Gender Agenda @ Newcastle University

Last month, the Institute for Social Sciences hosted a research and networking event entitled Gender Agenda. The event endeavoured to highlight the vital gender research being conducted across all areas of the university, detailing the historical journey of gender concerns within the university and showcasing current gender research from all faculties and all stages. The event encouraged a dialogue on the need to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary connections across the university, and the importance of acknowledging and approaching gendered concerns in our teaching, our research, and our activism.

The first panel sought to demonstrate how ‘Gender is Everywhere’: although these research projects initially appeared not to directly engage with gender, the speakers detailed how gendered concerns emerged regardless, noting how the use of gender as a critical lens is often vital in identifying patterns and distinctions. Libby Morrison and Mary Hull (both from the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology) shared their work on improving accessibility of public toilets, emphasising the need for a wider variety of toilets which address concerns relating to access, particularly in regards to cleanliness, usage of taps and hand dryers, and unnecessarily complicated signage. The speakers noted the problems faced by older women, who can be particularly impacted by a lack of accessible toilets. Liz Todd (School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences) shared her work on the out of school lives of schoolchildren: she observed that applying a gender-critical lens was vital in drawing out the links and discrepancies in these activities, including the impact of mothers’ education on a child’s participation in sporting activities, and the gender disparity in sport participation after the age of 11.

Discussion then moved to give a brief breakdown of Newcastle University’s gender research story, both past and present. Diane Richardson offered a fascinating glance into the university’s history, as she guided us through the previous Gender Studies syllabus and the growing proliferation of gender-related research. Richardson also noted the challenges of establishing the legitimacy of gender research, and the necessity of reframing gender research in the contemporary moment. Peter Hopkins, the Dean of Social Justice, followed by emphasising how a consideration of gender is fundamental to social justice concerns – it is, he noted, vital to consider gender in relation to all areas of environmental justice, structural justice, and issues regarding poverty, race, and class.

Stacy Gillis, Convener of the Gender Research Group and chair of NU Women, detailed the vital ongoing work of the Gender Research Group. One of the oldest research groups within the university, the GRG has a community which sprawls across the faculty and draws on a wide and varied array of expertise. It has hosted seminars, conferences, visiting speakers, the annual Undergraduate symposium, and the recent M.A. dissertation prize, plus an array of outreach work. Gillis emphasised the need to consider gender across all institutes of the university: gender cuts through much of what we do, and we must work to create a positive and communicative environment in order to bring these ideas into a shared and interdisciplinary dialogue.

Kate Chedzgoy, Director of EDI, discussed the importance of addressing the problematic and patriarchal shapes and structures that we work within, and that we ask: how can we address these structures by working together for gender equality across the university? How can our energies be effectively directed, our methods and critical perspectives constructively utilised? Chedzgoy spoke to the need for structural critique and change, and the importance of collaboration and cross-disciplinary communication.

Finally, Liz Todd, director of the Institute for Social Science, spoke of the crucial nature of gender research to the health of the social sciences: Todd stated that the presence of gender activism informed by vibrant and critical gender research contributes to the health of society as a whole, and the need for all sectors of the university to highlight gender debates and prevent the erasure of gender studies.  

The event then proceeded to highlight a selection of the wonderful gender research currently being conducted throughout the university. Karen Ross (School of Arts and Culture) shared her research working with women entrepreneurs in the global south; Ross acknowledged the humbling experience of cross-cultural research, and observed that her findings contributed to a challenging of assumptions relating to researching and working in the global South. Maarja Luhiste (School of Geography, Politics and Sociology) presented her work on gender and political candidate retention: whilst previous analysis has mostly focused on successful candidacy, Luhiste’s research moves the lens to unsuccessful candidates, asking – is the main problem a lack of supply of female candidates, or a failure to retain female candidates? For what reason might we perceive gender dispai- as a result of self-perceived competences or as a result of gendered differences in attribution of success and failure? Hannah Budge (School of Natural and Environmental Sciences) presented her Ph.D. research on the problems faced by women working in agriculture in the Scottish Islands: the lack of female representation in leadership roles, the problematic nature of succession passing farmland to the son, and the variation in linguistic and geographical barriers depending on the specific islands. Natasha Mauthner (NU Business School) finished off the session by sharing her work on emerging frontiers in feminist methods, arguing for the hidden mechanisms within certain research methods which are assumed to be impartial. Mauthner argued for a deconstruction of the notion that quantitative methods are no less subjective than qualitative methods and that methods are neither objective nor neutral, demonstrating the need for feminist reflection.

The second block of research presentations began with Ana Rhodes (Newcastle University Business School), who shared her work on mentoring and women’s activism within the aviation industry. Rhodes highlighted the productive nature of guidance and community in a male-dominated industry, and the structural issues that need to be challenged. Lottie Rhodes (School of Geography, Politics and Sociology) spoke of her work on gendered attitudes to menstruation in schools, detailing her work with focus groups in a high school. Rhodes discussed the continuing belief that menstruation is a taboo subject, the problem of period poverty in the UK, and the concerns of gendering menstruation and risking inciting feelings of gender dysphoria: not all women menstruate, and not all menstruators are women. Michael Richardson (Geography, Politics and Sociology) shared his research on the emotional wellbeing of young, working class fathers. He explored the complexity surrounding emotional responses to fatherhood when teenage boys gain responsibility for others, the difficulty of articulating these emotions, and the question of how these fathers can be best supported. Richard Collier (Newcastle University Law School) gave a summary of the rising concerns relating to mental health and wellbeing within law, particularly within men. His ideas explored vital questions surrounding masculinity and mental health, and approached the question of what role men can play in EDI and well-being. Tim Cox continued discussion on masculinity, with a discussion of the perceptions of fatherhood on a familial and cultural level. Cox detailed the positive effects of paternal involvement, despite certain cultural preconceptions towards father-care.

The event closed with an invitation to discuss the need for gender-directed action, activism, and teaching across the university. What would it mean for Newcastle to be the best place to study in relation to gender, and best develop the next generation of gender researchers? How can we improve local and civic engagement, and make a strong statement for cultural and structural change and improvement?

Evidently events such as Gender Agenda are making a strong drive for the kinds of interdisciplinary communicative methods required to foster a positive, generative, and active move toward these kinds of changes. Thank you to all speakers, and to the Institute for Social Sciences for organising this event.

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