Rattle Snake screening review

On 6th December 2019, NU Women participated in a campaign to show a recorded performance of Open Clasp’s gut-wrenching and game-changing production, Rattle Snake, to as many people as possible. Why? Because despite living in a country where discussions about domestic and sexual violence are happening more frequently, over one million women still experience some form of domestic or sexual violence per year – and these are only the figures we know about. 

Open Clasp is a charitable organisation placing theatre at the heart of transforming lives of disadvantaged women and girls through acts of collaboration. They campaign for change on an international, national, and personal level. They’ve won awards for their work, but most importantly they’ve reached out to and impacted the lives of 107,764 people to date.  

They’re incredible.  

From 25th November – 10th December 2019, Open Clasp made their live recording of Rattle Snake available online to demonstrate the signs, effects, and emotional upheaval caused by coercive control in personal relationships.  

Open Clasp performance of Rattle Snake

They bring to the stage the reality of women experiencing the often-hidden nature of domestic abuse through the emotive and powerful performance of two actors. In fact, I couldn’t believe there were only two women on stage – the emotion they put into showing the multifaceted reality of the women they represented was breath-taking. And when I say reality, I mean these are performances based on collaboration with women who have experienced the trauma of coercive control. Trauma that won’t  end unless we, as a society, are willing to look for the signs of such abuse and have a system that puts an immediate stop to it.  

The need to recognise these signs was further emphasised by Catrina McHugh, the Artistic Director of Open Clasp and playwright of Rattle Snake, as she discussed why she made the performance available for all – because there’s a need for further empathy about such situations as a society and within the judicial system. What really impressed me about the evening was the supportive and welcoming environment it invited in discussing the issues raised in the performance – it was inspiring to hear everyone’s response and engage with the production directly. 

Numerous letters and feedback by those who have been impacted by the performance are posted on Open Clasp’s website, showing just how important a role this performance plays in initiating discussion about coercive control. Not only that, but the play has been used in police training to make officers aware of, and recognise, the signs of domestic abuse, as well as to understand that you need to know the full story before judgement can be passed.  

Before we expect the situation around domestic abuse to change, we need to be willing to talk about it, and Open Clasp runs ahead of the crowd in working within communities to represent real experience and put it out there to campaign for change. 

Sport, Sisterhood and Skates: Jo Day


Jo Day (left) writes about the sense of empowerment she feels in taking part in Roller Derby; this is a great read about inclusivity, confidence, and support.
You wouldn’t think that getting together and donning roller skates, whizzing around in small circles and hitting each other would necessarily be the base of so many strong friendships, but seriously – it works.
Roller Derby is a full contact sport on skates, and gained worldwide popularity after the 2009 film ‘Whip It’, starring Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore and Juliette Lewis. While the film naturally is a Hollywood version of the sport (no, you can’t punch people. No there’s no clothes-lining allowed. No, the uniform isn’t compulsory fishnets), it was responsible for a veritable stampede of people into the female-led sport, keen to tap into the idea of empowerment, sisterhood and *shock horror* team sport outside of the hockey sticks and netball knickers you knew from PE lessons. You may have seen the recent This Girl Can billboards or TV adverts featuring women on skates… we’re really starting to get around!
What strikes most people about the roller derby community is that word – it really is a ‘community’. We’re women with a goal, linked across cities, countries and the world. If I travelled to the other side of the world, I’d find a group of ladies willing to let me drop into their practice, skate and party with them and most likely crash on their sofa (I’ve done this all the way across the Atlantic). Most people come to the sport with their very own issues, insecurities, and experiences, and very often find solace and acceptance.

This Girl Can! Credit – Zero G Photography

Roller Derby is felt to be so empowering for women for many reasons:
  • It’s a sport that wholeheartedly encourages a positive body image – there’s a place and role for every body shape (big and strong, small and agile; fast nippy skaters and sturdier defensive players who grind down an opponent’s morale!)
  • It can allow women to show their powerful, aggressive side in a constructive, applauded way (killing it on the track with a crowd cheering: what a rush!)
  • Roller Derby is dominated by women all over the world – it had been a women’s only sport for many years before men started playing too, and is certainly played, coached, managed and administrated by more women than men (rare for a sport where men and women play).
  • Both international governing bodies, WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) and MRDA (Men’s Roller Derby Association) have clear inclusivity policies, allowing people to skate with whatever teams and genders they feel most comfortable with and identifying as (including gender-expansive participants who may feel other sports have no place for them in the locker room).

    Credit – Kodak Kojak
Team sports are all too often something that falls out of women’s realm once they leave school. The drop-off in physical activity when girls leave compulsory education has always been a big problem in this country, and many of the women in Newcastle Roller Girls hadn’t done any sport since school (which for most of us is over a decade ago!), so it could be seen as a team sport for non-sporty people… who end up athletes without even realising it. How did this crazy roller skating game take me from the girl who insisted the gym was “boring” and beyond her willpower, to a woman who attends 3 times a week and can leg press three times her body weight? Because I want to play better, I want my team to win, I want the women around me to be able to rely on my skills… and all of a sudden it’s a means to an end, necessary and not such a chore after all. I think there is a lot to be said for finding your best incentive to do the hard work of getting fit, and what could work better than a game? It is a game at the end of the day, but to most of us, it’s truly more than that: it’s a way of life.

Credit – Dave Moore

If you’re keen to find out more about what the sport is, there’s plenty of helpful YouTube videos (links at the bottom of this article), or you can come along to one of our home games!
  • 25-26th March – EuroClash (2 day European Tournament)
  • 8th April – women’s C team game
  • 22nd April – Women’s B team games
  • 13th May – Women’s A & C team games
  • Men’s games also available through Tyne and Fear Roller Derby.

We run a beginner’s intake a couple of times a year and our home is the Walker Dome. Check out our website (or ask Jo in the Student’s Union) for details!

What is roller derby? Find out here
Newcastle Roller Girls YouTube video and Facebook page
Tyne & Fear Men’s Roller Derby YouTube video


Women’s Empowerment in STEM (and Saudi Arabia): Dr Jolanta Weaver

dr-jolanta-weaver-01Dr Jolanta Weaver is a Consultant Endocrinologist working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. She is a Senior Lecturer in Diabetes Medicine at Newcastle University UK and a Visiting Professor at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, KSA. In her ‘Empowering Women’ blog she tells her story of the power of offering help to others to make life more fulfilling.



Sherin’s story shows us that impossible is nothing and highlights the power of seeking meaningful mentoring to unlock your potential.

Sherin is my ex-PhD student living in a country where women’s privileges are not as generous as in the United Kingdom, yet her aspirations are universal. She is a prime example of a woman who, if given the right mentoring and environment, will flourish.

She is a mother of three living in Saudi Arabia. Her university education started in Egypt where she hoped to qualify as a doctor, but when her mother died prematurely she had to stop studying medicine to look after her siblings. Sherin had the support of her father who recognised that she was more than able to climb a “big mountain” when the time was right. After finally graduating with a degree in Biochemistry, Sherin had just one chance to complete an MRes degree in North Africa. However, she made a conscious decision to abandon it as it was not providing her with enough of a challenge. She ended up completing an MRes in the UK but had to return to Saudi Arabia to join her husband and start a family. A few years later, when her children were old enough, her (female) supervisor suggested she should come to Newcastle University to seek female supervision to mentor her towards a PhD.

It was then that I decided to take on the role of her supervisor as I felt there was a challenge in supporting a female scientist who was clearly keen to do well and needed support. It was also exciting to learn about women’s lives in other countries.

My visits to Saudi Arabia revealed the huge challenges she was facing as a woman in higher education. Nevertheless, her University made it possible for a married woman with children to complete a PhD between two very distinct countries; she took part in a joint supervision scheme between King Abdul Aziz University and Newcastle University, performing experiments in both countries. The advantage of this scheme was that Sherin was not removed from her own environment but was instead improving it from within. We were both creating the building blocks for her PhD but we were also paving the way for other women scientists. But we knew this would not be easy…

Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

I figured out that in a society and institution where women had fewer rights, nor were they as valued or supported as men, the only way to help Sherin was through excellence in clinically relevant research. Her intellectual recognition and respect for exemplar scientific conduct would ultimately allow her to be treated on a par with men.

During Sherin’s research there were probably initially more downs then ups. In taking this role I recognised we could not take any shortcuts as we both wanted this to be relevant to the scientific community and my patients. There were many sleepless nights for both Sherin and myself. We were on uncharted territory, performing experiments that had never been tried before with equipment that did not always work (like many PhDs). Her endeavour was not just about getting significant p values but about solving problems and getting up quickly after a fall. Sherin not only completed a commended PhD thesis but she managed to publish a manuscript in peer review journals higher than she anticipated.

This story is not only about scientific achievement but also about how to achieve this in a balanced and fulfilling way. By now I was more than a supervisor, I was Sherin’s friend. I could advise Sherin on how to cope with the daily demands of teenagers! Sherin and her children are now undertaking very active sports on a regular basis so that her family bonds become even stronger.

Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

So, what was the secret of Sherin’s success? Several words to describe her come to mind: resilient, single-minded, determined, courageous, hard-working. These words may be socially accepted as more masculine attributes, but for Sherin they also came with love for her children and family. Of course, these are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they have to be applied at the right moment. When offered mentoring she worked very hard to reap the benefits from it, although she did not immediately see the advantages of the long-term investment. Over the course of our collaboration, I saw Sherin grow stronger, more assertive and more focused. She learnt to be selective in her research and could decline projects which were lacking in scientific rigor. It was apparent that her knowledge of how to recognise meaningful research was increasing on a daily basis.

The accolades for her hard work grew steadily. Sherin became an Assistant Professor much quicker than others in her institution.  She was allowed to become PhD co-supervisor of my next PhD student from King Abdul Aziz University much earlier than anticipated. Her achievements became recognised by her institution who selected her to apply for a Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) fellowship at short notice. She was not selected this time, but we will try again next year and make it a stronger application. Indeed, if Sherin were awarded an MIT fellowship on the first attempt while this would be fantastic, it would also mean that there’s no further mountain to climb.

So, what is the bottom line message? Believe in yourself that doing the right thing will be recognised. Seek and benefit from help when it is offered. Offer your help to others to make your life journey more fulfilling. Grab opportunities and run with them. Go for it… as Ellen McArthur’s poster says on my wall.

Fighting Against Gendering Toys: Angela Wharrier

Self-professed lifelong feminist Angela Wharrier talks about the gender stereotyping of toys and what she did to fight it. Read on to find out what we can do to help children feel comfortable in pursuing a career free from gender stereotypes. 

As a lifelong feminist and sociologist I have always been acutely aware of the socialisation of gender roles by the media and marketing campaigns, which reinforce the notion of a binary gender that assigns traits, behaviours and status to boys and girls as they grow up.  This has always been especially true of toy marketing campaigns which have been shown to be particularly damaging to girls.  The way children play and the messages they absorb regarding their gender, race, and economic class cannot be underestimated.

Women currently take up an overwhelming majority of roles in the caring, leisure, administrative and secretarial sectors whilst men dominate the managerial and skilled trades.  This is evident in the UK Engineering workforce, of which only 9% are female. It is interesting to note the link between the gendering of these trades and the subtle stereotyping of the toys we play with when we’re young.

In 2013, I became incensed when walking around Fenwick’s toy department to see the toys signposted as Boys and Girls.  Stereotypically, the active, aggressive, building toys were in the Boys section and the nurturing, housework and craft toys were in the Girls section.  I wished to buy my niece some cars but had to look in the Boys section to find them – I wondered how it would make my niece (and any other child for that matter) feel to have to do that.  This overt gender stereotyping and subtle integration into kids’ everyday lives via the toys they play with surely has an impact on children’s – girls in particular – choices and opportunities in education and employment.

I wrote to the manager of the toy department and expressed my views, referencing relevant sociological studies and citing the campaign that was influencing toy sellers throughout the UK: PinkStinks.  The response, after some back and forth, was that they removed the gendered signs and put up signs simply stating the type of toy. I check each Christmas that the signage remains ungendered and so far, so good.  Speaking out about this hopefully goes some way to encourage children to like whatever they fancy and play as they wish to play without worrying about whether they are acting oddly according to socially constructed barriers. I am hoping this will help young girls to be less constricted in their behaviour, feelings and ambitions and to consider all areas of learning so they assume that they can do any job in the world.


Editor’s note: The PinkStinks and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns are incredibly important in raising awareness of gender stereotypes and in fighting for gender equality. Of further interest, particularly related to Angela’s comments about the link between careers and gender roles, is Goldiblox. Fed up with how few females were enrolled on her undergraduate engineering degree, Goldiblox’s founder took matters into her own hands to “disrupt the pink aisle” in toy stores and “introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age”. It is perhaps initially sad to say that businesses like these are pioneering in their approach, but on the sunnier side of things, one more option to pique girls’ interest in STEM will never be one too many.

Helen Berry on ‘Finding your Voice’

helen-berryThe prospect of public speaking is one which may strike fear in the hearts of many of us. As women, it is common to face additional setbacks such as lack of confidence and feeling anxious of criticism. All is not lost, however! Helen Berry, Professor of History and HaSS Dean of Postgraduate Studies, held an excellent session for the NU Women based around finding our voices within the public sphere. Helen has extensive experience in public speaking, be that in the lecture theatre or further afield in contributing to discussions on the radio or appearing on TV.

Below we discuss some of the most common challenges we might face in speaking within the public sphere. Taking heed of the tips that follow might help those butterflies disappear.

“What if my mind goes blank?”

There are several strategies out there to help us with keeping our talks on track, it’s a case of choosing the right method for you. Index cards or PowerPoint presentations with keywords on them are a good start in helping us to keep focused and improve our fluency. Don’t forget to slow down, too, to give yourself time to think – slowing down your speaking speed to about half of what you think is normal means you’re more likely to hit the optimum listening speed.

“What are others thinking of me?”

The truth is, they don’t care. They came to hear you speak, not to judge. Often we are our own worst critics! Find a friendly face in the audience and keep calm.

“What if I can’t make myself heard?”

Don’t be afraid to interrupt. Speak deeper and louder. Most importantly, don’t apologise. Cut out the I’m sorry buts and the I may be wrongs from your vocabulary and be confident that what you’re saying is a useful contribution to the discussion.

“I’ve never done this before”

This is a valid worry and one that almost everyone will have experienced, but don’t admit it! Audiences want to feel comfortable and seeing that you are too will help them to relax. Keep a journal for future reference and note down what works and what doesn’t. Remember that you’re in charge of the situation, so make sure you project an aura of control even if you don’t feel it.

“I don’t like audiences, large or small!”

You know about the subject (the audience is there because of it) and you have something valuable to say, so give yourself permission to speak. Take a look at Michelle Obama and Julia Gillard’s excellent speeches and note how they speak to their audiences.


Some final points…

Be resilient, be positive and build yourself a support team of family and friends to give you feedback… Practice makes perfect! Most importantly though, remember what you’re passionate about and why you’re doing it. This is what will get you through.

For further reading, Helen recommends Patsy Rodenburg’s book Presence as a practical guide to improving presentation skills. She is a former voice coach with the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can also catch her talking about the ‘three circles’ concept from the book on YouTube.

Helen will be doing another session in May 2017 that will be open to the whole NU Women’s network. Registration for this event will be shared closer to the time.


Developing Your Personal Resilience

Jo Geary, Head of Business & Management Services at Newcastle University Library discusses personal resilience.

This blog can otherwise be known as: How to avoid being a (squashed) bunny caught in the ‘to-do list headlamps’.

My to-do list was paralysing me. I needed a lesson in how to respond better in the face of an overwhelming workload. Luckily, Mandi Sherlock-Storey and my network of NU Women colleagues turned up to help me develop some personal resilience!

Mandi started her Personal Resilience Workshop by asking us what we would look like at our absolute best, at our peak in terms of resilience. She defined resilience as “successfully adapting to adversity and bouncing back as an even better, more capable person”. Resilient individuals have a bag of tools to help them become more flexible to life’s changing demands.

Continue reading “Developing Your Personal Resilience”

Guest Blogger Deborah Husbands: Intersectionality Finally Comes of Age

We are delighted to present the next instalment of Gender + from guest blogger Deborah Husbands, Doctoral Researcher and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster, London.

Intersectionality Finally Comes of Age

With glass in hand, I sit at my desk and reflect on a question posed recently by author and coach, Cherron Inko-Tariah, MBE: how can we bridge the diversity-inclusion gap? How can we, indeed? For a gap certainly exists. But let’s first unpack that word ‘diversity’ a little. Philosopher Nathaniel Coleman once said that diversity is a ‘dirty word’ that allows people to hide behind the real issues because it conveniently blurs the lines. Issues that lie deep within complexities from multiple identities in a fragmented world remain safely hidden under a diversity veil. But, there is fresh hope for clarity! Along comes a plethora of research at just the right time. Waving an ‘intersectionality’ banner, our attention is drawn to a new framework to dissect, particularise and understand these multiple identities. In other words, we are now equipped to bridge the gap. Yet, intersectionality is not new.

Intersectionality existed long before we were given the term in the late 1980s by feminist, critical race theorist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. In fact, it’s the way we have always experienced our life-worlds: as compartmentalised and disaggregated, as individualised and collectivistic, as unique and universal—all at the same time.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

So, why has ‘intersectionality’ become so fashionable of late? Maybe, because it has divested itself of a ‘childish’ impulse for tunnel-vision and egocentrism characteristic of other frameworks. It has learnt to share its toys: new knowledge and ideas about the multiplicative (not additive) nature of identity. And, at last, it is dressed and ready for the ball, complete with an eclectic assortment of global escorts: gendered and racialised people, neglected feminists, structurally-dominated and politically-oppressed people. But what do we do with them all when they get there, asks the party-going newly-gentrified and socially-privileged among us? The answer, it seems, is that we research and study them to death as if they were, as Professor Gurnam Singh aptly puts it, the ‘exotic animal in the room’. And when we think we’ve ‘done enough’, we put them back into their compartmentalised world until a new social justice paradigm emerges that justifies taking them back out again. Only maybe, this time, using a different critical lens.

The world will likely be a much better place when diversity, inclusion and intersectionality go the way of the record player or tape recorder: as a vintage item that has long since served its purpose.


But until then, it seems we still have some work to do.

Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP

Our guest blogger, Chi Onwurah MP, Newcastle Central’s elected MP and Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy,  discusses her embracement of the term ‘intersectionality’, her experiences as a black female Geordie of Irish and Nigerian decent, brought up on benefits on a council estate by a single, disabled mother, and her career progression from a woman in STEM to a woman in Parliament.

Image result for chi onwurah mp
Chi Onwurah MP

Continue reading “Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP”

Our ‘post-truth’ world and unconscious gender bias: Sally Shortall

truth-166853_1920Our ‘post-truth’ world and unconscious gender bias: Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy, in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. She talks about unconscious gender bias in our post-truth world.


I have long considered my enjoyment of the weekend Financial Times as something of a guilty pleasure. My friends tend to associate the paper with right-wing capitalist sentiments but I have always found the quality of the economic analysis and international news coverage excellent. In particular, I enjoy the Life and Arts section to which many academics contribute on political, historical, and sociological matters. I am heartened by, and often quote, Noam Chomsky who has also lauded the Financial Times for the quality of its international news coverage.

At the moment I am immersed in a project for the Scottish Government, looking at the role of women in agriculture. I have been all over Scotland interviewing women and men about women’s role in agriculture, in farming organisations, and considering cultural practices that impact on gender roles on the farm. I have studied this question now for more than two decades, and I am struck by the huge strides in gender equality, combined with a seemingly contradictory continuing unconscious gender bias and outright sexism. I am analysing the data right now, so I’m constantly thinking about these questions. The other question I have researched in recent years is how knowledge gains legitimacy. Who decides what the truth is? We now have phrases like ‘post-truth’. Different versions of the truth vie to be seen as the correct one. This question, as we all know, is particularly pertinent in the current climate.

It was with delight that I picked up the weekend Financial Times, and saw that Tim Harford had an excellent article asking what we can do to champion the truth. He explains the problem nicely; it is in the interest of some groups to manipulate facts, and he gives the example of the tobacco industry going back to the 1950s. He presents some of the ‘problems’ with facts: they are boring, people can feel threatened by the truth, and an untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts by being easier to understand and remember. He reports that several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. Our memories fade, and we remember only the myth, because the myth was constantly repeated. He argues that one way to try and combat this problem is to nurture scientific curiosity. A group of prestigious social scientists has carried out research that shows those who are curious about the truth, and are motivated to seek it out and look beyond the repetition of a false claim, are those most likely to be persuaded by facts.

This was the first article I read last Saturday, and I then turned to the main section of the paper. I was struck by the headline on the front page that stated ‘Tesco boss fears white men on boards are “endangered”’. There was a further report on page eleven, with a title that repeats ‘Tesco chairman claims white men “endangered”’. The caption on that article reads: ‘Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are in a “propitious period” Tesco’s John Allan said’. Three headlines then: men are threatened, and women from ethnic minorities have the advantage. The text, for those who did read it, notes that John Allan is one of eight white men on a board of eleven. Tesco appointed half of the board slots it filled in 2016 with women, which meant that they went from having one woman on the board in 2015 to three in 2016, slightly more than 25%. The article reports that management experts do not agree with Mr Allan’s rosy assessment of UK board diversity. The article says that women account for only 29 per cent of directors appointed in the UK last year, the lowest proportion since 2012. Why, then, do these articles lead with false claims from Mr Allan? Tim Harford shows that the myth is remembered because it is constantly repeated. This is what has happened here – the false claim is repeated three times, and only to those who read the whole article will the counter-argument be clear. Tim Harford could have used this article as an example for his piece in the magazine.

There are two issues that concern me here. One is the constant repetition of a myth around John Allan’s statement. This is particularly troubling when a different section of the paper has an excellent article about the dangers of this type of presentation of reality. The second is the subliminal message which is, at best, an example of unconscious gender bias; there are no barriers for women, it is ‘in fact’ white men who are under threat.


Please share your comments on Twitter!

Creating an online identity as a researcher

Charlotte Mathieson offers some useful and practical tips on how to develop and manage your digital identity.

In 2016 I spoke to NU Women about my experience of creating a digital identity as a researcher, and in this post I outline some of the key points of my talk. Since I started my PhD at the University of Warwick in 2007 digital tools have been essential to my practice as an academic, and especially useful to me in navigating the post-PhD years as an early career researcher.

Continue reading “Creating an online identity as a researcher”