the poetic academic

I’m very much looking forward to performing the poetic sequence Glass today for DMUWomen – the newly-formed women’s network at De Montfort University. Glass, part of the gwordtour, a unique performance combining poetry and graphics to present my research findings on gendered experiences of work and career in higher education (HE).

Glass explores lived experiences of the workplace through the metaphors of the glass ceiling, glass escalator, glass cliff and glass closet. It comprises four free-verse sequences: Ceiling, Escalator, Closet, Cliff, distillations of selected, found material ie: research participants’ words drawn from interview transcripts. These are linked by intervening narrative pieces which are more classically framed, drawing on Shakespearean traditions of narrative prologues, epilogues and commentaries.

The choice to present Glass as a performance rather than a purely written piece was reached throughout the writing of it. It became increasingly clear to me that this was a collection of different voices which I wanted to be – literally – heard. When I perform Glass, I do so against a simple graphic backdrop. I also move around the performance space (a classroom, meeting room, lecture theatre). Delivering research data in this way disrupts audience expectations, appeals to different sense phenomena and can lead to different ways in which audiences hear and interpret the material.



Preparations are in full swing for the start of the g word tour – gender and graphics visiting at least 15 different sites in the UK over the next 6 months.  I’ll be delivering presentations, workshops, performances and exhibitions focused on the findings of my research project ‘Gender(s) At Work’ (Birmingham City University 2016-18) .  Universities and research institutes have been interested, not only the conventional presentation of research findings but also in  engaging with creative and participative methods to further explore the findings and the issues these raise for their own staff and gender equality agendas.

My first stop will be the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine  who are gratifyingly hosting the full Gender(s) At Work programme, including a research presentation, a participative Mapping Career Workshop and concluding with a performance of the poetry sequence ‘Glass’.  While I’ve delivered each element separately before, I’ve not delivered them consecutively and I’m fascinated to know how this will impact my own relationship with the material as well as the responses of those who attend.

I’m going to be blogging throughout the tour so keep watching this space.  Readers can also keep up with my travels and work in progress via Twitter #gendersatwork #gettinggraphic #thegwordtour.

Gender(s) At Work – on tour!

I’m delighted to announce that I’m going to be taking the fruits of my research into gender, career and HE on tour in the form of a series of presentations and workshops suitable for a range of HE audiences:

Gender(s) At Work:
Innovative approaches to communicating research findings in gender, HE and career.  Suitable for academics in all disciplines, management teams, HR, EDI and Athena SWAN teams.

Getting Graphic:
Opportunities to explore the use of simple graphic and visual methods and techniques to work with research process, data and theory.  Suitable for academics, staff and student researchers in any discipline; research development teams.

These presentations and workshops can be delivered as standalone events, in combination and/or as part of wider equality and research events.  There is no charge for delivery of these events although a contribution to travel would be appreciated if budgets allow.

Click on the links above for more details of the programmes.

Contact me at

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g is for gender – a whistle stop tour!

I  started this blog in March 2017 to reflect on gender from professional and personal perspectives.  The blog is a companion to my academic work in the field of gender, my work with the Athena SWAN (gender equality) charter and my own daily gendered experiences, hilarious, horrendous, hopeful… a way of recording and reflecting on my experiences as a female academic and Athena SWAN project manager in a large UK post-1992 university.  Increasingly, the blog will be reflecting on emerging findings of my current research project: Gender(s) At Work.

I meant to post weekly but in practice, posting became something I only managed to do whenever inspiration, dedication and free time coincided beyond the boundaries of my full time life!  So six months on and at the start of a new academic year, here’s a whistle stop tour of what you may have missed – and a preview of some of the topics and debates I’ll be featuring in 2017-18.

why ‘the g word’?
May 2017
I clearly remember starting in this role and encountering some colleagues’ genuine surprise that gender equality was still an issue – in the university, in the sector, in society in general. ‘Hasn’t all that been dealt with by legislation?’ they asked. …Other colleagues squirmed a bit at the mention of the ‘g’ word or rolled their eyes or even felt the need to tell a dodgy joke. see more

COMING UP:  Gender and TEF! Gender and REF!

Athena SWAN
March 2017
Time is ticking slowly away as we wait for the outcome of the university’s application for an Athena SWAN award. Since November 2016 I’ve progressed … through five post-application stages: Stage One: Utter Relief; Stage Two: Total Nonchalance; Stage Three: Niggling Thoughts; Stage Four: Studied Indifference! Now I’ve reached Stage Five: Counting the Days….Stage Six: Email Hypervigilance awaits! see more

May 2017
Collecting all the data we needed (for Athena SWAN) was an arduous process. Discovering what data we don’t collect in the first place was revealing. Presenting data which inconvertibly demonstrates the outcomes of structural embedded, tacit, unconscious gender inequality throughout the organisation has proved shocking – and constructive. This too is our starting point. see more

COMING UP!  Does Athena SWAN rely on the goodwill and free labour of female staff?

Gender(s) at Work
June 2017
As my current research gender(s) at work is revealing, little has changed in the underlying structure of the work environment of higher education. Universities and the academy in general still reflect the deeply internalised dualisms of Western thought … of academic work predicated on the absence of responsibility for others and social roles constructed masculine and feminine. see more

the glassed and gendered workplace
July 2017
In an unexpected development I’ve begun using cartooning to explore the embodiment of those  familiar metaphors – glass ceiling, glass cliff, glass escalator and twitter hashtags #glassedandgendered and #painsofglass to engage in discussion with a wider audience  see more

COMING UP!  More on performative modes of reporting and presenting research data.

doing my duty?

Last week I attended GEA2017 – the Gender & Education Association Conference 2017 at Middlesex University. Having previously loitered primarily in academic spaces of lifelong learning and widening participation, this was a first ‘gender’ conference for me and I  admit to feeling a little apprehensive prior to arrival.  Would I be feminist ‘enough’ for this crowd?!

I’m feminist enough for most, probably never will be feminist enough for others is my conclusion! And anyway, that particular concern proved irrelevant. It was a ‘good’ conference. Academic high points included the keynote from Professor Ann Phoenix (UCL). Anyone who can hold an audience enthralled in a final keynote at 3pm on a sunny Friday afternoon has to be congratulated. In this case, it was a rare occurrence of an academic whose writing I admire turning out to be even more impressive in person and performance. A bold and inspired choice by the GEA2017 Organising Committee. Other high points included sessions by Gail Crimmons on co-authorship, Heather Laube on feminist outsider/insiders anda workshop on feminist citational practices introducing Cite Club  (the only rule of Cite Club is to talk about Cite Club!). I didn’t buy the T-shirt but now I wish I had!

the t shirt!
Mindy Blaise(L) and Emily Gray (R) wearing THE T shirt.

I guess I shouldn’t leave out my own paper and workshop sessions on my current research Gender(s) At Work – I’m particularly grateful to enthusiastic workshop participants who turned up to the early morning session post the conference BBQ!

Not academic – but equally crucial – high points included the food and drink – fantastic food from Steve the Chef, honestly best ever – all conferences can learn from him, and super generous supplies of prosecco plus from Taylor & Francis and University of Middlesex. The conference networking/eating/chilling space was the lovely Quad at Middlesex’s Hendon campus which protected us from last week’s 30+ degree heat and allowed plenty of space for conversation and private reflection. I liked the fact that conference delegates co-existed with university staff and students in that space – the life of the university was going on around us.

Conferences provide crucial opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and friends and this one was no different for me, despite my newbie status. Jennifer Fraser (Westminster) and I renewed our conference buddy relationship and it was good to connect again with Carol Taylor from my home city of Sheffield.

Of course I found some things problematic – repeated references to ‘favoured’ theorists, ideas – without ensuring that the audience are familiar with them; conference cliques (but then there are always conference cliques) – and the idea of ‘feminist duty’ which emerged in a workshop discussion – a phrase that leaves me cold … !!

GEA2017 also provided material for my forthcoming cartoon collection which will be featured here on the g word. Aimed at conference novices and old hands alike, this series will feature essential topics such as how to accessorise, the conference ‘sleb and the art of notworking … watch this space!  Hmmm … perhaps this is how I’m fulfilling my feminist duty – handing down the art of Conferencing With Confidence!

a world WITH women

I’ve been re-reading Doreen Massey‘s work on Cambridge high-tech science parks (1998), ‘the workplace constructed as a highly specialised envelope of space-time’, reflecting deep rooted dualisms of gender and science.  Massey argues that these overwhelmingly male-dominated spaces reflect and provide a material basis for a particular form of masculinity; for the production of knowledge abstracted from the real world.  These spaces are part of a long lineage of what Noble calls ‘a world without women’ (1992); enclosed masculine societies such as ancient monasteries and early universities, engaged in ‘capturing … the kind of knowledge production which was to receive the highest social valuation’ (Massey 1998).

camden council 1901

Our contemporary academy shares this lineage and despite two decades of rapid change, continues to reflect key characteristics of the late 20th century Cambridge science park.  Like high-tech industry, academia is a highly competitive knowledge-based market in which employees must ‘continue to reproduce and enhance the value of their own labour power by keeping up with the literature, going to conferences, maintaining the performance of networking’ (ibid).  Marketisation, communications technology and the REF have only intensified such pressures on individual academics in the last two decades.  A long hours culture is the norm, sustained in part of course, by academics’ intrinsic interest in and commitment to their subject.

The most significant difference between the contemporary academy and its forebears is that today’s universities most definitely constitute a world with women, albeit under-represented in particular disciplinary spaces and in the higher echelons of management. However, as my current research Gender(s) At Work is revealing, little has changed in the underlying structure of the work environment. Universities and the academy in general still reflect the deeply internalised dualisms of Western thought, of reason and science as abstracted from daily life; of academic work predicated on the absence of responsibility for others and of social roles constructed masculine and feminine.

In the daily experience of working in the academy this plays out on the hostile border between work and home.  Massey’s (male) research participants rely on (female) partners to maintain the domestic sphere; some attempt to protect their home life by not taking work home or insisting on regular start and finish times each day.  For the majority of women in this world, it is a matter of negotiating the work/home boundary from a different position.  Academic women frequently combine their paid workload with overall responsibility for domestic management and care and do so in the context of instant and continuous electronic communications.  My research is revealing multiple ways which individuals occupy this highly complex territory.

My re-reading of Massey coincided with an article in THE by Joanna Read on the art of hiring female leaders.  Moving from the arts sector to the academy, Read has been shocked by the lack of progress in promoting women to senior management roles and in the lack of opportunities to perform senior management roles on a job-share and part-time basis. She identifies a need for culture change from University Board level in order to encourage greater diversity in decision-making bodies.  Throughout the organisation she argues, women should be actively encouraged to go for promotion and to take up leadership roles, not least those who may feel constrained by the ‘glass ceiling’  and those returning from maternity leave.

It’s fascinating to consider Read’s article through Massey’s ‘scipark’ lens.  Is her pragmatic solution a sign of shifting boundaries between the spheres of work and home, of recognising the incompatibility of the traditional academic identity with the reality of gendered social relations?  Or does part-time and job share leadership simply reinforce the dualism of work and home without essentially disrupting the polarised structures of those spaces themselves?


Massey, D. (1998) ‘Blurring the binaries? High tech in Cambridge’ in R. Ainley (ed) New Frontiers of Space, Bodies and Gender, London: Routledge.
Noble, D. (1992) A World without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

glassed and gendered

Setting the scene for a new, interactive cartoon series: the glassed and gendered (HE) workplace…

The view from my post-1992 desk has changed utterly in 18 months, the sky now confined to a small corner, elbowed out by multi-story contemporary student learning and living spaces.  ‘Universities, ever more on edge about their performance in the National Student Survey and league tables, have responded by investing heavily in “student friendly” facilities (Scott 2015).  Glass features prominently.  Glass walls, windows and roofs, letting the light in, transparent, reflective …

Glass features too, if metaphorically, in the literature on gender and the workplace.  There’s the glass ceiling constraining women’s career progression (compounded by the sticky floor); the phenomenon of the glass cliff – describing the greater likelihood of women being put in leadership roles when the chance of failure is highest;  the glass escalator on which male staff ascend organisational hierarchies more speedily and smoothly than their female counterparts and the glass closet – in which John (Lord) Browne spent the majority of his otherwise successful corporate career.

So not just HE.  But the existence of this ‘hidden’ structural furniture contradicts those glass walled commons and spaces.  Starting this weekend, I’ll be introducing you to four inhabitants of our glassed and gendered HE workplaces – and asking you to send me your experiences to inform a new series of cartoons.




and the winner is … ?

The news is in and the news is good! The Equality Challenge Unit has awarded Birmingham City University an Athena SWAN* institutional Bronze Award, signifying the university’s commitment to the advancement of gender equality and an inclusive workplace culture. Success at our first application and under Athena SWAN’s expanded gender equality framework is no mean feat. As the University’s Athena SWAN Project Manager, I am delighted for the university, its staff and for all those who have worked hard towards this outcome, in whatever capacity.

Any institution that has been through the Athena SWAN process knows how much work and how many individuals are involved. In preparing the application I’ve worked with staff across the university: the Vice-Chancellor, senior management, academics, professional services, support staff, HR partners, data analysts, outreach, media relations, the unions … and more. The phrase ‘gender equality is everyone’s business’ is a cliché but happens to be true – theoretically and practically.

Prof Maxine Lintern (l) and Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas (r) Athena SWAN Chair and Project Manager respectively.

I’ve had this day in my sights since taking up the post in July 2015 and I’ll admit, it feels strange to finally reach this point. A Bronze Award is actually a beginning – of the doing rather than the saying, putting all the analysis and planning into action. But I’m taking a moment here not only to enjoy our achievement, but to reflect on why it matters.


Throughout the process, a number of individuals around the University voiced concerns that the Athena SWAN awards are simply a tick box exercise to make senior management look good; a version of what Sarah Ahmed calls institutional speech acts … which do not go beyond pluralist understandings of diversity and are non-performative in the sense that they fail to deliver what they have promised.** As a fellow sceptic, I understand colleagues’ caution, but I beg to differ. Others have labelled my work ‘politically correct’, ‘pointless’ or even ‘petty’. I beg to differ with them too!

I clearly remember starting in this role and encountering some colleagues’ genuine surprise that gender equality was still an issue – in the university, in the sector, in society in general. ‘Hasn’t that all been dealt with by legislation?’ they asked. ‘There are female VCs aren’t there?’ As ECU 2016 statistics show, progress has been glacially slow. Other colleagues squirmed a bit at the mention of ‘the g word’, or rolled their eyes, or even felt the need to tell a dodgy joke! Gender – it quickly became apparent – is something many simply don’t ‘see’; or only associate with female disadvantage (rather than male privilege) or think is something to do with maternity leave… Still others, far too many others, told me of daily, difficult, sometimes distressing experiences of sexism and discrimination in the workplace. I did a lot of listening in those first months.

In any Athena SWAN application, the data’s the thing! Not in its raw state, but analysed, reflected upon, selectively presented (NOT in pink and blue!). In working towards a Bronze Award, the quantitative data has become my friend (and I say this as a fully-paid up qualitative researcher!). Collecting all the data we needed was an arduous process. Discovering what data we don’t collect in the first place was revealing. Presenting data which incontrovertibly demonstrates the outcomes of structural, embedded, tacit, unconscious gender inequality throughout the organisation has proved shocking – and constructive. This too, is our starting point.

However, Athena SWAN is about more than data – and certainly much more than maternity leave! In requiring institutions to pay attention to their organisational culture, to intersectionality, to the gender profiles of, for example, REF submission and senior decision-making committees, Athena SWAN tackles gender and gender equality in a holistic way, acknowledging its complexity. Alongside my Athena SWAN work, I have begun a qualitative institutional research project Gender(s) at Work aimed at capturing this complexity in terms of experiences at work and career trajectories in HE for women, men and for those identifying as gender non-binary.

It’s fantastic to get a Bronze Award! Colleagues are already talking about Silver but at this moment I’m more interested in doing Bronze well. The proof of the University’s commitment to the advancement of gender equality and an inclusive workplace culture will be in our performance from this point on. I’m confident that this University has the people and the desire to make this happen.


*Athena SWAN is the national gender equality charter mark for higher education in the UK and Ireland.
**Ahmed, S., 2006. The nonperformativity of antiracism. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 7 (1), 104-126.

the real me

I’m not a big fan of Radio 4’s @BBCWomansHour.  I’m definitely not a fan of Jenni Murray’s often condescending and sometimes hectoring tone and I’ll admit I was ready to completely disagree with her Sunday Times article on trans women, published to mild outrage a couple of weeks ago.  In fact, I think it’s a thoughtful piece, well argued in places.  I even agree with some of it!

What I absolutely disagree with is Murray’s use of the phrase ‘real woman’.  For Murray a ‘real’ woman is an individual born with female sex characteristics who grows to be a woman and experiences a lifetime of pressure to become the socially constructed idea of what a woman should be.  So what’s not to like?  I fall into Murray’s ‘real’ category – but also into (self-defined) categories of Tomboy 50+, Dress Free, Make-up Free, Childfree … the list goes on.  Am I still real Jenni?

Sometimes I doubt it when I get shocked expressions from other women when I walk into the Ladies (roll on gender neutral toilets!).  Once a woman actually screamed!  Another time I had to get my breasts out to convince a woman in Bath that I was entitled to be there. I may be a real woman but TERFs please note, not all women-only spaces feel safe to all women ‘real’ or otherwise.

The thing is Jenni, we’re all real and we are all, depending on context, other.  It’s too easy to resort to media shorthand and throw contested terms like ‘real’ around, just like those  throwaway Women’s Hour lines such as ‘We all love a new lipstick don’t we!’. (No).  The the fierce defence of territory, of building walls (!) around identity rather than facing up to its fluid realities, is one reason prejudice and inequalities remain so intractable.

Not rocket science, but …

My 2019 working year begins with rail fare protests and a cancelled commuter train, but more positively with 2 g word tour  gigs under my belt and a busy programme ahead.  Thanks to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and to the University of East London for hosting me in late 2018 and to the audiences at those institutions for their feedback.  In the spirit of the New Year, this post seems a good moment to review the tour’s ‘resolutions’.

The flyer for the Gender(s) at Work programme promises innovative ways of communicating the findings from contemporary institutional research investigating gendered experiences of work and career in higher education, suitable for a range of university audiences’.  By innovation I don’t mean rocket science.  In The Workplace: Glassed and Gendered presentation, I ask audience members to read aloud several short excerpts from individual research participant narratives and to view their ‘organisational maps’ ie: visual representations of how those participants position themselves in relation to the university in terms of position and power.  In the Mapping Career workshop, I ask paired participants to consider each other’s potted career histories and to represent these in simple visual terms, as a way of examining and challenging prevailing career metaphors such as ‘pipeline’ or ‘ladder’.  In Glass, interviewees’ voices are communicated through poetry and framed by the metaphors of glass ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff.

My motivation for using these methods arises not only from a researcher’s appetite for exploration, but also from a diversity worker’s desire to re-present the complexities of gendered experience in the HE workplace, to audiences over-familiar with the rhetoric of workplace equality.  It is easy to become indifferent to repetitious strategy and policy statements, less easy to tune out from voices like our own or our colleagues’; in settings like our own, describing the sedimented inequalities of the HE workplace, practices so common as to be unremarkable.  When the medium of research dissemination is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, this can bring new energy to the debates and different emotional responses to the material.  I will be attempting to capture these throughout the tour.

among friends and colleagues

Last week I attended the Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Annual conference at the blingtastic Celtic Manor, Newport, South Wales. Year on year, this becomes not so much a purely academic conference with the chance to engage with new research, but an opportunity to reconnect with valued colleagues in my field of research and to enjoy a moment of genuine collegiality in our accelerated, marketised working environment.

And in this environment, it was particularly satisfying to present not just current research but research findings mediated through alternative means – in this case as a graphic essay: My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. The last morning of the conference is never the optimum slot but I was delighted that 25+ delegates turned up to examine the graphic essay in its original form (4xA2 panels) and the contextual materials I had provided.

I got some really encouraging feedback from the session and sensed that delegates were pleased to be able to think about enduring issues of gender, inequality and the workplace in different ways; to make connections in different ways and through different sense phenomena.


I had what you might call a ‘soft opening’ of Glass – the sequence of poems based on the findings of my research project entitled ‘Gender(s) At Work’ as an integral part of a seminar on Performative Enquiry at my home institution Birmingham City University.  My colleague Dr Geof Hill, who sadly for so many of his colleagues and students, is heading back home to Australia this weekend, presented his academic cabaret and invited me and our EdD student David Collins to present our own performative work.  I realise that Glass is going to be different every time I perform it partly because I adapt it to the space I’m performing it in.  Best space so far – a spacious Arts and Crafts foyer complete with staircase and balcony!  Worst so far – a cramped boxy classroom with rows of desks.  But the variety keeps it fresh and keeps me on my toes!

Two days later, I was in Liverpool, at the School of Tropical Medicine (#LSTM) for the first event in the travelling research circus that is Gender(s) At Work! I was given a warm welcome by a receptive audience. It’s quite a challenge to maintain my energy throughout three separate events: presentation, workshop, performance, but the fact that each is so different and requires different ways of engaging with the audience, gives the combination a momentum of its own.  I collected plenty of useful feedback to take away and mull over.   To hear that staff were still talking about their experiences of Gender(s) at Work in the staff room the next day, is probably the best feedback I could get!


Gender(s) At Work

contemporary research in gender, career and HE

How will you
crack the glass
enclosing some
exposing some
blinding others
to their privilege?
Reflect on it.

This programme offers innovative ways of communicating the findings from contemporary institutional research investigating gendered experiences of work and career in higher education (HE). Suitable for a range of university audiences.

The options below can be delivered as standalone events or in combination. I am happy to discuss creating bespoke combinations and to work with you to meet your specific requirements. Minimum timings are given. There is no charge for these events.

Gender(s) At Work 1: the workplace: glassed and gendered

Presentation of findings from contemporary UK research on gendered experiences of work and career in HE (Carruthers Thomas 2018) involving female, male and gender non-binary staff in academic and professional services roles across the organization. This presentation draws on participants’ narratives and ‘organisational maps’ and is suitable for academic and professional audiences including Advance HE/Athena SWAN and EDI teams. (45 minutes)

Gender(s) At Work 2: mapping career in HE

Participative workshop inviting participants to transform their ‘potted’ career history narratives into visual maps which are then used as tools to jointly reflect on prevailing narratives of ‘career’ in HE including the ‘leaky’ pipeline. Workshop viable with any number of participants and suitable for all staff, in all roles, at all career stages. (60 minutes)

Gender(s) At Work 3: Glass

This unique performance combines poetry and graphics to present selected research findings of gendered experiences of work and career in HE. GLASS comprises four poetic sequences linked by short monologues, set against a graphic backdrop illustrating archetypes of the gendered workplace: glass ceiling, glass escalator, glass cliff and glass closet. Suitable for all HE audiences, including those interested in creative and performative research methods. GLASS is suitable for a range of events and settings (45 minutes inc. introduction, Q&A).

contact / 07752 674149 / @kcarrutherst

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University. She specialises in interdisciplinary enquiry into contemporary higher education, inequalities and gender, is an experienced presenter and workshop facilitator and a published poet (Navigation (2018 ) Trio and Other Poets(2015) May Day and other poems (2014).

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