A Methodology for the Marginalised

This is a deeply strange time to have a new peer-reviewed article out. I’ve been on strike for weeks, and otherwise on annual leave, planning a move south (for my new job) which may well be indefinitely postponed. It’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis, nor the fact that the most helpful thing I can do right now is stay put.

The article was originally drafted in 2018, and based on experiences I had during fieldwork and while disseminating my research between 2013 and 2017. With the pandemic upon us, this previous decade feels like deep, distant history. Here in the UK, the true, awful toll of the illness is yet to become apparent; yet cities are beginning to turn silent as we self-isolate, political axioms are turned on their head, and all conversation turns eventually to the virus.

In this context, it’s easy to wonder if any of the work we did a month or more prior could possibly still be relevant. And yet.

~

Cover image of the journal Sociology.My new piece is titled A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy, and it is published in Sociology, the journal of the British Sociological Association. I use my experiences as a trans academic as a case study to talk about the huge inequalities endemic within universities, and how these disproportionately impact those who already experience forms of social marginalisation. My aim is not simply to chronicle the harms of marketisation, transphobia, sexism, and racism, but to also propose a way forward. We need to start thinking and acting more collectively; in addition to workplace organisation and union activity, this is relevant to how we design and implement our studies.

My proposed “methodology” involves bringing questions of solidarity and mutual support to the procedure of research design. Universities have long been bastions of privilege, with mechanisms of exclusion are unthinkingly built into every aspect of academic life. The only way we can possibly open up higher education is through creating systems of support which acknowledge and account for pre-existing inequalities, and these must be embedded within the process of knowledge creation itself.

My article uses the example of suicide within trans communities to illustrate this principle. Suicide ideation and suicide attempts are especially common among trans people. As such, it is highly likely that any given trans academic will either be suicidal, or will have friends who are. Consequently, if trans people are to stand a reasonable chance of surviving within the university, this is something that should be accounted for in research design and funding proposals as well as in wider institutional support structures.

~

It’s impossible right now to know when and if the world will return to “normal”. I have seen some contend that this cannot be possible given the devastating number of predicted deaths, the shock to our economic and political systems. Others observe that the prevailing social order has survived before, and argue that any emergency measures to support workers who have lost their livelihood and/or increase police powers will inevitably be reversed in the long term.

However, what we do know is that universities have historically been remarkably resiliant – as have the inequalities in our society. Whatever happens next, we must continue to fight for a better world, and that includes within academia.

We can already see this beginning to play out in the UK as universities scramble to shift their activities online. Managers are relying on staff to carry on teaching, conducting research, and undertaking assessment and monitoring activities such as the REF. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to balance working from home with looking after partners, housemates, and/or families, wrestling with IT systems that have been heavily undermined by cuts as shiny new buildings stand empty on our campuses. We cannot possibly expect to carry on as normal.

It is in this context that I invite you to read my new article, as and when you find the time and mental energy. It is one of the most difficult and vulnerable things I have ever written. I am really proud of it. It helped me think through some small ways in which I might change my work patterns and practice of solidarity, as part of a far larger push for change. I hope that in turn, it might help you also.

A Methodology for the Marginalised:
Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy

[click here to read in Sociology]

[click here to read a free open access version]

 

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.

 

Gender statistic guidelines revised by HESA

The Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have announced a welcome revision of their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education.

I originally posted about this issue after HESA’s original proposed revisions – which appeared to ask about “legal” or “birth” sex and removed any possibility for the recognition of non-binary genders and intersex bodies – caused confusion and concern.

An impressive lobbying campaign in which trans people and allies emailed and tweeted HESA to explain our concerns has now led to a change in policy.

The revised fields contain the following categories:

SEXID (sex identifier)

1 Male
2 Female
3 Other

This replaces the current options (male, female, indeterminate) and the original proposed revision (male, female).

It is important to note that HESA acknowledge for the first time that the “other” category might be used to record non-binary genders in their advice to institutions:

The use of ‘other’ is more appropriate for people who associate with the terms intersex, androgyne, intergender, ambigender, gender fluid, polygender and gender queer.

As Jane Fae explains, this is an enormous step forward.

It’s also worth noting that institutions may, if they wish, institute additional gender options in their student record surveys (e.g. genderqueer, androgyne) and map these options onto the third category (“other”) for the sake of data provision to HESA.

GENDERID (gender identity)

Suggested question:
Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?

01 Yes
02 No
98 Information refused

These revisions are a massive improvement, representing a step forward from the existing guidelines as well as the flawed original revisions. HESA certainly deserve credit for listening carefully and responding positively to the complaints they received.

However, there is still some ambiguity in the SEXID question. No doubt some institutions will title this question “sex” whereas some may title it “gender”, and students may still experience uncertainty when formulating a response. For instance, how are intersex individuals who define as female or genderqueer individuals who wish to note that they have been assigned a male sex meant to respond to such a question?

Moreover, it is important that trans activists based within Higher Education continue to lobby institutions to recognise gender identity within student records purely on the basis of self-definition – a matter that is largely out of HESA’s hands.

Update on the HESA gender statistics affair

Some clarification, new information and new developments have emerged since I posted about HESA’s gender statistic fail yesterday.

Background

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is currently revising a number of data collection fields. The changes are not yet set in stone. 

Two new fields (student.SEX and student.GENDERID) will effectively replace the one existing field (student.GENDER) which is currently used to collect data on gender within higher education institutes (usually universities) in the United Kingdom.

The existing student.GENDER field has the following categories*:

1 Male
2 Female
9 Indeterminate

In regards to “Indeterminate”, HESA note that:

“Code 9 ‘Indeterminate’ means unable to be classified as either male or female. It should not be used as a substitute or proxy for ‘Not known’. The term ‘indeterminate gender’ is intended to identify those who are ‘intersex’ and is not related in any way to trans-gender.”

However, in practice a number of institutions have effectively mapped answers such as “other” and “prefer not to say” onto this third category within enrolment/re-enrolment forms in order to provide non-binary, genderqueer, intersex and other students to effectively “opt out” of the gender binary.

The new, compulsory student.SEX field has the following categories:

1 Male
2 Female

The new, optional (for institutions) student.GENDERID field has the following categories:

01 Yes
02 No
98 Information refused

A brief analysis of the harm in these changes can be found in my previous post.

Developments

It appears that HESA have received a number of queries and complaints from trans people: it’s uplifting to see so impressive and rapid a response!

The agency initially responded by noting that the changes were the result of “consultation with [the] HE sector and ECU“. Commentators noted that this consultation seemed to at no point involved actual trans students.

However, in the last hour HESA have provided the following statement from their Twitter account:

“Thanks for queries re. sex and gender in next year’s HESA record. Your input will help us get this right.”

The tweet links to correspondence conducted between HESA and trans activist Emma Brownbill – if you have the time, it’s worth a read!

Some key points include the following:

“The phrase ‘legal’ sex is only currently used in the Staff Record. The intention in the Staff Record is to match the data requirements of HMRC, which for tax and pension purposes only accept Female or Male.

The final coding manual and guidance for the Student Record in 2012/13 has not been published. From your own and other queries about the provisional guidance and consultation documents it is clear that the terminology of ‘legal’ sex may not be appropriate for the Student Record.

Similarly the binary choice of Female or Male, originally intended to match the Staff Record, is now the subject of further discussion with regard to the Student Record.”

So let’s keep at this – we’re really getting somewhere!

Also, thanks to everyone who commented on the previous post, your contributions were greatly appreciated.

Edit: the story has now hit Pink News.

 

*The numbers (e.g. 1, 2, 9, 98) are used within statistical analyses.

 

Gender recognition under threat in UK universities

I read a very disturbing internal email this afternoon. I’m not going to quote the majority of it in order to preserve anonymity, but the central content is of concern to any current or future trans student in Higher Education.

Earlier this year, HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] confirmed a series of changes that they would be making to the HESA Student Record for the 2012/13 academic year, which would have an impact on some of the questions that students are asked during the application and enrolment process. A number of these changes relate to equality issues and the 2010 Equality Act and I thought it would be prudent for us to consult […]

The key changes of relevance are as follows:

(1) There is an existing field Student.GENDER which will from 2012/13 be replaced with Student.SEX. The new Student.SEX field will reflect ‘legal’ biological sex at birth and we have been advised that there will be only two valid entries for this field, either Male or Female.

(2) To complement the new Student.SEX field there will also be an additional field, Student.GENDERID, which is intended to reflect the student’s gender identity based on their own self-assessment. A response to this question, should we choose to ask it, would be optional for students. The ‘suggested question’ from the Equality Challenge Unit for eliciting this information is “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?” and it would be possible for students to respond with ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Information Refused’.

At my university, the current student.GENDER field allows students to identify as “female”, “male”, “other” or “prefer not to say” following intervention from trans activists and past Students’ Union welfare officers. This system, and any similarly progressive approach from other institutions, will be overturned by the new HESA guidelines.

My concerns are as follows:

1) What is “legal” sex? Is it:
(a) my birth sex? (in which case I’m male)
(b) what’s on my passport? (in which case I’m female)
(c) whether or not I have a gender recognition certificate? (in
which case I’m male)

[edit: a skim of the HESA guidelines shows that (a) is not the case, with the university apparently using the phrase “sex at birth” in error]

2) If (a) or (c), then the University is going to revert my “sex” on its forms. This will disclose I am trans to anyone using their records.


3) If (b), then anyone wishing to update their gender will have to out themselves by walking into the university administrative building and presenting their passport.
I had to do this in 2005 and it caused all kinds of weird issues with the Students’ Union and my records. We changed the system in two stages (the last one is referred to in the letter) in order to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

4) The new system erases intersex people.

5) The new system erases people with a non-binary identity.

6) This whole approach has an extremely flawed methodology that will only invalidate the desired data!

I suspect my university doesn’t have much of a choice about how this is carried about, and neither will others. We urgently need to lobby HESA to reverse their policy on this.

I’ll aim to write a more coherent analysis of the situation (inc. the complex role of the Gender Recognition Act) when I’m feeling more coherent.

EDIT: HESA notes changes to the student.GENDER field here. Information on the new (binary) gender identity code can be found here.