Blended working: a resource sharing discussion

Last week, NU Women and NU Parents co-hosted a discussion space to allow colleagues to share their experiences of the transition to blended working in their corners of the University institution over the last few months. Hosted as a two-hour drop-in session over lunchtime hours, the attendees raised a wide variety of talking points, airing issues, and sharing coping strategies. There was a lot shared among the attendees, and the below is an abridged summary of the many points raised. If you’re interested in hearing more about this transitional period, please get in touch with NU Women to receive the full session notes.

1. Main concerns and suggestions:

  • Overall, the attendees viewed blended working as a net positive to their experience of employment at the University. Everyone emphasised that they were committed to keeping blended working open as an option.
  • All attendees noted that a lot of their anxiety during this transition period stems from a lack of certainty around longer term plans from the University regarding the longevity of blended working.
  • The University should establish a set of guiding principles around blended working. This would prevent feelings that blended working arrangements are implemented at the whims of management and would help staff feel more secure in their own arrangements and empower them to advocate for themselves.
  • The University should invest in blended working. Many noted a clear difficulty in communicating across OC and WFH colleagues, particularly in meetings that take place simultaneously online and in-person. To make blended working more sustainable, the attendees suggested investing in coaching or training on different listening and communicative styles, and in technologies to bridge this gap.
  • Part of protecting staff members’ ability to flexibly WFH is recognising the benefits of blended working beyond the COVID pandemic. Every attendee noted ways that being able to WFH, even occasionally, has benefitted their personal and family lives.

2. Workplace culture

Attendees communicated a general sentiment that the University leadership’s framing and implementation of blended working has thus far been unjustified and uneven. Primarily, many people spoke on a feeling that they weren’t being trusted by their leadership to work from home effectively and that this was particularly disappointing given their efforts to keep the University running over the many months of mandated WFH time.

Ultimately, it felt to many attendees that their experience of blended working was very much dependent on the preferences and good will of their line managers. Some cited frustration at a lack of justification for individual managers’ emphasis on presenteeism, while others praised managers for taking extra steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff as they returned to the office. One attendee shared that she was grateful that her manager had taken the care to ensure that staff working on campus will be working with a wide variety of colleagues to combat the feelings of isolation among the team.

However, some were concerned with their managers’ emphasis on productivity over wellbeing, stating that they felt discouraged at the current blended working set up prioritising hours spent at work (in the office or at home) over the quality or quantity of their work itself. It was the experience among the group that this resulted in a poorer relationship with their work and often put undue stressors on their wellbeing in already challenging circumstances. Many were also struggling to keep their productivity high alongside the distractions of returning to busy office environments and they wanted to feel more supported in making this transition, particularly in recognition of the social benefits of returning to campus.

Attendees also commented on their very different experiences of blended working depending on their role at the University. While not all this difference was problematic (i.e. the expectation that estates and student-facing staff will be expected to be on campus more than ‘behind the scenes’ colleagues), others noted that their experience was very dependent on the locations they worked at and who they worked with. One attendee on a satellite campus greatly appreciated the relative quiet at her workplace and wasn’t sure if she would feel as safe on central campus. Other attendees commented on feelings of unease around colleagues and students refusing to follow mask-wearing and distancing guidelines.

3. Disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities

Even before the current pandemic, blended working arrangements would have been helpful for disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities. During the session, it was noted that, due to being able to work from home many had been able to take on more work hours and thus bridge some of the pay gaps experienced by these groups. Presenteeism is physically demanding and puts strains on care arrangements, and blended working arrangements have enabled staff to take better care of these areas of their personal lives while maintaining their workloads.

Further, the normalisation of this style of working was experienced as contributing to a more accessible workplace, particularly when also taking care of their own and their dependents’ wellbeing. However, this was coupled with concern that these arrangements would only be available during the pandemic, while abled and non-parenting/caring staff are in need of them, and attendees wanted to ensure that blended working would remain an option into the future.

NU Women Annual Lecture

For this year’s NU Women Annual Lecture, we were delighted to welcome guest speaker Mary Ann Sieghart, who discussed her book, The Authority Gap.

Mary Ann talked about how women are taken less seriously than men, and the effect this can have on a woman’s confidence. Drawing upon interviews and studies, Mary Ann worked through a plethora of evidence which shows that women are repeatedly deemed inferior to their male colleagues.

“Indeed, if women aren’t taken as seriously as men, they are going to be paid less, promoted less, and held back in their careers.”

As Mary Ann explained, these inbuilt, gendered assumptions mean that for every 100 men promoted to manager, a position of authority, only 85 women are promoted, and this is even worse for women of colour.

These sorts of authority gaps do not just happen in the workplace either: they are also found in everyday life, and they happen even to the most senior of women. Mary Ann spoke about authoritative women such as Amber Rudd and Michelle Bachelet, who gave their own personal examples of when they were underestimated, or “manderstimated”.

“Being ignored, having your expertise challenged, being underestimated and patronised, being interrupted and talked over – these are all manifestations of the authority gap.”

Mary Ann discussed where these issues start. Gender inequality can be found in the school playground, as girls are taught to be modest and self-deprecating, whereas boys tend to involve themselves in boastful competitiveness. Girls, because of old-fashioned stereotypes, are punished for displaying the same confident behaviour as boys, and this continues into adult life. Women, in short, are expected to show communality, such as kindness and concern for others, whereas men are expected to show agency through the forms of assertiveness and dominance.

As explained by Mary Ann, the only way that women can be assertive is by covering it up with warmth: smiling, joking, and being emotionally aware of the male egos around them.

“So there is a real double bind for women: if a woman isn’t confident or assertive enough, she’ll never get anywhere. People won’t take her seriously. But if a woman is confident and assertive, many of us will resist her and dislike her.”

Mary Ann warned of gender bias, and the way that women can also judge other women, but also discussed the intersection of biases, such as race, class, sexuality and disability.

Mary Ann ultimately gave some solutions (her book lists 140) as to how we can narrow the authority gap:

  • We can accept that, however liberal and intelligent – and even female – we are, we probably suffer from unconscious bias.
  • We can’t stop this unconscious bias or put a lid on it. We don’t need to feel ashamed of it. But we can recognise that it is based on incorrect assumptions and outdated stereotypes and then correct for it.
  • We can notice if, when walking up to a man and woman together, we address the man first.

These were just a few – to learn more – do read her book, available to purchase on her website: https://www.maryannsieghart.com/

Thank you to Mary Ann for giving such a wonderful talk – and as evident in the questions and feedback – it was well received by all attendees. For the recording, please see below.

Annual Report 2021-22

Each year, NU Women compiles data from our events and initiatives as well as the results from our Annual Survey to assess the impact of the Network over the past year and consider changes we could make in the year ahead.

Some key findings from the report this year include:

  • The ability to access recordings of our events has been highly valued over the past year. This is something we will look to preserve as we move into a blended approach in the future, particularly as some members have expressed a desire to see the return of in-person events.
  • From our Annual Survey responses, the bi-monthly newsletter was the most valued activity organised by NU Women over the past year. Currently, the newsletter has over 1100 subscribers, and following the redesign in January 2021 we’re very pleased to hear that it’s well received.
  • Following this, the blog was cited as the second most valuable resource organised by NU Women this year. Based on other survey responses and feedback through other channels, this is because it is used as an accessible archive for our events where we post summaries and recordings.
  • Several survey respondents requested more networking and/or career oriented events in the coming academic year. Specifically, we will look to host women talking about their career paths, mixer events, and career mentoring.
  • These responses also echo a more general desire to see some more interactive or workshop-style events hosted by NU Women, with the understanding that some of these types of events are covid dependent.
  • Other activities organised by NU Women this year include: weekly writing groups; a zine collecting creative responses to working conditions during the pandemic; a film on the topic of women’s work at the University; and a charity glasses collection drive where we were able to donate over 400 pairs of glasses for Vision Aid Overseas.

Thank you to all our members for participating in NU Women, particularly through the challenges of 2020-21, and for your thoughtful responses as we look to improve our work in the future.

The report can be accessed in full below:

NU Women Film Launch

Created by Alex Joyce, with thanks to all our participants.

This film collects the experiences of several NU Women members working and studying across Newcastle University. In these interviews, female staff and PGRs reflect on their career pathways, their role within the university, the advice they would give to future female staff, their successes and challenges, their development opportunities, support mechanisms, and the impact of Covid-19.

Ebb & Flow in Cullercoats: A seed from the NU Women Zine

By Lesley Wood (artist) and Elisa Lopez-Capel (lecturer at Newcastle University)

We are a group of six women sea swimmers who got together in 2020 and have given each other support, encouragement and plenty of laughs ever since. Like other women, we all juggle work and community volunteering with caring for our families through these difficult pandemic times.

Our friendship and the sea swimming have been crucial for our mental health and well-being.  When the world shut down around us we were still there for each other down on the beach, in nature, clutching hot drinks, sharing stories, cake and a whole lot of kindness.

Six women entering the sea at dusk wearing neon colours and safety lights
CLAVES – the group of six women sea swimmers.

We have a lot of fun together but particularly enjoyed making a collective artwork in response to the call from the NU Women Zine The Lockdown Shift. Using a nifty method (waterproof, paper-lined tubes containing chalk pastels, stuffed inside our cossies) we recorded the patterns of our movement in the water, then added words to describe our shared experience of swimming in the sea.  From which came the following ‘found poem’:

Brave, connected friendship.

Mother Sea kept me going.

Liberation in lockdown.

Our contribution to the NU Women zine sparked the idea of encouraging other creative people in Cullercoats to showcase their work. Thus Ebb & Flow was born, a community art celebration aiming at raising funds for our local RNLI station. A local venue was agreed, a call went out to local artists and other creative people, their submissions were reviewed, selected, and installed in the café space. After 3 months of hard work and enthusiastic support from pretty well everyone we talked to, two nights of community art were realised and an exhibition catalogue/zine was published (thanks to the Cullercoats Collective). 

A blue and white nautical logo reading "Ebb and Flow"

COVID restrictions were being lifted so, whilst still being careful, we welcomed around 80 people over the two nights.  A Grand Opening showcased the work of 12 local artists, featured some excellent sea shanty singing, and an RNLI representative (sweltering in his full kit).  On the following evening there was a wonderful performance night with local writers and musicians- the first time since lockdown for most people of either being part of, or performing to, an audience, laughing, singing and clapping together.

Ebb & Flow was a resounding success, coming at just the right time and blessed with glorious weather. As a bonus we raised £440 for our local heroes, the Cullercoats RNLI.  It was a fabulous opportunity to share community, creativity, love and respect for nature and our beautiful coastline, celebrating the gifts it gave us through lockdown and telling the stories, the ups and downs of the extraordinary time we have been through together. In these uncertain times, Ebb & Flow was a pleasure to work on (a break from work!), we made something really good happen, which was heart-warming and fun.  After such a long time of separation from each other, we experienced a powerful sense of connection and shared joy.

Launching: The Lockdown Shift

NU Women are delighted to announce the launch of our first zine: The Lockdown Shift!

Collected during Women’s History Month 2021, the personal essays, poetry, and art featured here respond to themes of home, work, family, coping, and care. These submissions capture and reflect the many ways that the past year of covid lockdowns has effected women working and studying at Newcastle University.

The decision to create a zine came out of an uncertainty of how NU Women should mark International Women’s History Month this year. During a time when we couldn’t meet as a community and were swamped with the extra practical and emotional labour that comes with being at home, trying to put together a big event was impractical at best. Instead, a zine felt like a fitting response to these restrictions and the atmosphere they brought.

A zine felt like a fitting response to these restrictions and to this atmosphere – as collaborative objects they create space for community across distance and as feminist objects they permit an outlet for the messy, emotive, and confessional. All of these are much needed responses to the events of the past eighteen months.

Over the past week, we’ve distributed copies of The Lockdown Shift to all central and science central campus buildings, so please do take a copy. But if you’re unable to make it to campus, the zine can also be viewed in full here:

https://issuu.com/nuwomen/docs/the_lockdown_shift

With thanks, as always, to our wonderful contributors.

Interning for NU Women

After two years as an intern for NU Women, Caroline Rae reflects on her experience with the Network through an interview with current intern, Maia Almeida-Amir.

Maia: Why did you decide to intern for NU Women?

Caroline: I am really interested in issues of gender equality – as reflected in both my Ph.D. research where I look at representations of the environment through a feminist lens, and in my other job as an editorial assistant for the journal Feminist Theory. Working for NU Women seemed like an opportunity to make a real, lived difference and champion equality, diversity and inclusion in the very place I work and study. And I am so glad I did as it’s been a really good opportunity to see how change can be instigated within the institution and understand the impact a network like NU Women can have for all women working across the university.

Maia: What has been your favourite event during your tenure at NU Women?

Caroline: Reflecting now, I would definitely say the Christmas Social 2019 was one of my favourite events – it was the last in person event we ran before the pandemic and it was lovely to meet and connect with our members in a social setting. 

I would add, however, that the events we’ve ran in the last year virtually have been an amazing way of connecting with our members in what has sometimes felt like an incredibly isolating and difficult year. I really enjoyed Emily Yarrow’s discussion of female academics’ experience of research evaluation and Barbara Read’s talk on failure and casualised staff. The topics resonated with me as I’m about to submit my thesis and enter the job market and, while it can be hard to hear about how these issues are impacting women in academia, it has been beneficial to hear about other people’s experiences of casualisation and REF and how female academics are advocating for change through their research.

Maia: What has been your favourite piece of work you’ve done for NU Women?

Caroline: In 2020, not long after lockdown started, I was involved in curating the blog series on living and working in lockdown. The stories we collected gave an insight into how our members were coping with the challenges lockdown brought – whether that was moving home, maternity leave or even just trying to stay connected with colleagues – the stories really resonated with me and so many others and highlighted how NU Women can provide a sense of community and comfort for its members that extends beyond the walls of the institution.

Maia: What do you think you’ll take forward from your time at NU Women?

Caroline: Certainly, that sense of community – we are fortunate to have this network at Newcastle that connects women working in all roles and across all levels. I will definitely continue to act as an ambassador for the network and I’m looking forward to returning to in-person events.

Maia: Finally, what advice would you give to incoming interns?

Caroline: You’re as much a member as you are an intern so think about what you would like to see from the network and advocate for it; if there’s a particular speaker you’d like to invite or a project you’d like to lead on, then go for it! The more suggestions and ideas we have coming from women across the university, the more diverse and inclusive the events and activities the network runs will be!

Dr Barbara Read: Casualised Academic Staff and the threat of ‘failure’: power, legitimacy and (im)permanence

To tie into other events on neoliberal research cultures this year, last week Dr Barbara Read delivered a lecture on feelings of illegitimacy and fear of failure among casualised academic staff.

Where traditionally, lecturers have held high authority and status over their students, as well as a great degree of legitimacy in delivering education, the rise of neoliberalism in University institutions has changed how educators and students are constructed as well as how they relate to each other.

As students are re-constructed into ‘consumers’ and lecturers as ‘service deliverers’ these new embodiments come into conflict with existent ideas of idealised, legitimate lecturers resulting in a great deal of shame for casualised staff, particularly as they seek to validify their self-presentation as academics.

“I sometimes wonder how the students see me – do they think they’ve drawn the short straw by being given a teacher who does not have an office, isn’t around so much, is less confident and experienced and clearly isn’t part of the main faculty?”

Olivia, part-time teaching fellow, aged 41-50, white British middle-class.

Based on email interviews with twenty academic staff members, all on temporary, part-time, and hourly contracts, Dr Read’s research investigates how these staff members navigate their students’ perceptions of them. Of the academics interviewed, most were white and middle class – seventeen were women and all but two were under 40 years old.

Her findings show that many respondents were concerned with how their impermanent status would affect their students’ perceptions of their authority and legitimacy as educators.

Arriving in academe, I felt ‘displaced’, like an imposter, where everyone appears informed and confident and this feeling has not changed since graduation [with a doctorate]. I feel that my ‘race’, gender, age and accent do not fit with the assumed image of an academic…Some students refuse to accept my feedback comments and/or me as their supervisor.”

Yvonne, part-time hourly paid lecturer, 61+, Black African Caribbean working-class.

Further, their contracts had direct impacts on the quality of their teaching. Several staff members reported feeling unable to deliver or unmotivated to design quality course materials in the knowledge that they might not be present to teach these courses again.

There was also a notable lack of personal and professional development in these roles, as the institution is less willing to invest in training casual academic staff.

Disclosing their casualised status to students felt ‘risky’ to many, although some were more open about it. Particularly, last years’ strike action was cited as an incident that helped some staff members be more open and candid with their students about the precarity of their work. Ultimately, many felt it was a refusal of a culture of shame.


To keep up to date with Dr Read’s research, access her work via https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/education/staff/barbararead/ or follow @barbararead35 on Twitter.

A full recording of the event is available below:

NU Women Charity Collection 2021

NU Women is pleased to announce that in 2021 we will once again be collecting hats, scarves, mittens and gloves to donate to N.E.S.T. If you have had a Lockdown ‘clear out’ and have found yourself with any of these items spare, then please hold on to them; we will shortly be announcing a central location on campus where these can be dropped off!

In 2019, NU Women amassed over 2500 items of winter clothing to donate to refugees and asylum seekers via N.E.S.T and hope to build on the success of this with our 2021 drive. North East Solidarity and Teaching (N.E.S.T) is a multi-award winning and internationally-recognised student-led project at Newcastle University Students Union. N.E.S.T empowers the refugee and asylum-seeking community in the region through a variety of formats such as one-to-one English teaching, group English classes, sports, creative arts and trips into the local area. Through N.E.S.T, learners (refugees and asylum seekers) gain confidence in their language skills, find new friends and family, and become better integrated into the community. N.E.S.T runs every day, providing up to 13 sessions each week for people of all ages.

Over 2500 items were collected for N.E.S.T in 2019

This year’s charity collection drive also follows on from the success of our pre-lockdown collection for Vision Aid Overseas, where over 400 pairs of glasses and sunglasses were donated. The donated glasses will be recycled, and the proceeds used to support the fantastic work being conducted in providing brand-new glasses and eye care services overseas. Glasses cases were passed on to charity shops in the local area.

Our pre-lockdown collection was for Vision Aid Overseas

NU Women would like to say thank you to everyone who has shown their support by donating either glasses or winter clothing to each of our charity collections; these drives  demonstrate our commitment and our goodwill to supporting local and global issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.  We welcome suggestions on future collections!