Friday, 24 October 2014

Gender and HE

I had to make a very difficult decision recently. In the summer I’d agreed to speak at an event organised by a professional body. I said yes and confirmed things as the date was approaching. With a month to go I had a little niggle at the back of my mind. A movement has started among feminist men where they refuse to take part in panels at conferences and similar events where all the panellists are men. The first I read of this idea, I recall, was from feminist women suggesting men should do it. My niggle was that this event was an all-male panel. I checked the agenda and I was right so I decided, with a month to go, to leave the organisers in the lurch and pull-out suggesting they get a woman to speak instead. In doing so I made it very clear that I was happy to help them find a woman speaker (I know of many more knowledgeable women in Scotland who could speak on the topic) and if they were completely left in the lurch I would speak, but would mention the gender balance issue in my talk. It was a very difficult decision to make and I asked around quite widely, posting my suggested letter on Facebook. There in particular I was overwhelmed with the positive support from female friends from all walks of life who agreed that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.

A couple of them rightly pointed out that maybe they had asked women and the women couldn’t make it. It turns out, when I got the reply, that this was the case. This made me feel a bit bad, but I’ve stuck to me guns because, firstly I had agreed to help them find a suitably qualified woman and secondly because, as a feminist scientist pointed out in something I read once, that, yes, it might be more difficult to get a woman to speak because they might have care responsibilities (you may have to pay for their care for the day), or be less confident because of societal gender norms, but that means you should just try harder, not give up and choose men.

Someone on Facebook suggested that it should be “a person replaces another person”. I really wish this was the case and that I didn’t care this much. I wouldn’t care as much if, when you took a survey of all panels in world and found out that on average, allowing for people being ill or dates clashing, that there was equal gender representation. But we know this is not the case for a vast number of reasons: women cannot find the time to present because of competing responsibilities often care and family; women feel more nervous in social roles such as public speaking because of pre-existing gender norms; just the other day I read a study that showed women academics are more likely to select shorter speaking engagements and spoke for a shorter amount of time at conferences; and finally because of unquestioned bias among conference organisers. And this would just be equal representation across the piece; the really big challenge is to ensure a panel of nurses is not all women and a panel of engineers is not all men. Which I shall return to…

This has given me an awful lot to think about and crystallised a lot of thoughts I’ve been having recently about patriarchy, inequality, and employment in higher education.

Internalising patriarchy

The first thing that struck me was my emotional reaction to the whole situation. I found it extremely difficult to send the original email – I felt very guilty and did think “am I just causing a fuss about nothing”. I also cried with the positive response from my female friends. This really was a smack-in-your-face striking example for me of the way I have internalised patriarchal oppression. What I was doing was one small, practical act to challenge something that was clearly unfair. Having breasts and a vagina does not stop you speaking about the topic I was invited to talk about. There was absolutely no reason why the panel could not have had better gender balance. And yet I felt guilt, as though I was doing something horribly wrong, about pointing this out and imposing a minor imposition on the event organisers.

This also raised in me a bit of a thought that what is the point of my small protest? Chances are the space will actually be taken by a man. But maybe the organisers will ensure in future that panels are more gender balanced. Or consider saying at the start of a conference with an all-male panel that they apologise for the gender imbalance and they will be working to rectify it in future. Hopefully more small acts like mine will do a bit to start challenging structural inequalities in society?

I am superman

The second thing I dwelt on was male grand-standing. This came up in a twitter conversation recently which got nowhere because, well, twitter. Basically, the point being made was that just like when men do gender work like housework they expect massive praise for it, when men make feminist statements or stands they also expect enormous praise for it. I am completely guilty of this in this case. But to write my way through this as an argument I want to explain my feminist journey. My mum gave up work for about six years when my older brother and I were born which really held back her career. I remember at about the age of four I made a sexist comment along the lines of “women can’t do x” and she pulled me up on it and explained mummies can do these things. It obviously stuck with me. As a teenager, modelling myself on Adrian Mole, I read my way through the Female Eunuch after watching Germaine Greer on Late Night Review on BBC 2 and then dragged my mum and a friend along to hear her do a public lecture at Bradford University. I then read the Whole Woman. My feminism then lay fallow until the end of my doctoral studies and has been reawakened by the emergence of third wave feminism over the last decade. My stance now, informed by radical feminism, is that patriarchy is a system that creates false binary gender divisions in society and this impacts on everyone and has an enormous negative impact on women. Ultimately, in my feminism I want a society where the only time sex matters is when we’re talking about things to do with breasts, vaginas and penises.  The fact I feel I have to act “manly” in some situations, and the vast numerous petty oppressions of women I see all the bloody time just because they are women, means we are no way near attaining this.

So, I’m a “victim” of patriarchy because it shapes what I think my manliness should be like. I’m also a “victim” of patriarchy (boohoo, poor me) because I can’t help but grandstand when I do good things. Society tells me, as a man, that when I do a good thing I should brag about it and bragging about it will make me feel better and reinforce my sense of superiority in society. I don’t do it to downplay the centuries of activism by oppressed women, and I definitely don’t want to overshadow that. But I want to write about it because I feel bloody passionate about it. I want to live in a better society where gender ceases to matter. So I will openly shout out about the things I do to further that, mainly in the hope that other men will do the same. As I suggested above, hopefully if enough men put the interests of women first and refuse to be on all male panels, then we’ll see fewer all male panels.

And higher education

I’ve written on here before about the working hours culture of academia here and here. I’m enormously critical of the idea that you’re only a good academic and you’re only working well when you’re leaving the office at 9pm and working 60+ hours a week. But here I want to go a bit further and write out something I say quite openly if you’ve ever heard me rant speak about the subject in person. The working hours culture in higher education is misogynistic. I’m using this stronger word rather than sexist because I truly see it as an implicit loathing of women. In the society we have the expectation of working responsibilities on academics has to negatively impact on women more than men.

What is more is this model is predicated on a very male model of academic labour practices – basically the male professor going off around the world leaving a dutiful wife to look after the home and bring up the kids and generally deal with the emotional fallout of this family member never being there. This hit me hard, again, reading a report of a research project I’m involved with which is being launched next Tuesday in which a woman spoke of the career sacrifices she had made just so she could be with her family. Paul Cairney has written brilliantly in the past as well. I know of male colleagues who have had similar career sacrifices because they actually wanted to be part of the process of raising their children.

This post so far is horribly self-reflexive and naval gazing, and I’m afraid it’s not going to get much better. Because, what’s struck me recently, is that because I am a childless gay man I am basically, the male-professor of yore. I have no care responsibilities so I have incredible freedom over my time and can commit myself to my work in a way other people cannot. Ironically, whereas in many domains my sexual orientation might be a barrier to advancement in a career, in academia I have to be very open and honest and acknowledge that it benefits me.

But as I’ve stated before, I take the choice not to be such as selfish bastard – I take time to be with my partner who’s not an academic and also a big chunk of time training as part of my real passion of swimming (current freestyle PBs: 25m 13.5; 50m 31; 100m 1:07.5; 200m 2:42; 800m 11:08) because it keeps me sane, healthy and I prefer it to a lot of work.

Ultimately, as well it’s because I recognise the big structural issue in academia, at least in the UK, is that there is more work than there is people to do it. The employers make millions out of the overworked, tired academics, doing tasks in what should be their time, because of that wonderful phrase in our contracts “hours will be those required to fulfill the duties of the post”.

And I’m angry about this, and we should all be angry about this. We should also be angry that this means that academia is ablist as well. So, to bring it back to the start of the post and me pulling out of the panel, I have to use the utterly overused phrase of Ghandi – be the change you want to see in the world. I want to see a world with fewer all-male panels, where women are given opportunities to excel. I want to work in a sector where you can succeed by working 38 hours a week not 60. In terms of inequalities this involves people who are in privileged positions – and I have enough of them – to give up these privileges. The way I always think of this is when there are organisational discussions about the lack of women in senior roles, I always ask “what are you doing to ensure men are in low paid administrative roles?”. The UK population is roughly 50/50 male and female, therefore if we are to have equal gender representation in senior roles, then we must have equal representation in junior roles. And this is a much more difficult proposition but one that must happen. Stepping down from all-male panels is a small step in this direction, I feel. 

And I recognise (as hopefully you will) that I have privilege, so I do welcome feminist feedback from women on this. 

1 comment:

  1. Agree with all.

    "Ironically, whereas in many domains my sexual orientation might be a barrier to advancement in a career, in academia I have to be very open and honest and acknowledge that it benefits me."

    I realise this isn't the main point of this post, but I'm curious : do you feel that being a gay man puts you at an advantage over childless straight men? If so, why?