Science is tough. Dealing with variables and unknowns every day can be exhausting. Moreover, the social demands involved in research can be a challenge – especially for women.
I was fortunate to grow up in a household in which women outnumbered men and my value there has never been questioned. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been true since my first poster presentation as an undergrad in 2012. Even so, I always had the privilege of being mentored by great allies who helped me navigate through undergrad and masters.
My PhD, however, has been an experience like no other. I felt alone. I felt insecure. I felt like all of that only happened to me, that I didn’t belong and didn’t deserve to be here.
Recently I heard from another PhD fellow the sentence “Passion is not a replacement for mentorship”. And it strikes me like thunder. It is SO true. I wasn’t lacking passion, worth or strength, I was lacking mentorship. I actively looked for it everywhere.
And then, NU Women came along. I thought to myself: “Why not? Let’s give it a go.” I signed up and weeks later got the matching email.
I didn’t know what to expect: “Wait” What? Are you telling me you found someone who could give me their hand (and their time) amid all this mess?” Even though I was feeling hopeless, I showed up to our first meeting: my mentor and me.
She listened to me, took notes(!) and carefully went back to all the points I mentioned were important to me. And she started helping me: one by one. Not because she is the same as me. We do have different backgrounds, nationalities, career paths and even fields of study. She didn’t live through the same things I did. But she cared.
She is also passionate. She also had setbacks. And we both believe we can make something good; we can make a difference.
In our first session, we talked a lot but there was really an exchange there: she taught me about communication and navigating a demanding PhD, but I was happy to share my passion for all the ups and downs of startups as she endeavours her own.
I was taught that as a mentee I should ask myself the question: “What do I want to change in my life with this experience?” There’s no point in doing a mentorship and not embracing the changes it might open to you.
It has only been one meeting this far, but we already have the next one scheduled. I’m grateful she came along. I’m not the same as I was before meeting her. And that’s everything, that’s mentorship.
This year International Women’s Day falls amid a sustained period of industrial action taken by University and College Union members to defend our rights to secure contracts, equality at work, fair workloads, fair pay and a liveable pension. All of these issues have a particular and pronounced effect on women and other marginalised genders, and intersect with other structures of oppression.
In solidarity with striking UCU members, this year NU Women are refusing to participate in providing Newcastle University with marketing material to obfuscate the material realities of women working within the institution. Instead, we are choosing to draw attention to it with our pay gap posters. We invite you to keep these figures in mind when interacting with the University’s celebrations of womens’ work and achievements across the institution. We invite you to consider how these achievements are made within unsupportive environments, how women’s labour is re-appropriated into a narrative of a feminist institution, and how much Newcastle University actually values this work if it refuses to pay for it equally.
We wish all Newcastle women a happy International Women’s Day and hope you are able to find time to rest, celebrate, organise, and observe the day in your own way.
For this year’s NU Women Annual Lecture, we were delighted to welcome guest speaker Professor Jo Litter, who discussed her upcoming book Left Feminisms: Conversations on the personal and political. With thanks to Dr. Nikki Godden-Rasul for chairing our discussion.
Based on a series of interviews with prominent left feminist activists and academics over the past decade, Prof. Jo Littler’s upcoming book interrogates the current feminist conjuncture, which is seeing in the resurgence of left feminism to replace the post-feminist, neoliberal, and pop feminism of the 1980s and ‘90s. Littler’s work locates left feminism as a type of feminism that sees capitalist and sexist oppression as interlinked.
We can see this wave of critique in a range of political events: from the rise of figures such as U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; to renewed outrage about gendered pay gaps and the resulting womens’ strikes; to the re-emergence of struggles for childcare. However, this shift within feminism has taken place alongside the simultaneous rise of neoliberal capitalism, austerity, and nationalism.
Within this environment, Littler characterises left feminism as oriented around five goals. First, the end of (gendered) economic exploitation, with specific attention to social reproductive roles often taken on by women. Second, by experimenting with liberatory systems left feminist work contributes to prefigurative politics. Third, left feminism is relational and co-operative in its recognition of feminism as a project rather than an identity and of social problems as systemic and their solutions as collectivist. Fourth, left feminism is explicitly intersectional and sensitive to intersectional difference. Finally, left feminism recognises a need for a range of spaces of intervention within contemporary socio-political structures.
Left feminism also contains its own internal divisions, as well as the fault lines of feminism at large. Issues of terminology loom large as more specific left-wing labels go through cycles of appeal; as do more specific issues related to left-wing politics and feminism, such as the extent of economic redistribution required, strategies for economic (de)growth, and the role of the state within feminist politics. Left feminism is similarly subject to issues around the exclusion of sex workers and the weaponization of anti-trans gender wars rhetoric seen in wider feminist movements.
Overall, Littler’s work positions left feminism as a conjecture with our contemporary socio-political currents, highlighting the importance of maintaining critical dialogues within and around feminism.
Left Feminisms: Conversations on the personal and political will be available for purchase in February 2023.
NU Women stands in solidarity with University and College Union members taking industrial action to defend our rights to secure contracts, equality at work, fair workloads, fair pay and a liveable pension. All of these issues affect women and other marginalised genders more than men, and intersect with other oppressive structures and relations.
A higher education landscape without women is one that is hugely diminished, and one that will struggle to uphold the value of the institution. Striking can be seen as an act of care – care for the profession, care for one’s colleagues, care for students, and care for the future of Newcastle University.
However one took part in strike action – on the picket, virtually, withholding labour quietly by baking/going for a walk/watching a film instead of doing marking and teaching prep – we stand united in care and compassion. Together, we are stronger.
To begin our PGR season of events, Dr Stacy Gillis delivered a workshop aimed at PGRs and ECRs who are considering organising their own conferences or symposia.
After deciding what kind of event you’ll be organising (anything from a single seminar to a large conference), she presented three key questions to ask yourself throughout the organising process.
How should I organise this event?
Stacy pointed to several factors to consider when getting started with the practicalities of event organising.
The first is timescale: for a single seminar or panel event having a lead in of a month or so is sufficient, but for large conferences, getting started with room bookings and CFPs should be happening at least 18-months ahead of conference dates. Because of the scale of work involved in conference organising, you should also consider when this would manageable work for you to take on (e.g. the post-submission, pre-viva period). Your timescale should also factor in plenty of time for publicity.
With that said, you should also expect the unexpected. Conference programmes can be expected to be subject-to-change up to the last minute, and there will always be unplanned for events that will need to be navigated as they arise.
Budgeting should also be a key consideration. There can be some small pots of departmental/university funding for inviting guest speakers or organising a single panel event, however these won’t cover the costs of a multi-day conference. The costs for large conferences can run up to somewhere around £16-18k and this needs to be balanced through avenues such as external funding and charging attendance/speaker fees.
Accessibility should also be a central consideration. As Stacy pointed out, women and other marginalised scholars are underrepresented in conference spaces, so consider providing a creche, having options for hybrid/asynchronous/online sessions, and ensure your venue has more accessible architecture.
“The same skills and knowledge apply whether you’re organising an afternoon seminar or a multi-panel, 4-day conference. The only difference is scale.”
While you can get funding from research institutes, publishers, etc. but before signing on check if they have any event requirements and how hands-on/off they’ll be in the organising process.
Learn to use Excel.
Make sure to schedule ample break and meal times into your conference schedule, and provide food and drink where able.
Take care of yourself and ask for help from colleagues.
Why am I organising this event?
When taking on demanding work like conference organising, you should make sure it aligns with your interests and development, Stacy advises. You should ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience, whether and how it will help build your CV, if it will help you develop networks, or be beneficial to your development as a scholar.
As an organiser, it is inadvisable for you to put yourself on the programme or plan to attend many speakers/panels, so organising may be less beneficial to you if your current focus is on extending the reach of your research or learning from others’.
Conferences can also be a good way to build an edited book or journal volume, however this will likely be another 18 months to 2 years after the event itself, so consider if and how this timescale fits into your career plans.
Finally, as women, marginalised, and junior scholars we should also be wary of taking on work for others. If you’ve been asked to do organising work for someone else, question why you’re being asked to do this labour and who will benefit from your work. Large event organising is time consuming, so make sure it benefits you and isn’t taking away from time that might be spent on your own project(s) and rest.
What is my role asan organiser?
As an organiser, your job at an event is to facilitate and be a point of contact for attendees. This can involve a wide range of things depending on the event and will be a busy job so be sure to take care of yourself and make sure you’re not taking on too much.
In the run up to an event, your role will be different depending on the scale of the event, funding requirements, and your team. While you can organise single seminars or panel discussions by yourself, for most organising work you’ll be with a team. As much as possible, make sure this team is comprised of people you trust (people who will do their work), and people who have a diverse skill set.
“[Organisers are] there to facilitate the dynamic phatic and and social environment of a conference…Feed people well!”
Finally, as an organiser your role is not to be a travel agent. While you can put together a local guide, organise activities, negotiate deals with local hotels and transport agencies, it is not your job to book accommodation, activities, and transportation for individual attendees.
With thanks again to Dr Stacy Gillis for delivering such an informative talk. Please see below for a recording of the event:
The guide was developed using ten staff and student interviews, eighty-four survey responses, a literature review, and focus groups to test the guide before publication. From these data sources, the guide was built with several core considerations in mind, including ensuring gender is treated as intersectional, taking account of the various needs of students and (academic and PS staff), and fitting the guide into the University’s broader EDI agenda. It also recognises that the University is a multilingual, multicultural, and intergenerational environment, and is sensitive to how to open up conversations around gender and inclusive language across these contexts.
There are two types of language addressed in the guide: language that is always offensive (slurs), and language that is tied with changing cultural norms (e.g. pronouns, titles, and addressing mixed groups as ‘guys’). The guide is not intended to be a ‘cheat sheet’ outlining words to use or to avoid, rather it is intended to establish a basis for shared understanding around issues of gender inequality and form the foundations of conversations around gender across the University.
Since its publication in 2019, the guide has also been translated into several languages spoken across the University and will be translated into several more in the coming months.
The guide is split into four sections. The introduction takes readers through why language matters to EDI, a brief primer on sociolinguistics, and addresses the complexities of (reclaimed) slurs.
The next section, Gender in so many words, introduces readers to ten key notions around gender and how they are used. These include broad ideas such as ‘gender’ and ‘intersectionality’ alongside more specific terms like ‘cisgender’ and ‘queer.’ This section concludes with I got it wrong. What do I do? Here, the guide outlines steps to take when making a socio-linguistic mistake, emphasising the importance of reflecting on mistakes and learning from them.
This work is continued into the next section, Gender-Inclusive Language, which guides readers through recognising and avoiding gendered biases and offensive language and provides a detailed view to addressing the many nuanced socio-linguistic issues tied up with gender.
Following the publication of the guide the Language and Inclusivity Project is looking to extend its work into three key areas. First, they intend to develop staff training resources that are sensitive to meeting the specific training needs of different staff members and work areas. Similarly, they aim to extend their work into the teaching and learning environment, although this will look different for different schools. Core to this is a recognition that gender is always present in the classroom. Finally, the Project also aims to include students in this and are working to make sure every student is exposed to questions related to gender, inclusivity, and language.
If you’re interested in hearing more about or would like to get involved in the project, please email: email@example.com
Last week, a small group of NU Women members met to discuss writing groups, to share experience, best practice, and thoughts on continuing to develop NU Women’s writing groups and others across the institution. The discussion space was used for collaborative sharing around writing groups and was facilitated by Dr Stacy Gillis.
Who are writing groups for? Who participates?
Based on the diversity of experiences from those participating in the session, it could be said writing groups, in some form or another, are for everyone! Particularly, they benefit people who want to develop their writing techniques or practices, and for those who are feeling overwhelmed and need a space to catch up on research work without working during the weekends/holidays. This is particularly helpful to people with parenting and/or caring responsibilities, to whom other approaches such as writing retreats are inaccessible.
Writing groups represent an opportunity to learn from and with our peers, and functions best when participants hold each other accountable, and each take phatic responsibility for the success of the group. With this in mind, some people mentioned that they found interdisciplinary writing groups to be particularly helpful for fostering these attitudes, as interdisciplinary groups relieved feelings of pressure and competition.
In more practical terms, it was suggested that between five and eight participants seems to be the preferred size of a group. The benefits of women-only spaces were also discussed, as these can be a safer space for participants, particularly as the organisational and emotional labour of running writing groups often falls to women.
“What can I give to a group? What can I take?”
What are writing groups for? What needs to they address? What work is needed to create them?
Broadly, there are three types of writing groups: long-term and open-ended ones; they can be short-term and organised around meeting a specific deadline or delivering a certain output; or they can be project-based and orientated towards collaboratively achieving a certain goal. Each of these has their own kinetic energy and are preferable to different people depending on working styles and current career goals. They can also be particularly helpful for skill sharing and acquisition among colleagues when organised around things like proposal writing.
Writing groups also present an opportunity to check-in with each other, celebrate each other, and be honest with each other about the research process and struggle. Their value also carries beyond providing a space for writing, into being a space for solidarity, making friends, and networking (particularly in interdisciplinary groups). In this sense, writing groups also function as an act of feminist solidarity – guided by principles of mutual support, transparency, and flexibility. They are a protected space of care within the neoliberal institution.
In terms of organising work, there is some logistical planning needed to set up and run writing groups. This is variable depending on the levels of commitment from participants, whether they happen online or face-to-face, and whether there’s suggested reading or other tasks for participants to complete before each session. What is appropriate for your writing group depends on the needs and preferences of your group and the amount of time you can commit to organising.
Where do/should writing groups happen? Where are they needed?
Within the meeting there was broad agreement that the ‘where’ of writing groups should be flexible, not only to the circumstances of the pandemic but to other factors such as childcare commitments and workflow. Much of the discussion however was focused on the relative pros and cons to organising online versus offline writing group meetings. It was noted that, while both have their own distractions a significant benefit of online meetings is that they alleviate some of the organising pressures of room booking. However, online meetings do carry the problem of Zoom burnout and low engagement.
It was also identified that, because writing groups can be useful to staff and students across the institution, there is a need to share best practices. However, there is some resistance to the institutionalisation of writing groups to preserve their feminist, counter-neoliberal strengths.
When do/should writing groups happen? How do we identify when writing groups are needed?
In practical terms, writing groups tend to work best when their meetings are around two or three hours long, and when they’re not just drop-in sessions but require regular commitment from their members (while avoiding being to rigid to the detriment of mutual care within the group).
At times, writing groups arise organically out of other meetings or networks, or out of reading groups. Similarly, we can ask when the right time is for writing groups to happen. Should they always be ongoing, or should they happen around crunch seasons? As was found throughout the session, the answers to these questions are dependent on individual’s needs and outside commitments.
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.
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.
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.