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.

Revolt #10
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.

CN Lester.png
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.

Certifying Equality? A critical perspective on Athena SWAN (17 February)

certifying-equality-posterI’m currently part of a team working on an Athena SWAN submission for the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Many of us are feminist academics. The process has got us thinking both about how equality accreditation mechanisms such as Athena SWAN can create space for new ways of thinking and tackling sexism, and also about what can go “missing” or get “lost” in such processes. For example, there isn’t much space for an interrogation of intersecting inequalities in Athena SWAN (or Race Equality Mark) submissions.

We’ve therefore decided to organise an event to think about and discuss some of these issues. It will be taking place on Friday 17th February in the Wolfson Research Exchange, University of Warwick Library.

Further details and a registration form can be found here.

I have seen the future of feminism, and it is beautiful

Yesterday’s social media furore over a dodgy letter to the Observer left me questioning my place within the women’s movement for the umpteenth time. However, within hours I was powerfully reminded that those who advocate an exclusive feminism are less influential and important than they might like to think.

Last night I joined a room of people committed to building a feminism that is compassionate, reflexive, inclusive of all women and sensitive to our different experiences.

Last night I found myself in a room of brown, black and white faces; gay, bi and straight; cis and trans; working class and middle class; disabled and abled. Last night I heard a teenage Muslim woman speak out about the importance of representing all faiths in activism after a question from a Jewish woman in the audience. Last night I heard from a white middle-class straight woman who has turned up to learn with an open mind. Last night I heard cis women talk about about trans rights, and felt that my identity and experience as a woman was simply not in question.

I had been invited to contribute to a panel discussion at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU). Entitled How do we make the Women’s Movement intersectional?, the panel was was of UBU’s “Festival of Liberation“, which also includes events looking at the challenges faced by LGBT people, disabled people, and people of colour. I was honoured to share a panel with three truly awesome women: Susuana Antubam and Sammi Whitaker of the NUS Women’s Campaign, and Fahma Mohamed of Integrate Bristol.

Panellists at UBU's intersectional feminist event
Last night was promising and encouraging and heartwarming, and was not unusual in being so. I have seen similar scenes repeated across the country over the last few years at talks, workshops, protests and riot grrrl gigs.

This is the new feminism. A feminism that is discarding the model of monolithic female oppression and in its place building a movement around diversity and inclusion. A feminism that seeks to base both theory and action upon what different groups of women have to say about their lives and experiences, rather than imposing a top-down model of liberation drawn from academic theory. A feminism that sees cis and straight women take responsibility for supporting the work of their trans and queer sisters, white women take responsibility for supporting the work of their sisters of colour, abled women take responsibiity for supporting the work of their disabled sisters and so on.

Last night we talked about the importance of intersectionality as feminist praxis: of putting ideas into action. We talked about the importance of education: of sharing the knowledge and tools necessary for women’s liberation with people of all genders. We talked about the importance of representation: of working to ensure that women of all backgrounds feel welcome and able to attend feminist events through the use of accessible venues, ensuring diversity within organising teams and (where relevant) speakers/acts, and thinking about the language we use. We talked about the benefits of building groups around intersectional identities (such as black womanhood); groups that can then work alongside other bodies of people with a broader remit, feeding in ideas and holding them to account.

We talked about calling people out and challenging oppressive behaviour both within wider society and within the feminist movement. We also talked about being kind and prepared to forgive, and allowing people space to learn and grow. We talked about how everyone will make mistakes, because intersectional feminism is a constant experience of doing and being, rather than a closed process where you jump through a series of hoops and then become a Good Feminist who is capable of always passing judgement upon others.

We talked about our experiences of activism. Fahma talked about giving a piece of her mind to a nervous Michael Gove, resulting in a letter to every school in the country about FGM. Sammi talked about productive conversations with working class male friends, and building liberation into the very fabric of Anglia Ruskin’s fledgling Students’ Union. Susuana talked about her work on addressing lad culture as a gendered, racialised and classist phenomenon. I talked about my contributions to trans and non-binary inclusion within the NUS Women’s Campaign, and how we seek a diverse range of performers for Revolt, Coventry’s feminist punk night. We heard stories and ideas and questions from the audience, and I reflected on how we were not “experts” with a monopoly on solutions, but just one part of a wider movement.

These are just some of the things that we talked about.

So why have I been led to question my place within the women’s movement?

Because I see Julie Bindel referring to other feminists as “stupid little bellends” whilst misgendering trans women, arguing that bisexuals do not experience oppression, and stating that Muslim women who wear religious dress are necessarily oppressed. Because I see Rupert Read suggesting that trans women should not be allowed to use public toilets. Because I see Beatrix Campbell repeating and defending these ideas.

When I read things like this, I am repelled by a feminism that is harsh, bitter and exclusionary.

When feminists gaslight me by claiming repeatedly that the individuals who wrote these articles are not transphobic I am saddened and confused.

When I hear about feminists disrupting conversations at events such as AFem in order to promote an agenda that excludes trans people and sex workers, I am disappointed and worried.

When I see exclusionary events like Radfem 2013 and Femifest 2014 promoted within feminist spaces and supported by organisations like Women’s Aid and Reclaim The Night London I am alarmed and concerned.

When I see feminist women and men – including both public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances – sign a misleading letter that condemns attempts to debate and contest the above, I wonder how voices of those who work for an inclusive and diverse feminism can possibly stand against a “letter mob” representing the discursive might of the liberal Establishment.

The stakes are high. Too many of my friends have considered suicide. Too many of my friends have died. When I talk to my trans friends and fellow activists, I hear about fragile mental health, doctors and shopkeepers refusing to provide services, threats of violence and attacks in the street. All of these things are fuelled by the dehumanisation of trans people, the idea that we require intervention to save us from the misguided path of transition, the implication that we do not deserve to exist within public spaces. These discourses are perpetuated by feminists and defended by liberals in the name of “free speech”.

I don’t believe in historical inevitability and don’t buy into progression narratives. I had a debate about trans-exclusive feminisms with Jack Halberstam recently. Jack echoed my PhD supervisor in arguing that trans-exclusive feminisms are outdated and irrelevant, long-dismissed within the academic world. But the academic world is often divorced from the reality of the feminist movement on the ground. In this reality, exclusive feminisms continue to fester.

In spite of all of this, last night reminded me of the power and appeal of the new, intersectional feminism. It is this feminism that is popular amongst young people who are more interested in working together than apart, and veteran activists with the humility to share their ideas and wisdom with newcomers on an equal footing.

This feminism requires work and nurture, but – as I argued last night – this does not need to be an entirely arduous task. Working together across our differences and ensuring that more people feel welcome and included makes us stronger. Learning new things from others can be interesting and exciting. Having the strength to learn from our mistakes solidifies friendships and alliances. Discovering a more diverse range of feminist histories, activisms and performances can be fun and empowering.

The new feminism is beautiful. Let’s keep building.