Activism & ... Europe... or something else

IssueAugust - September 2016
Comment by PN

As usual, we rang people up to talk anonymously about a topic. This time, something came up for one person that needed more space.

Can I caveat this right before I agree to do this? I feel I am poor on my feet. I don’t do social media partly because I can’t get my head round how people do that. I have a bit of anxiety around this.

The other context is, depending on your topic, really good for your piece or really bad.

I have just been through the most enraging experience at work.

So many things I have thought or believed at an intellectual level now make sense in a totally new way – physically.

You have rung me on a day when I feel particularly unhinged by my whole experience.

I’ll have a go but I wouldn’t be offended if you don’t print it because it is too incoherent.

(long pause)

What’s coming up for me is I am trying to link the topic you have to what I’ve just been through...

“I’m in full rage mode right now.”

Along with many others, post-Brexit, I have just resigned... from my role as Athena SWAN lead in my school, following our unsuccessful Silver Award application.

I’ve worked on this for two-and-a-half years. I knew my school was not fully behind it.

Athena SWAN is a programme about women in science and how the academy is shit at promoting women. The Athena SWAN agenda [funded by British higher education funding councils] is saying that if you’re looking at how your organisation is unconsciously biased against women, we want you to decide on effective interventions against the long-standing barriers that women face.

And the NIHR [national institute for health research] has said that if there are two schools applying for the same money, and one has a Silver Award, that’s the school that will get it – so this has teeth.

I offered to lead it, and I battled for two-and-a-half years – to make sense of the agenda, to acquire data, to consider the impact of the interventions that were needed on the school, to develop an action plan going forward.

I was papering over the cracks and I knew it.

My criticism of myself is that I wasn’t sufficiently vocal, I wasn’t sufficiently arsey.

Irony of ironies, I let my head of department, who is a male, who operates in supreme confidence about everything...
I believed in that confidence.

Oh God, I was so female in this all!

The leaky pipeline

And what has made this so fantastically challenging is this [Athena SWAN programme] started with women in science, understood as the hard sciences, and then spread to the health sciences, where I work, which is a school of women, women at every level.

Even in that female-oriented discipline, there is a leaky pipe, where women drop out of the field at all stages of their careers, women have a harder time progressing than men. And people do not recognise this, even when you show them the data.

Another irony is that people who tend to lead this work are women, and it takes them off the metrics [how much scientific research you are doing, and how many scholarly articles you are publishing], so this year I had the most aggressive activity review I’ve ever had – even though I’ve worked my little socks off... for the good of the school, not for the good of my career.

So I’ve listened since the referendum to a stream of shocking resignations, and I submitted my own resignation yesterday, because we’ve been given a year and a half to re-submit and I could not bring myself to carry on self-flagellating and working in such an unsupportive context.

I’ve read stuff about women who take on leadership roles. And 90 percent of the reason they don’t do it is because it is risky.

Plus, if they do take on leadership, they could be given a glass cliff role where it is so easy to fall and fail.

“When women don’t look like leaders, the support just drops away and that is absolutely my experience.”

When women don’t look like leaders, the support just drops away and that is absolutely my experience.

There were times when I was mocked for what I was saying and doing, and that did work to eat away at my confidence and my ease at which I stepped into public forums to talk about my role and next steps and whatever.

I’m in full rage mode right now.

Thank God it’s nearly August and I won’t have to see anybody. Otherwise I’m risking saying something very....

Actually, I stop myself, I’m cautious. I so see all the gendered ways I’ve conducted this activity.

Even down to my head of department, who has been so supportive, symbolically. He’s attended all the meetings, he’s given me an hour a month to problem-solve. But there was something about his confidence that allowed me to feel ‘Maybe it will be alright’ – but it wasn’t.

It’s not the end of the world.

But I’ve invested my time, my creativity – and my dignity.

A bloody great hole

“My criticism of myself is that I wasn’t sufficiently vocal, I wasn’t sufficiently arsey.”

The decision I had to make was that I would never be able to say that I successfully led the school’s Silver Award. I had to let that go. And I can.

Except that I have a bloody great hole in my CV and I can’t fill it the way I wanted to fill it.

The other aspect is what was said about what I was trying to do. ‘This is just like a grant application, what is your problem?’ Or: ‘This is a tickbox exercise!’

I’m fascinated to see who they choose and whether someone who sees this as a tickbox exercise can be more successful.

I took it seriously. I wanted it to make a difference. Key senior people, who have responsibility for people’s careers, who have key roles, had no appetite for the agenda. They wanted me just to tell them what to do – like I know the answers.

I got a team around me, and this is the other mistake I made. I picked them because I thought they would bring something interesting to the discussion.

Someone who had done research relating to LGBT issues. Someone who had worked on disability issues.

But I should have had someone who doesn’t think like me. A positivist. Someone who sees things in black and white, who doesn’t have a sociological approach, who is not interested in how context shapes behaviour and choices, who doesn’t look to see how power is distributed to account for people’s behaviour.

One of the difficulties of addressing the comments people made was I find it hard to come up with a riposte that is just a soundbite.

I found it hard to challenge in a concise, succinct way some of the ways in which this gets misunderstood. I don’t do soundbites.

So when I say something, I can think of the ways what I am saying could be misunderstood. I need an essay to make my case. It is really complex.

- Woman academic


Topics: Anarchism
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