Doing a PhD (and the aftermath): a survivor’s story

Anonymous contributor

It is some year in the ’90s, perhaps even 1999. I don’t party like it’s 1999. I have no idea what to do with my life. I start a PhD. I have no idea what to do with my PhD. I have no ideas, full-stop. I smoke lots, eat little, and write nothing. My supervisors are brilliant; in fact, they are way too brilliant, and I am intimidated out of my mind. I smoke another cigarette. That will surely get my thesis done.

The year is very possibly 2000. I have fallen in love etc etc. I have no idea what to do with my PhD. My supervisors are helpful and engaged; they spend hours trying to help me to craft my ideas. I have no ideas, so instead I spend hours trying to craft other people’s ideas. I make their words into my words, and smoke.

The year might be 2001. The world is going insane. I still have no ideas, but now I have some words. I make more words. I speak at a conference and it is a Traumatising Experience. The next one is even worse. I make more words, and tell other people about my words, and then we talk about the words some more. I realise that a PhD is just ‘falling with style’, but with words.

The year is probably 2002. It is over – I have written it, submitted it, and survived the viva. I am sucked into a vortex of despair. I have been living my life on a when/then basis (‘when X, then Y’). It sucks. I need to reboot. But first I need to rewrite my entire damn thesis. When I’ve done that, then I’ll reboot.

The year could in all honesty be 2003. My CV lists that I must have turned my PhD into a book but my brain is apparently blocking out the memory in self-defence.

The year is in all likelihood 2005. I have got an academic job. *dry-heaving sobs of panic*. 

The year might actually be 2008. I discover feminist theory. The world starts to shift in unbelievably exciting ways and I begin to endlessly bore people around me about various epiphanies. This habit does not stop.

The year is 2015. To quote my friend, I ‘adult all over the place’ relentlessly. I have gone from having time (but no ideas) to ideas (but no time). I supervise research students and constantly forget what it was like to do a PhD. Honestly? It was agony. From start to finish. But if I’d started with the feminist theory? Then it just could have been heaven.

Anacondas and Bad Blood: in defence of “social justice warrior bullshit”

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Henry Sebastian

“Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture — already fully formed — might be simply “expressed”. But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it”

 (Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular,'” pp. 227-39 from People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by R. Samuel. London: Routledge 1981)

It’s (still) 2015. Celebrities sub-tweet, celebrities unfollow other celebrities, celebrities use emojis with ironic detachment, and celebrities raise the spectre of the “other” online. I imagine that the Nicki Minaj – Taylor Swift feud, played out over Twitter last month, functions as anathema to scores of “serious” academics across the world. Who cares, right? Outside of the obvious answer to that (clue: lots of people care) the more interesting question in this case is why people care, and more pertinently still, why should those of us who claim professional or ethical loyalty to the academe, or some other co-ordinate of “proper” knowledge, consider this is a worthwhile subject for analysis? Hall lays it out in inimitable style above, but I would like to focus on the specific guise of the backlash that followed this “twitter beef” becoming “big news”. The urge to denounce this feud’s right to attention, I think, reveals more clearly the dynamics which bore the feud itself. Below I attempt to answer the question of why this is a sociologically important event via an interrogation of three observable techniques, employed as shutdown devices intended to de-legitimize any such “serious” debate: (1) the “race card” angle, (2) the “anti-feminist” angle, and (3) the concluding, overarching “SJW bullshit” angle. The shared characteristics of these ostensibly disparate strategies argues for the renewed importance of intersectional praxis in combating all manner of oppressions, and the fallibility of disregarding popular “moments” such as Minaj-Swift as “meaningless”.

For those unfamiliar with the details of this case study, I will gladly provide a brief overview. After the MTV VMA (video music awards) nominations were released, global star (and criminally underrated rapper) Minaj posted a number of tweets focused on the struggles experienced by women of colour – even women of colour who sell millions of records and maintain massive visibility across cultural platforms – with regards to industry platitude. Quoted below:

“If I was a different “kind” of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year”

“When the “other” girl drops a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination”

“If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year”

Not the most provocative set of statements, but enough to prompt much online back-and-forth as to latent racism embedded in the music industry – back-and-forths that Minaj was happy to correspond with. As it happened, fellow nominee Swift also felt comfortable corresponding with the premise, albeit offering an analysis more explicitly personal than structural:

“@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..”

Finally, after Minaj replied that Swift had not been the target of her ire, the latter offered what she no doubt considered a reconciliatory, open hand of sisterly solidarity:

“@NICKIMINAJ If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on.”

Naturally, this was considered by some to be an open hand of condescending, pig-ignorance; the kind of sincerity offered by an empowered actor who does not know how to respond to bell hooks’ adage that “it is what we do with our privilege that matters”, other than to take “share your platform” in the most literal way. Cue a spiral of twitter antagonism, profitable certainly for the medium (all that freely uploaded content!) and quite possibly both main parties. The furore quickly enveloped the mainstream media’s portrayal of Minaj and Swift too, worthy of the echo-chamber reputation of social media.

Angle #1 The “Race Card”

For its part, the response from “white media” has been inevitably prickly and sensitive about being called out by Minaj; as if being challenged on racial bias is worse than that bias existing in the first place.

Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian, 22nd July 2015

I love reading the comments sections on articles, any articles, but particularly of the sort quoted above. As is so often the case with online material, they showcase an anonymous anger completely at odds with whatever – and it’s a rare piece of writing that manages to avoid this trap, to be fair – position the author, the original poster (OP), set out. Anecdotal by nature, they still provide an insight into voices without a body, which is to say the invisible architecture that ideology leans on. In Iqbal’s article, the first three comments illustrate this point rather explicitly:

“Red meat for identity-politics journos. No fan of Swift but she was right to shut this race-bating bs down.”

“Another article on this non-event. Good work Guardian.”

“Pretty sure it’s about Nicki Minaj making everything about herself and people making every little thing a racial issue.”

And here’s the rub; these comments are ten a penny in the anonymous terrain of the internet, but will still be passed over as facile – which is to say illegitimate – evidence of the micro-aggressions that greet so many people who “call out” racism. I’ve written before about the irony inherent in a process whereby those who make an observation of discrimination are just as likely to be as, if not more, damaged by the resulting fracas. The burden of proof, applied strictly to the perceived receiver of aggression, thus has its bar further raised.

In this case, the idea that Minaj had somehow invented the possibility of her being the subject to a racist music business seems, to me at least, laughable. But look carefully at some of those comments. “Red meat” “race-baiting” – Minaj is promoting, reproducing, not letting go of racialised prejudice. It’s a persistent motif. Ultimately, the accusation then being levelled at Minaj, or anyone who differentiates themselves from a “colour-blind, post-patriarchal, classless” [hegemonic] body is that of exclusion. Ergo, Minaj is the real perpetrator of racism, for having the temerity to separate herself from “other girls”. Sara Ahmed puts it beautifully thus: “The judgment of exclusion is a mechanism for concealing how exclusions already operate.”

This reversal – the accuser becoming accused – is a common occurrence in popular culture. Azealia Banks (you’ll know “212”, and I wholeheartedly recommend checking out her album “Broke With Expensive Taste”) has been one of the more vocal, and so concurrently, paradoxically, one of the most guilty, advocates for highlighting the double-standards cast upon women of colour in the music business. Her critique of pop star Iggy Azeala, and the wider phenomenon of appropriation of black culture (which did not begin nor end with the Rolling Stones) was, to pervert the aforementioned phrase, “red meat” to those decrying use of the “race card”. Banks was guilty of “not letting go”. She was bitter, hysterical, and a bitch – unsisterly, which leads very nicely to angle number two.

Angle #2: “That’s not feminist!”

Funnily enough, Minaj has spoken lucidly before about the insane expectations levelled at all women in the music business, contradictory identities that have to be maintained. “When you’re a girl… you have to be, like, everything” – surely something anyone who falls outside of hegemonic standards has empathy with, the exhaustion of having to permanently “fit in”. The problem seems to arise when those experiences are seen to override one another. Hence, presumably, Swift’s rebuttal that Minaj should not resort to “pit[ing] women against each other”. Minaj was not acting in solidarity. But what type of solidarity was Swift expecting? The only conclusion to be drawn is that this imagined solidarity occludes calling out the specific barriers that black women of a similar money-generating capacity as Swift endure as a standard. Symptomatic of tensions in the wider pro-feminist community, no amount of straw-man framings of an “oppression Olympics” can assuage the varied conjoined history of feminist and anti-racist movements. In such a context, and embedded in such a history, Minaj’s intervention, whether or not it was “pitting women” against one another, is strictly feminist.

For most of my adult life I have held in mind a reasonably homogenous conception of feminism. This is to say, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the theory – and fact-checking – offered by the likes of Crenshaw, hooks, Lorde, Collins et al. A consequence of having not been exposed was not seeing. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism… these were distinct entities, axes of oppression which were unified simply by being oppressive. The art of Minaj, for instance, was perpetuating the objectification of women in the male gaze, nothing more. The racism she might have suffered was, again, something completely different. Of course, anyone with a passing understanding of feminist history (and mine is certainly still no more than “passing”) will be well aware that it is a history of fracture, across all these indices. That awareness can lead to seeing new things, or seeing things anew: Minaj’s “Anaconda” lyrics (“Fuck those skinny bitches in the club”) not to mention the video, or Banks’ frustration with how “bigger” women have been thrown into the fashion industry spotlight by white celebrities, suddenly don’t seem so “anti-feminist” either. They seem a sincere engagement with a history of misogynoir.

What Swift’s comment reveals too is how unremarkable, and unremarkably reproduced, this blindness remains. That such an empowered, smart woman – she who single-handedly defeated Apple – can casually imply that Minaj is renegading on the sisterhood by asking questions based on her experience as a woman of colour demonstrates just how easily enacted this colour-blind feminism is. So it proves. “That isn’t feminist” has been an accusation thrown against, just recently, feminism that centers the experiences of transgendered people, sex workers and women of colour. We can argue over whether Amnesty’s shifting approach to sex work decriminalisation is the best strategic approach to ensuring the wellbeing of sex workers; but anti-feminist? The hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was similarly accused of being inflammatory and divisive. In these cases the “anti-feminist” angle strikes me as an accusation grounded in hostility and delegitimation reminiscent of the “race card” angle: not only are you wrong, you are guilty of the same crime you accuse us of.

Conclusion: “SJW Bullshit”

The “Angry Black Woman” archetype that the national media uses to harm Nicki Minaj is also used to justify Sandra Bland’s death. Discussing Nicki isn’t frivolous. People say discuss State violence, not pop culture. As if they are not connected via misogynoir. #SayHerName exists because once State violence is discussed, people center Black men. Thus, I already know the “discuss Sandra not Nicki” rebuttal is about erasure of both, actually. “Ignore famous Black woman!” “Focus on Black men for State violence!”Gradient Lair (“There Is No Nicki Minaj vs. Sandra Bland. Black People Can Discuss Both”)

That twitter interactions increasingly provide the ground from which think-pieces spawn should be reason enough to reject any approach to legitimate knowledge which dismisses out of hand celebrity, or social media, or bad spelling. That in this case many have successfully connected the dots between the Minaj-Swift event and wider issues around contemporary feminism and anti-racism, as well as their internal schisms, proves further that in Hall’s words, quoted at the top of this piece, “popular culture matters”. The dots connected might at times be spurious, but the same accusation could be levelled at a good deal of the Financial Times’ output too. As articulated in the Gradient Lair quote, there is no frivolity in exploring the links between physical violence and poverty, and the meaning we ascribe to popular culture/events. Rather, it is an often alarming journey into the symbiosis between the two.

In the final instance, many such pieces are fobbed off as being much ado about nothing, storms in a tea-cup: Social Justice Warrior industrial product, all too eager for affirmation. This kind of “SJW bullshit” angle is ubiquitous online, but follows the trope image of a workplace table full of suited white men, all turned aside to look at the solitary woman / person of colour. “Well, you’re the only one who thinks we’re a sexist/racist organisation”, or something to that effect, is the common caption. Only now, and most interestingly, we are increasingly led to believe that the table is full of people claiming that the organisation is in some way discriminatory. A more honest cartoon, according to many, would feature one solitary person with their hand up, whispering “I don’t think this organisation is especially sexist/racist” while his colleagues holler all sorts of outlandish claims to victimhood.

I can’t imagine how exhausting, and dispiriting, such a dynamic – of a similar ilk to the “political correctness gone mad” narrative – might be perceived by those experiencing the commonly invisible (to those who can’t see) barriers and exclusions that come with occupying an inherently disempowered position in society. It is a bitter realisation that the accusations thrown at ethnographic investigations of popular culture (the medium is every-day, it’s crass, it’s common) mirror, to some extent, the manner in which micro-aggressions inform the daily life of marginalised peoples, equally mundane and ritualistic. This is what those who decry “identarian/identity politics” rarely seem to grasp. Prejudice and discrimination manifest in structural arrangements, and in elite-level representation. They also communicate in popular mediums, they are lived and every-day. They are endless and they intersect and are, well, messy. But it is so important to avoid the pitfall of dismissing the “drama”; as the Gradient Lair article quoted above puts it, when a figure demands we discuss one manifestation of discrimination and not the other, what is at stake is often the erasure of both.

Inside Out of My Head: What I Learned From Pixar’s Latest Film

Valeria Del Castillo

There are so many preconceptions about feelings and emotions we do not challenge that we usually have a one-sided (very biased) view on them. This view is very patronising and is fed to us by our families, society, self-help books, different styles of therapies, and so on. We have been conditioned to think that happiness should be our normal state of mind. If it’s not, we should strive for it until we finally find it (Russ, The Happiness Trap). On the flip side, we are conditioned to think that sadness, shame, fear, anxiety, and the likes are negative emotions and that we should fight them – or at least learn to control them and/or replace them for positive ones such as joy. But, as I have been learning in therapy for the past two months… this is not true nor an effective mechanism to deal with emotions or believe system to uphold.

My therapist recommended I watched Pixar’s latest film Inside Out as it aligns perfectly with the method we are using called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (known as ACT).This form of therapy – in my own words – is about learning to accept that we don’t really have that much control over our emotions (like some psychologists think), that we can still work towards what we want to do/be/become even though there are some negative emotions on the way because, guess what, these emotions will always be there. Unlike self-help books and some mainstream modern yoga Instagram pictures, even if “I choose happiness” (whatever that means) and try to replace all the negative for the positive or just pay attention to the positive rants (and suppress the negative, which takes a huge amount of energy), ACT is really refreshing because it teaches us to accept and make space for emotions such as anxiety, sadness, shame, and other not-so-pleasant feelings. That in order to live a full and meaningful life, we have to understand, accept, make room, and treat ourselves with compassion because those emotions enable us to FEEL THE WORLD IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY AND BEAUTY.

LIFE IN REAL LIFE. Source: https://myjourneywithdepression.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/act-therapy.jpg?w=820

Here’s where the masterpiece Inside Out comes in. I won’t say too much about the plot as I want you to go watch it for yourself and not spoil it, but I will mention what I learned so when I’m feeling blue I can come re-read this as it has been vital for me to feel understood lately.

In the film, there are five basic emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger and they control the emotive reactions (and all the processes the brain does but I don’t know them lol) of a 11 year old girl named Riley. Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has trouble adjusting. Her dad is under a lot of pressure and so her mum asks her to ‘stay happy’ as that would help. So naturally, Joy wants to be in charge of Riley’s experiences, but in doing so, she tries to keep Sadness away from sparking any emotion or changing any memory. This is very much what society tells us to do – let ‘Joy’ take the wheel (see what I did there, Jesus?) and suppress sadness, because if we do not, there is something wrong with us. Sadness is seen as having no real purpose for us. It is seen as unhelpful. However, in the film, Joy eventually realises the huge role sadness plays in Riley’s life. By manifesting sadness, we can get help and feel more connected to others through derivative feelings such as empathy and compassion. This very much relates to an exercise I did this week with my therapist on the pillar of acceptance in ACT, that we usually label negative emotions as negative, forgetting how important they are to bring us certain experiences that we deem valuable. So, teaching #1: to live a rich, full, and meaningful life we need to experience ALL the emotions. Let them come and visit us and let them go, we should make space for them (and in ACT lingo, do not get fused with them, but defuse and accept them).

What we usually do with Sadness. Source: https://filmfork-cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/content/joy-sadness-inside-out-pixar.jpg

Teaching #2: The enemy is not the (unpleasant) emotions that we feel, but numbness. My boyfriend pointed out this one for me when we were walking back to our house from the cinema by saying “the movie showed it is better to feel sad than to not feel anything at all“. I can’t tell you how important this is, and even though we “know this”, we easily forget it, and hearing it made it very real for me. In therapy I’ve learned to realise that I spend SO much time and energy trying to suppress, deny, get rid of, hide from, shut down, pretend, ignore, and attempting to replace any negative emotions that I ultimately numb myself. Numbing – or not feeling anything at all – can feel like a relief sometimes, but this is a very dangerous and unfulfilling strategy because when you numb the bad you end up numbing the good too (even if you don’t meant to). Numbing sucks because obviously this prevents us from feeling and being in tune with ourselves and others. I numb myself by bingewatching TV series on Netflix, procrastinating on everything, daydreaming in the shower (you all do that too!), and scrolling endlessly and mindlessly on Instagram. We all do this, is normal, and okay to an extent. But, unfortunately, all this numbing and all the mechanisms I described above do not allow us to be vulnerable– an action that I feel takes a lot of courage to perform, but it is completely worthy and scary (scary good) (for more on vulnerability read anything by the amazing Brené Brown).

So, all in all, like I’m learning through ACT, my yoga practice which has deepened a lot, my daily meditation, and some awesome mindfulness books and techniques is that we need to learn to embrace all the emotions that visit us – even the not so pleasant/negative ones. This doesn’t mean sit down and cry and feel defeated (but that too, of course!!), but learning to observe them, notice them, make space for them and sometimes get hooked or unhooked from them.

Writing this post was really hard for me, but I am happy I did as this has been a difficult yet relieving journey – a journey I’m only beginning but that I feel hopeful (or try to, some days) will make me a stronger and wiser person walking the path towards a full, rich, and meaningful balanced life. And because of this, I truly recommend watching Inside Out, not only because they illustrated all the thought processes that happen when someone is depressed, but because we need more films like this and people talking about this. Mental health issues, topics, and people that struggle with them feel like we are alone, but all these emotions, numbing mechanisms, or mindful mechanisms can help/hurt us all. And you know what doesn’t really get talked about at all? Child depression. Yeah, it’s a real thing!!

So I’ll try embracing one emotion at a time. And I hope you do too.

This post was originally posted in Queering Your Lens – check it out!

Hair Straighteners on the Train – A Perfect Politics?

Katy Pilcher

‘I straighten my hair, and take trains’

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This post is inspired by 2 things – 1) I’ve just been reading Angela McRobbie’s excellent commentary on the ‘perfect’ and the workings of competitive femininity in neoliberal times, and, 2) once seeing a woman straightening her hair on a train.

As Angela McRobbie recounts in her example regarding women ‘making up’ themselves on public transport:

Sitting on an early morning train from Essex into the City of London I am distracted by the number of young women, I guess heading for jobs as office, retail or personal service workers, who use the time of the journey to apply a full make up which includes a complicated array of brushes, blushers, mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick, lip gloss, etc. I cannot help myself from looking at the final effect which is usually indeed an impressive TV-style appearance as though the young woman was about to step on stage for Strictly Come Dancing. The feminist in me wonders at this enforcement of gender difference in the space of public transport and the workplace environment which expects or requires such displays of excessive femininity or ‘post-feminist masquerade’. (McRobbie, 2015:18)

In my example, I was taking the train to Birmingham (a rare ‘treat’ to be able to get the ‘fast’ train that always seems to faintly whiff of faeces because I had booked months in advance for once). A young woman sitting opposite me plugs in her hair straighteners, takes out a mirror, and proceeds to straighten her hair. What was perhaps most interesting for me about this act was the reactions of those around her. The other commuters, white middle-aged men, seemed affronted that this seemingly ‘private’ (or what they presumed should be private) activity was taking place on their watch. A few glares emanated in the first 5 minutes or so, with their disgust culminating in one man tutting, rolling his eyes at another man, and flamboyantly turning his newspaper page, as if the hair straightening was causing a distinct nuisance to his concentration (N.B. he was sat over the aisle from the woman). The woman ignored them and continued straightening (as an aside, as a feminist and queer writer I have wider issues with the idea of ‘straightening’ something out to make it ‘better’ – but we’ll save that for another post).

This got me thinking, while on the one hand this woman is perhaps ‘perfecting’ her hair, being the ‘perfect’ neoliberal, postfeminist subject who conforms to normative assumptions of how a young woman’s hair should look for the workplace, on the other hand, it is so very obviously a masquerade – it is a performance of gender. Not only this, but it is an overtly and obviously public construction of gender. In this sense, perhaps her hair straightening can rather be read as perhaps a ‘perfect’ political act?? Hair straightening on the train somewhat exposes how much work goes in to ‘doing’ femininity – something that is sometimes supposed to just come as a natural ‘gift’ to middle class women. Further, in that moment, watching the men’s distaste at her act and their horror of her ‘excess’ of performing femininity spilling over into the commuting space, it certainly felt that there was something resistant about her command of public space and commuting time for this activity. Feminists have long noted men’s privilege in the taking up of public space (for recent examples, see this post about men on trains – 17th APR 2015, Nottingham, UK, is a corker). It is also a command of time, or a perhaps innovative use of time in an increasingly competitive, time-consuming and physically exhausting neoliberal working era in which commuting time very often becomes not a worker’s ‘own’ time but rather an extension of work time (don’t forget to reply to those emails on the train). It made me think that there was something potentially resistant in that this woman had perhaps obtained an extra half an hour’s sleep by doing this beauty work (even though she is still doing the ‘beauty’ work) required for her to look the part for her work role in that time.

Thus while as women we are commanded to self-police and self-regulate our bodies to fit in with societal norms regarding being ‘correctly’ feminine, and this act was potentially an example of this, in that moment of troubling the men on the train’s conception of what that space should be taken up for, hair straightening for me at least, became a small moment that was perfectly political.

Rage against the sex machine

Nicki Smith

  

Ok, so I’m really finding it hard to keep the rage in right now. The source of my rage? That age-old sexist stereotypes just keep burning on in the fire of debates about the sex industry. Every time we think there might be a chance – just a chance – we can snuff some of them out … Nope! Someone’s just put some gasoline on it! And so it goes on, and on, and on.

Here’s a thought, Hollywood dudes and Guardian commentators: if you assume that all/most sex workers are women … and I’ll add straight-identifying and cisgendered on to that … and that all/most clients are men … and let’s sprinkle in some more cisnormativity and heterosexism into that mix … then how do you think you’re imagining the whole ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ thing? Is there a chance – just a chance – that in fact you’re – oops! – totally reproducing the very discourses that we so desperately need to challenge? The ones that depict women as sexual objects, and men as sexual subjects? Or is it just that the sex industry is some weird bubble where there is no L, no G, no B, no T, and not even a Q? Is the sex industry some strange straight-o-verse where everyone is just really, really, really heterosexual?  Or might it be a little more complex than that?

Blast.  I had forgotten that it’s a Total Fact that the ‘vast majority’ of sex workers are women, and that the ‘vast majority’ of clients are men. I know it’s a fact because you’re saying it very, very loudly. And also tons of people have said it really loudly before, too, so it’s most definitely a Total Fact. Except, it isn’t; it isn’t actually a ‘fact’ at all. For example, did you know that the Student Sex Work Research Project found that more male students sell sex than do female ones?  This is important because – if we take away the ‘vast majority’ thing – then what are we left with?  Are we left with complexity and diversity, where supposedly ‘simple solutions’ begin to make, well, no sense?  And so doesn’t that in turn suggest that we should start to take notice of different voices, and most especially those of sex workers themselves?

I am frustrated because what Amnesty has done – and you are lambasting them for it – is to listen to, and respond to, what sex workers have been campaigning for for decades. And I am frustrated because the stories we tell ourselves about sex work cannot be removed from – but help to reproduce – the very same discourses about gender and sexuality that we should be challenging. Let’s oppose heterosexism and cisnormativity, not reinforce them; and let’s support sex workers, not denigrate and criminalise them.  Let’s not rage against the wrong machine.

PS Oh dear, I’ve gone all shouty myself, and that is totally unhelpful in the context of debates where there’s already way too much shouting.  

Revoking the Vote Creates A Second-Class Citizen

Erin Alice Cowling

(A Response to the Globe and Mail Editorial “No, Canadians living abroad shouldn’t get to vote” published 21 July 2015)

As a Canadian who has lived abroad on and off for almost a decade, I am appalled at the idea that I should not be allowed to vote. Yes, the Canadian system is based on residence in a particular district, which is why I still vote in the district that I began voting in at age 18. This is because, as the original editorial assumes but tries to deny, I have a connection to that district. I resided in it for most of my formative years, including while attending the university in my hometown. My parents still live there, I visit at least two to three times a year, and I have not given up my residency—which means I still also pay taxes. I keep up via social media with Canadian news.

Does my semi-permanent status as a Green Card holder, married to an American, somehow compel me to stop caring about what is going on in the country of my birth? Hardly. In fact, it has become almost more important to me, as I reflect on what my experiences in countries both near and far from it have been like. I’m very proud to be from Canada, and have not given up my residency. That means that I pay extra tax dollars to Canada, a country I have lived in for only one year out of the last 9, on my world income. As the tax rate for my income level is higher in Canada, I take into account the money I’ve paid to the US in terms of taxes and then figure out how much more I would have paid to Canada. I then have to write a cheque or transfer money from my Canadian bank account, which I really only hold on to for this purpose.

The second point of the article, that we are subject to other laws is true, except that we likely return to Canada at times, and the laws would still apply. Likewise, should we be in trouble in distant lands, Canada could intervene on our behalf—unless of course we have another citizenship, which, under Bill C-24, would allow the Canadian Government to abandon us. This reversal of the limitless voting is in the same vein as that of C-24: it creates a class of second-citizens who are not given the same rights or responsibilities under the law. If I cannot vote, why would I continue to pay taxes? I could give up residency, but I continue to pay, in part, out of a certain sense of duty to those things that I believe Canada does right, like health care, public education, and support for families and children, and in part because I still feel a sense of connection to the place I was born and raised.

Finally, the third point is almost too ridiculous to address, but I’ll try to do so anyway. That a “reasonable” person might disagree with me is possibly true of anything and everything I might do. Would a reasonable person disagree with my choice to go to graduate school outside of Canada? Maybe. At one point in my life that reasonable person has even been myself. But I did it… and for that I have realized that, at least for my current chosen profession, there’s no room for me back in Canada. I taught, briefly, at Queen’s University, but it wasn’t a permanent, or even full-time, position. Back in the United States, I’m finishing a two-year, full-time, Visiting Assistant Professorship, moving on to a tenure-track Assistant Professorship this summer. Unfortunately, the opportunities for me have just been greater in the United States. I say unfortunately, not to disparage the wonderful institutions that employ me, but for myself, who would love nothing more than to pass on my passion for language and literature in my home country. Should I be punished because those opportunities just haven’t been available? Should I be discouraged from maintaining contact with my homeland? Because that is what this limit on voting from abroad does: it turns the impassioned, informed Canadian away from their home, making them disconnect from the current issues. It means that well-educated, well-trained Canadians might stop trying to come home. For all the talk I hear about brain drain, it doesn’t seem that much is being done to lure those brains back, and this latest limit on how long we’re supposed to care is just another push further away.

Some Notes on Sexism in Academia

Federica Caso

Some Gender Problems in Higher Education and Research in Science

I am a feminist because the numbers about gender inequality make me go bananas. An example? In the UK and the US alike there are more men called John leading the largest companies than women. In Australia Peters dominate the corporate sector, with a ratio to women of 26:23 over 400 CEO and chair positions. Either there is a deep crisis of creativity when it comes to naming baby boys, or there is a structural problem of gender inequality. And if the numbers in the corporate sector weren’t enough to feel outraged, at a seminar held at the University of Queensland last week on gender (in)equity in science and academia in Australia, Professor Jennifer Martin presented a graph that showed how despite a balanced number of female and male students enrol in bachelor degrees in science in Australia, and an equally balanced number finish their PhDs, the gender gap in Australian academia starts widening in the early stage researcher positions, reaching visually discomforting proportions at professorship level. This trend is consistent with international evidence.

The causes of these, we were reminded at the seminar, are not difficult to figure out, ranging from sexism, harassment, glass ceiling, societal pressures over family, caring duties, lack of female role models, hostile environments, and the list goes on with quite predictable variables.

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At the seminar we were reminded of the normalisation of stereotypes and sexism. So, for instance, it is often the case that women are not invited at events because assumed to be busy with their family. Or we have cases such as that happened recently at Science Careers, an online career magazine, which, to the question “Help, My advisor won’t stop looking down my shirt” posted by “Bothered” in the online forum, responded:

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Then, there are cases such as the one of Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate, who infamously said  about women in science: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry”, reproducing the old stereotype of the sexually disruptive and/or weeping woman. The attempt of livescience, an online magazine of science, to provide some scientific justification for Hunt’s claim, is left to the reader to judge. But, remarkably women in science have started a twitter campaign against his misogynist claims, with people like Amy Remeikis, editor at the Brisbane Times, tweeting:

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And Dr Steve Diggle, microbiologist at the University of Nottingham:

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Professor Martin suggests that we ask the following questions to address gender inequality:

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and recommends that academic institutions: 1) Make gender equity a priority, for instance by publishing rates of pay for men and women so to address the gender pay gap; 2) Train decision-makers about unconscious bias, and include equality and diversity in the agenda of decision-making committees; 3) ensure childcare, and support for women; 4) Participate in SAGE Forum/Athena SWAN and aim for gold.

What are Athena SWAN and SAGE Forum?

Athena SWAN is the British national scheme to recognise institutional commitments to support and advance women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in higher education and research. It was founded in 2005, and since 2015 it is extending to race, as well as arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law departments. It works through award granting. In order to be granted an award departments have to:

  • Sign up to the chart
  • Collect data on women’s progression
  • Critically analyse the data
  • Identify reasons for under-representation
  • Develop a plan of action to tackle it
  • Show progress over time

Some funding bodies such as NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), Biomedical Research Unit (BRU), and Patient Safety Translational Research Centre have made the Athena SWAN silver award mandatory to be eligible for funding. National research councils have not made Athena SWAN awards mandatory, but they have pledged they will if significant progresses are not made within the next couple of years. Among the reasons the government adduced for not making Athena SWAN awards mandatory for national funds is that experts agree that gender equality has to be a matter of consensus and commitment on the part of the institution, rather than just a box-ticking exercise, and national research councils fund also the arts, humanities, and the social sciences which have just been included in a system similar to the Athena SWAN in STEM, but are not as advanced yet, and therefore it would create unfairness among the funding bodies.

This system is gaining momentum outside of the UK, with countries like Italy, China, Malaysia, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands showing interest in the project. Ireland and Australia have recently launched pilot projects. SAGE is the Athena SWAN-inspired Australian initiative to improve gender equality in STEM through collective discussions and actions.

The ‘Lad Culture’

Institutional efforts to tackle gender inequality in research and employment in higher education are to be prized indeed. But is that enough to tackle the gender problem in academia? Is the disparity between female and male researchers, lecturers, and professors the full story? On the 4th of June I attended a symposium at Leeds University about the so-called ‘lad-culture’ in academia. This term refers to the normalisation of sexism, racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment – often associated with partying, drinking, and student banter – that goes on in the background of each university student. While the term is not unproblematic (suggesting at times that sexism is perpetrated by men only, and that these men are working class, as someone from the audience suggested), it has become a common way to address male chauvinism in academia, particularly in the UK and the US.

The so-called lad culture is certainly not just a student problem, as we were reminded at the symposium. There is a general lack of institutional support to tackle the issue, that makes it a problem of the of whole academic system. For instance, a group of academic researchers who wanted to conduct research about the lad culture in UK universities approached several institutions, the majority of which refused to take part in the study because they did not want to be associated with sexism, racism, and sexual violence. Preventing research on their institution was a way to deny that they are also part of the problem. The fear of PR fallout certainly does not help addressing the fact that universities have poor institutional guidelines to tackle sexual harassment and violence, and that they tend to put the onus on victims of rape and sexual harassment.

Some of the victims interviewed by the NUS, National Union of Students in the UK, reported lack of support from their tutors, lack of validation and support from university counsellors, victim-blaming attitudes, lack of disciplinary procedures, failure by police to properly investigate their cases. Moreover, it is common that student survivors of rape and violence are referred by their universities to the police, if any action has to be taken by the university. The problem is double: firstly, the survivor of violence often shares the same academic space with and knows their attacker, thus making reporting more difficult, especially when there is a lack of confidence in successful persecution. Secondly, a series of power relations that disempower the survivor of violence are instantiated. The Guardian reports a survivor of rape describing the lack of control she felt when forced to go to the police at the age of 18: “I remember how overwhelmed and vulnerable I felt when someone in a position of power was telling me that only the police could deal with it and, if the university was going to do anything, I would have to go along with that”.

So What?

So, what do sexism and glass ceiling in research employment and the so-called lad culture have to do with one other? I speculate that one reinforces the other, potentially. I do not want to reinforce the stereotype that women are the only victims of the lad culture. Men are victims too, and women can be perpetrators. However, when it comes to the gendered numbers about who the victims of rape and sexual assaults are, women constitute the majority. Surviving sexual violence is a traumatic experience for both men and women alike. It can lead to PTSD, some students drop out, failing to or taking longer to complete their degrees and, especially when the institutional response is poor, students lose confidence in academia. After all, why would someone want to work for an institution that provided limited support when support was needed the most? While sexism exists everywhere, the path to academia is through one single institution, the university. Students go from their bachelor’s to their PhD and their academic job (possibly) through the same institution (by which I don’t mean the same physical university, but the same institutional system). As universities compete over reputation and student experience, and move towards “edutainment”, issues like pastoral care and real life experience[2] are glossed over. Ensuring good student experiences has sometimes also meant being lax with regulations and control over sexual violence on campus, as for instance the PR fallout issue suggests, as concerns over reputation take over the priority of investigating and addressing the lack of proper policies. Addressing the so-called lad culture should be part of the institutional effort to tackle gender inequality in academia, because a person damaged by this culture is a person and brain lost in the world of academia, and a missed role model of sexual violence survival and/or prevention.

For those interested in sexism in academia, I recommend the podcast “Sexism in Academia” at The Disorder of Things about the ‘everyday sexism’ panel at ISA 2015.

[1] It was soon removed, followed by an Editor’s note to apologise and suggest that “women should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace”

[2] And in fact it not uncommon for ex-students to define their bachelor years as a bubble in their life, nothing that resembles life after university.