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

How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, as burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and Equality Act 2010 was yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to talk with. People with a very deep, complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas for this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism even as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as “gender critical” conversations become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. A precious few survived the AIDS crisis and surrounding moral panic. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

Video: Transgender Moral Panic – A Brief Social History

In February 2018, I was invited to deliver a guest lecture at the University of Warwick as part of the “Hidden Histories” series.

In the last year there has been an enormous upsurge in media commentary that expresses concern about the role of trans people in public life. Gendered changing rooms, non-binary people, trans children and notions of self-definition have all come under intense scrutiny.

In the talk, I explored the background to the recent wave of media coverage. I argued that the transgender moral panic has been shaped by deep-seated cultural anxieties around sex and gender, taking in trans-exclusionary radical feminism, homophobic discourse, scientific racism, Brexit, and proposed changes to gender recognition laws.


Recommended further reading

Meg-John Barker (2017)
2017 Review: The Transgender Moral Panic

Combahee River Collective (1977)
The Combahee River Collective Statement

Emi Koyama (2000)
Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate

Emi Koyama (2001)
The Transfeminist Manifesto

C. Riley Snorton (2017)
Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity

Christan Williams and Gillian Frank (2016)
The Politics of Transphobia: Bathroom Bills and the Dialectic of Oppression


Corrections

I made two minor errors in unprepared asides during the talk, which I correct here for the sake of transparency.

  • Lily Madigan was elected to the position of Women’s Office in her constitutency Labour party at the age of 19, not 17.
  • David Davis was a co-founder of Radio Warwick (RaW), not David Davies.

 

WE ARE REVOLTING: my first Trans Pride

There are a couple of looks I am very familiar with as a trans person.

One is primarily a look of confusion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you were wearing a boot on your head. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people don’t know how to respond.

One is primarily a look of disapproval, communicating a barely-contained sense of disgust or revulsion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you have smeared shit all over your face and are walking down the street as if nothing is wrong. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people are very unimpressed, but perhaps aren’t quite yet ready to shout or spit at you. But you imagine that they would quite like to.

I’m very used to these looks because I have received them a lot over the course of my life. More often when I was younger, my face and body as yet unchanged by oestrogen. But I still receive such looks now and again to this day, particularly when I put less effort into conforming to stereotypical expectations about how a woman should look or carry herself. Perhaps I have put on less makeup, or I am wearing baggy clothes, or I haven’t brushed my hair for a couple of hours.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate than me. People don’t just look at them. The looks are merely where it starts. Then people shout at them, or spit, or throw stones. People pinch their arses or grope their breasts. I hear these stories from my trans friends pretty regularly. It’s like everyday sexism with the volume turned up.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate still. People stalk them. People assault them. People rape them. People kill them.

They do this because we are revolting.

It starts with a look. Call it the cis gaze.

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Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I felt the revulsion. It was visceral. It was contained. It could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

Today I took part in a Trans Pride march for the first time.

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Waiting for a bus before the march. Photo by Sophie Wilson.

Trans people have, of course, taken part in LGBT Pride marches for as long as they have existed. Trans Pride marches, however, are a relatively new phenomenon. The first Trans Pride in the UK took place in Brighton in 2013.  I attended Trans Pride Leeds, which is in its first ever year.

I have previously marched in LGBT Pride parades in Birmingham and London, and attended Pride parties in Coventry and Leamington Spa. On these occasions, people throng the streets. There is a sense of celebration. There is a giant street party. People come out to see the happy gays. They mostly look on with enjoyment. It is a family affair.

At Birmingham Pride one year, I was stopped by a “community safety officer”, who objected to my placard. It was not family friendly, he said. If I didn’t destroy or cover it up, he would call a police officer and I would be arrested. At London Pride one year, some people sought to control entry to a women’s toilet, ejecting at least one trans woman in the process.

Trans people are not necessarily welcome at LGBT Pride events. Or, if we are, we are not as welcome as many of our cis gay, lesbian, bi and queer siblings. Or, if we are, we are not seen or celebrated in the same way. We are not as safely contained.

But: there are a lot more cis gay, lesbian bi and queer people at LGBT Pride than there are trans people. We disappear into the crowd. We cause less confusion. We bring less disapproval. We do not so easily revolt.

This is why Trans Pride is important. This is why Trans Pride is necessary.

 

 

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Today is Trans Day of Visibility, apparently. In the UK, trans people are more visible than ever.

Visibility has brought new dangers. We are currently subject to an unprecedented hate campaign in the media, spearheaded by “respectable” publications such as The Times and The New Statesman. On the Internet, we have attracted the dangerous attentions of a resurgent neo-nazi movement, their anti-trans campaigns bolstered by useful idiots who claim to oppose trans rights in the name of feminism.

Visibility has brought new opportunities. We see more of one another. We are more organised than ever. We have grassroots organisations in every city. We are producing art, music, plays, and films that speak to our own interests and concerns. We are marching in protest, we are marching in Pride. We seek gender liberation.

It will be a very long, very hard fight, but we are going to change the world.

We are revolting.

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Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I returned the gaze. I held my placard high. I shouted, joyously. They could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

I could not, would not be shamed, for I felt the power of Pride.

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Trans Pride placards. Photo by Natasha Handley.

 

Scholars pen open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit on USS and pension inequalities

In the UK, academic and professional support staff at over 60 universities are currently on strike over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.

An open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has been organised by a number of researchers. They note that the pension reforms are in direct conflict with the stated aims of the ECU’s two flagship equality schemes: the Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter.

Open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and all UK university leaders.

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University staff and students demonstate against changes to USS in Leeds.

The letter’s authors argue that if these schemes are “to be more than a strategic brand enhancement, [they] must demonstrate its independence and commit to working towards the demonstration of that independence in the future. That includes a rigorous investigation of the equalities implications of pension changes.” As a scholar of Athena SWAN, I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

In my research (currently under review) I have observed that the charter has enormous drawbacks for many marginalised academics, particularly women and scholars of colour. For example, the labour of Athena SWAN is primarily undertaken by women, who frequently become exhausted, stressed and frustrated while preparing their department, faculty or institutional submission, and lose valuable time that would have been spent on research to further their own career. Moreover, some individuals are punished for submissions that ‘fail’ due to systemic issues within the department or institution, for instance through losing their job or being denied a promotion.

At the same time, Athena SWAN does have the potential for bringing about real change. With the charter increasingly recognised as important by funding bodies as well as potential students and staff, institutions are under growing pressure to take the requests of Athena SWAN self-assessment teams seriously. This has led to numerous universities and research centres introducing measures such as better support for new parents, more accessible toilets for trans and disabled staff and students, and for fairer pay structures for cleaning and janitorial staff.

If equality schemes such as Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter are to be meaningful and to have the long-term support of the very people they are meant to help, it is imperative that they continue to be used to push for real and positive change in this way. As such, I wholeheartedly support the open letter, and its call for the ECU and universtity leaders to recognise pensions as an equality issue.

**edit: you can now follow the “USS and Athena SWAN” campaign on Twitter: @USSAthenaSwan.