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.

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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.

award
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.

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*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.