Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

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Interview on Acadames podcast

webfront8Earlier this year I took part in an interview for Acadames, a super-cool podcast “that explores whether being a woman in academia is a dream, game, or scam”. The episode is now available! I really enjoyed speaking with Whitney  Robinson about my work, and hope you will enjoy our conversation just as much.

Today Whitney speaks with Dr. Ruth Pearce, a social researcher and feminist scholar based at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Ruth discusses her current work with the Trans Pregnancy project, why gender equity schemes are so important in academia, and offers tips for resiliency when facing online harassment and political backlash. Along the way, she shares stories of her life as a trans woman, how academic institutions in the UK differ from those in the US, and the similarities between organizing a concert and organizing a conference.

Click here to listen.

Gender equality, ambivalence and Athena SWAN

This morning I was delighted to see that an article about Athena SWAN I co-authored with Charikleia Tzanakou has been pre-published online.

Entitled ‘Moderate feminism within or against the neoliberal university? The example of Athena SWAN‘, the article reflects on findings from research undertaken by Tzanakou in 2013-2017 and myself in 2017, looking at the experiences of individuals involved in Self-Assessment Teams (SATs) for the Athena SWAN gender equality scheme. It will eventually be published in a special issue of the journal on the topic of ‘moderate feminisms’.

You can read the article here (for free!) in the journal Gender, Work & Organization.

Something we thought about a great deal when writing the article was our own ambivalence regarding Athena SWAN.

On the one hand, we found that the scheme tends to play an undue burden on women, who are disproportionately represented on SATs and can face hostility from colleagues and managers for undertaking the assessment process. Some women even reported being threatened or turned down for jobs if their department, school or faculty failed to obtain an Athena SWAN award, even though this typically reflected the failings of the institution rather than the SAT. Women experiencing intersecting forms of marginalisation were particularly vulnerable, and trans people were rarely acknowledged at all. We regarded this as a consequence of the neoliberal context in which Athena SWAN operates, in which the scheme may be regarded as “just another metric”, a box-ticking exercise with a reductionist notion of womanhood.

On the other hand, several participants did argue that Athena SWAN had helped to raise awareness of gender inequalities in their institution, leading male colleagues especially to take the issue more seriously. In some cases, SATs used the scheme to push for important changes, such as better support mechanisms and financial support for new parents, more diverse and intersectional curricula, and gender neutral toilets. Of particular benefit for this purpose was the requirement for continual re-assessment every few years should institutions want to retain their Athena SWAN award, or upgrade from Bronze to Silver or from Silver to Bronze. This requirement for re-assessment gives the award “teeth”, meaning that institutions can sometimes be actually held to account for actively pursuing the action plan they have to draw up in order to obtain an award.

I also reflected on some of these negative aspects of Athena SWAN and potential benefits in a report published by the University of Warwick Centre for the Study of Women and Gender in 2017: Certifying Equality? – A critical reflection on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation.

Ultimately, Athena SWAN is not simply “good” or “bad”. It is often implemented poorly, and suffers from operating within a neoliberal environment, but has the potential to be used as a tool for real change. Multiple actors are responsible for how the scheme works in practice.

If you are a SAT member, I would urge you to see Athena SWAN not simply as a box-ticking exercise, but as a means through which universities might be required to change their practices and provide additional resources. Think about how your team might take a more intersectional approach to planning actions, and if you receive an award, use it to hold your institution to account.

If you are a Head of Department/School/Faculty or otherwise work in university management, I would urge you to remember that inequalities abound in our institutions; Athena SWAN offers a real opportunity to reflect on and address this. Identifying the problem does not necessarily reflect poorly on your institution, but failing to act certainly does.

Finally, I should note that there is currently an ongoing review of Athena SWAN, which closes on the 28th January. I encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to respond to it!

Athena SWAN Steering Group listening exercise consultation

Staff sexual misconduct: new research and ways forward

Last week I attended an important event on staff-to-student sexual misconduct in UK Higher Education institutions. The event included a summary of new research showing the huge challenges students face in reporting sexual misconduct, and reflections on how best to tackle misconduct and reform reporting mechanisms. It was hosted by The 1752 Group, who are working hard to end staff-to-student misconduct in Higher Education. My talk focused on Athena SWAN. I reflected on how self-assessment teams can make use of the process to push for better reporting mechanisms in their institutions.

One of the most important aspects of the day was the focus on power. The very real power differential between lecturers/tutors/supervisors and their students is rarely acknowledged within academia. By ignoring this power relation or pretending that it is not relevant to sexual encounters, Higher Education institutions and those of us who work in them do our students an enormous disservice.

We heard some harrowing stories from researchers and survivors, but I also left inspired by the commitment of those who gathered to consider how best to create change. For decades now, stories of sexual misconduct have been silenced and covered up, which has effectively enabled perpetrators to continue their abuse. Through bringing together people with a range of expertise to reflect openly on themes such as power, complicity and accountability, we can begin to end the silence and think about practical solutions.

You can read a full account of the day from myself and other Twitter users on Storify here.

 

Report: “Certifying Equality? A critical reflection on Athena SWAN”

Certifying EqualityEarlier this year I organised an event on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation for the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick. It was a really great opportunity for attendees from a range of HE institutions to reflect on the benefits and limitations of equality accreditation schemes, and share thoughts on our experiences of Athena SWAN.

I’ve now completed a report on the event, which I hope will be helpful for galvanising discussions in universities that participate in the Athena SWAN charter mark.

You can download the report here.

It includes reflections and insights from the Certifying Equality event, including:

  • Background to Athena SWAN
  • Athena SWAN as a catalyst for change
  • The contradictions of equality accreditation
  • Proposals for change
  • Presentation summaries

If you find this document helpful and interesting, please do help distribute it by sharing with your colleagues!

 

 

Concerts in Coventry: 24th June, 29th July

I’m involved in organising two exciting events at Coventry’s Tin Music and Arts over the coming month.

This coming Saturday sees the return of feminist club night Revolt, complete with bands, DJs, spoken word, zines and our Feminist Library. I’ll be opening the night with my band Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

For tickets and more info, click here.

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On Saturday 29th July we’ll be treated to a performance by CN Lester, who will be performing songs from their new album Come Home and reading from their great new book Trans Like Me.

For tickets and more info, click here.

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Entry will also be available on the door on a donations basis (suggested donation £5, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds).

 

Event: Trans Feminism talk at University of Wolverhampton (10 March)

Friday 10th March, 2017
City Campus, University of Wolverhampton
1.30pm in MD165

I will be talking about some of the key issues and debates in trans feminism as part of the University of Wolverhampton’s International Women’s Week programme, highlighting areas of commonality and difference between the political struggles of trans women and cis women. I will also explore both historical and contemporary disputes over the place of trans issues (including challenges faced by trans men and non-binary people) within a women’s movement.

(Free) registration for the event is available here.