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.


in olden days…?

I recently attended a friend’s wedding ceremony held in the Council Chamber of Camden Town Hall in London.  Milling about as official photos were taken, I noticed a black and white print hanging on the wall, featuring the Council members of 1901.  Given that this was pre-suffragettes, equal opps and @everydaysexism, it’s hardly unsurprising that every single one was male (and White).

camden council 1901

Far more surprising – shocking actually – are the contemporary instances  of all male ‘representative’ gatherings making significant decisions on issues impacting women.  The Donald reinstating the Mexico City Policy removing US funding to any overseas organisation that offers abortions, witnessed by his team of (male, white) close advisors (23 January 2017).  The Northern Powerhouse Conference leaflet which featured precisely 0 female keynotes (not to mention the programme which featured 13 female speakers out of a total of 98).  Extreme examples of male dominated fora?  Or public examples of a stubbornly enduring commonplace?

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.

love thy neighbour?

Commuting is always a trial of sorts.  Seat reservations and noise cancelling headphones provide some comfort, but minor irritations quickly accumulate: the person talking blithely on their phone in their outdoor voice; the person eating a stinking burger,; the wrong kind of leaves/snow/wind … This week I encountered a new commuting challenge: sitting next to a besuited, late middle-aged man surfing soft porn on his phone.  I tried to focus on my work and avoid catching sight of repetitive shots of young women in so called ‘erotic’ poses. To be fair, my neighbour made an (ineffective) attempt to shield the screen from time to time, but the LED glow and something about his rapt intensity was distracting.  I wondered whether he did this every night on his train home; whether there was anyone at home; whether they knew or minded what he did: whether I would do something similar in a public place … ?  And more.  Did I feel objectified?  Theoretically yes, but in the same resigned kind of way as when walking past giant billboards of women in underwear or watching X-rated music videos at the gym.  Did I feel angry?  Mainly awkward – and I felt sad for those young women in their ridiculous poses.  We reached his stop and as he got up to leave, my neighbour politely apologised for disturbing me.  Indeed…  I found myself smiling politely back as I let him pass.

the waiting game

Time is ticking (slowly) away as we wait for the outcome of the university’s application for an Athena SWAN (gender equality Charter Mark) award, submitted in November 2016.  Anyone who has been involved in putting together an Athena SWAN application will know a) how much work is involved and b) that it’s dangerous or foolish to predict the outcome.  Since November I’ve progressed in a reasonably linear fashion through five post-application/pre-outcome stages.  These are: 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.  I may be the only person at BCU experiencing the full-flavours of these five Stages; my colleagues enquire solicitously about Athena SWAN when we pass in the corridor but no doubt forget all about it when I’m out of sight.  Meanwhile,Stage Six: Email Hypervigilance, awaits…