Gender Central

As a researcher in gender equality, every week for me is Gender Central, simultaneously frustrating and thought-provoking.  Questions of gender are always complex and answers are not always easy to find.

Last Friday I was contacted by the media team at my university, to provide an ‘expert view’ on a news story developing close to the university campus.  A well-known restaurant within an upmarket hotel was renovating one of its entrances. They had decorated the hoardings around the building works with oversized posters featuring a scantily clad female posterior (we assume it was female, the model’s head was not in the picture).  ‘We’re working on our rear entrance,’ the poster said. ‘We’ll be pert and perfect by June’.  The hoardings stood directly in the path of many hundreds of school, college and university students en route to the multiple educational establishment in the neighbourhood.  The image was more like something from the 1970s than the 2010s.  A twitter storm raged for a number of hours, the posters were removed by late afternoon. Someone had realised it’s better for business NOT to outrage the neighbours.

Last week too, another twitter storm sprang up following the story of the temp receptionist at PwC sent home for refusing to wear high heels.  Among other responses, the Fawcett Society launched #flatsfriday.  Cue many (too many?) photos of women wearing flat shoes.  Men too – but then they rarely wear anything else.  It reminded me of the time Twitter and Facebook were swimming in ‘je suis Charlie’ / French tricolours – for a limited time.  ‘Love my killer heels,’ said one tweet, ‘but today I’m in my flats’.  I think #flatsfriday missed the point (the Fawcett Society were not pleased that I said so).  Posting photos of shoes is a fleeting and superficial response to the continued sexualisation of female identity in the workplace.  It really  doesn’t tackle the heart of the matter, playing instead into the ‘every woman loves shoes – don’t they?’ stereotype.  (This week, PwC hosted a gender equality forum for business and government …. Awkward timing?)

This Friday, the #flatsfriday hashtag is notable only by its absence from the feeds and my week ends dispiritingly, with the appearance of a group photo celebrating newly appointed professors and readers at my university.  Of seven new professors, six are men, six are White; both readers are also male.  To misquote Justin Trudeau – ‘This is 2016?’






disturbing the surface

Last Friday I had the pleasure of presenting at a seminar jointly hosted by OFFA and SRHE on the role of research in policy-making.  Professor Jacqueline Stevenson (SHU), Co-convenor of SRHE’s Access and Widening Participation Network had pulled together a great line-up including Nick Hillman of HEPI, Dr Neil Harrison (UWE) and Dr Vikki Boliver (Durham).  In between their thought-provoking presentations it was the turn of early-career researchers – seven of us, to outline our thoughts on the relationship of our research to policy, to reflect on the relevance and the challenges we encounter.  My own presentation focused on my current role as Research Fellow undertaking gender equality research within the boundaries of one institution.  I drew on Adrian Holliday’s wonderful description of the process of research ie: that it is by trying to understand what happens when, as an inevitable consequence of being there, the researcher disturbs the surface of the culture she is investigating, that they are in a position to dig deeper, to reveal the hidden and the counter (Holliday 2004 p.278).  Disturbing the surface, it seems to me, is also an essential part of the often slow process of policy and culture change.

contested territory

Full-time study not only holds the centre ground of English higher education (HE), it crowds the whole territory, pushing different ways of engaging with higher level study to a strategically precarious periphery.  In my doctoral research, I take on the influential narrative of ‘belonging in HE’, which has become so entangled with ideas about student retention.  My thesis re-imagines belonging in HE for mature part-time undergraduates peripherally positioned in the English sector.  It does so by drawing on spatial, psychosocial and psychogeographical ideas to map a more nuanced territory, to theorise ‘belonging’ through concepts of space and power.  Its findings disrupt a dominant, reductive narrative and emphasise instead, a rich territory of persistence and shared ownership; of belonging as a complex, negotiated process in the contested space of HE.  Institutional approaches to strategy and practice which acknowledge and encompass multiple versions of ‘belonging in HE’ increase HE’s capacity to engage with all its students more meaningfully.