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.

Safety?

I found myself filling in a campus safety survey for my university’s Student Union yesterday. As I began the form, I thought about how safe I feel on campus.

I have this arguably unhealthy tendency to wander around all kinds of places alone at night, but inevitably feel a bit on edge and on guard in town and city centres. By contrast, I always feel comfortable on campus. I mean, this place is full of busy academic types during the day and feels quiet yet friendly at night. During the early years of my transition in particular the place was like a safe haven.

Moreover, I’ve always felt that I got off pretty lightly compared to many of my trans friends: I’m lucky really. I mean, I don’t get pestered by transphobic morons on a regular basis, and I’ve never been physically or sexually assaulted. At least, not since all those times I was beaten up as a teenager. But that was ages ago, and they had no idea I was trans (…right?)

Yet as I continued with the survey, I began to realise how much being trans causes us to redefine what counts as “lucky”, and, for that matter, what counts as a normal experience.

Firstly, there were the questions on physical attacks. Of course I’ve never been physically attacked! Oh wait, there was that time that someone threw a mysterious object at the back of my head outside the Union nightclub. Yeah, that time when the security guys clearly couldn’t care less and gave me some hassle because I immediately approached them and asked for help. Still, that was just the one time, right?

So, on to harassment. I know some trans people on campus who have had all kinds of horrible experiences in halls and suchforth but again, I’ve been pretty lucky. Except for that time I was subject to some totally inappropriate questioning during a club night at the Union: good thing my friends were there to stand up for me. And that time I was pestered by a chaser. And that time I was kicked off a bus and told to “cut my hair” after I got confused over the fare. And the time a woman refused to sell me a banana because she wouldn’t accept my gender(!) Huh, how these incidents build up…

These incidents are extremely infrequent, leading me to think that I’m lucky. This thought process points to the normalisation of transphobia: I’m entirely used to the idea that people will treat me like crap because of who I am. It’s something we all get used to, to one extent or another.

This normalisation then leads me to redefine safety. A safe place becomes a place where I experience minimal harassment, rather than somewhere I don’t expect to be harassed at all. I suppose I always expect to be harassed to some extent.

Of course, this is all par for course in the UK if you’re not a visibly abled middle-class white guy. Ho hum.