simple – we aim to provide safe and supportive spaces where members can communicate, build networks, and support each other.
- Providing opportunities for training, knowledge exchange and mentorship both online and in person.
- Sharing news about external opportunities in Central Asia, Europe and the US.
Non-members can still follow our work on social media, and on our website, and can contribute to the community by offering capacity building activities.
The activities of Steppe Sisters are currently supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Alumni Award, which was granted to Dilnoza Duturaeva in 2021. This allowed us to launch our very own website in December 2021. The website is another portal for news and information relevant to our community. It’s a great way to get in touch with us, and hopefully it will provide a platform for new and exciting endeavours in the future. Importantly, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Alumni Award, along with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, have also allowed us to hold our very first Steppe Sisters and Humboldtians conference in 2022.
The Steppe Sisters Early Career Conference
The process of planning our very first conference was exciting and, of course, challenging, as the steering committee members are scattered across several time zones! Since the early planning stages, it was clear to us that we did not want a typical academic conference. Instead, we wanted to create a series of workshops focussing on research skills which would be useful for early career researchers and women especially.
We shared our call for participants across our various social media platforms and were delighted to receive over 120 applications – showing that there is a real need and interest in this kind of conference. We selected 37 applicants from Central Asia, as well as Europe, based on their general motivation and compatibility with the Steppe Sisters’ social sciences and humanities focus.
The steering committee proposed many different sessions and decided on which to include in the conference program based on the participants’ interest. We also decided to run parallel sessions so that everyone could choose to visit a workshop catered to their own interest and needs – be it learning how to make maps, read a scientific paper, or choose a good supervisor!
The conference took place at the Institute of Archaeology in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, from the 5th to 7th of September 2022. Thanks to generous funding from the Humboldt Foundation and Doris Duke Foundation, we were able to cover travel, accommodation, food and childcare costs for all participants. It was very important to us as a women’s network to provide financial support to overcome the challenges that many women face in participating and progressing in academia.
Arriving in Tashkent was an exciting moment – some of us were travelling for the first time since the pandemic, and it was also the first time the Steppe Sisters’ steering committee met all together in person! We stayed at the Hotel Uzbekistan (fig. 2), which is famed for its Soviet architecture and central location opposite Temur Square.
On September 5th the conference opened with a warm welcome from Dilnoza Duturaeva (University of York), who did an incredible job at putting together this conference, at none other than her alma mater the National Center of Archaeology! Ashleigh Haruda (University of Oxford) & Alicia Ventresca-Miller (University of Michigan) said a few words about their motivation for starting Steppe Sisters and commented on how far the network has come along in the last few years. Here you can have a look at our amazing conference program.
Thinking back on the conference, Dilnoza Duturaeva said “women are marginalised in academia across the globe and face many challenges in the profession, including the gendered aspects of networking and mentoring”. The conference was planned with great care and love to detail, setting a pleasant atmosphere which was ideal for everyone to get to know each other professionally and socially. There was something very special about having a conference for women that was planned by women.
On day 2 we continued with our diverse program at the National Center of Archaeology (fig. 3). Soon you will also be able to find the resources and recordings from the conference on our website and YouTube channel. The second day also had a greater focus on gender issues in academia. Sibylle Lustenberger & Andrea Boscoboinik (University of Fribourg) shared their experience on gender sensitive research and teaching, which was of great interest to all students and teachers present. Cecilia Conte (Humboldt University) held an awareness workshop on sexual harassment during fieldwork. This topic, and harassment in academia more generally, is not explicitly talked about enough. The workshop aimed to provide a safe space for those who wanted to share their experiences as well as resources. Moving forward, our goal is to make fieldwork a safer place for women and other underrepresented groups.
On day 3 we made an exciting visit to the manuscript collection of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, which was even recorded by national television! You can watch it here. The second part of the last day was dedicated to discussing the outcomes of the conference and future steps to take. It was important for us to provide ample time for feedback in order to further develop the network and eventually plan the next conference. At the end, every participant got a diploma, in true Central Asian fashion (fig. 4)!
A key aspect of the conference was creating contacts between scholars in Central Asia, Europe, North America and Australia to support each other as women in academia – and we definitely succeeded! Dilnoza Duturaeva, who organised the conference, summed up the experience by saying “networking with highly talented early career researchers during the conference left me full of hope for the future of women in academia.”
What do we have planned for the future?
In the medium-term, we are working on providing mentorships that link early career scholars with experienced researchers and professionals in their field of interest. We are also planning to offer small grants for research and open-access publishing.
Soon there will also be a regular Steppe Sisters newsletter, which you will be able to sign up for via the website. The newsletter will give an overview of upcoming major funding and research opportunities and share the achievements of our members. Other projects in the work include our curated online Steppe Sisters library, and a code of conduct for fieldwork.
If you would like to join us and contribute to our community through our various channels, feel free to follow us and get in touch via:
The Steppe Sisters website: www.steppesisters.org
Cecilia Conte is an archaeologist who is specialising further in Central Asian studies. Her focus lies with Mongolia, Siberia, and Uzbekistan. She is teaching undergraduate seminars at the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Humboldt University in Berlin. Cecilia is the social media representative for Steppe Sisters and is actively working on making fieldwork a safer space for women.
Kristen Hopper is an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, UK. She studies the archaeological landscapes of Southwest and Central Asia using field survey and satellite remote sensing. Kristen is the current chair of the Steppe Sisters Steering Committee and is actively working on initiatives focused on promoting more equitable and sustainable international research collaborations, and gender equality in academia.