Writing groups: Who, what, where, and when?

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.

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:

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:

The Girls Network

Thank you to Stacey Wagstaff, the Girls Network North East Manager, for joining us last week to start off our summer events.

The Girls Network is a national charity, operating in eight regions across the country with a mission to “inspire and empower” girls aged 14-19 by connecting them with hand-picked mentors in a variety of career paths.

The mentoring programme is designed to respond to the systemic social and educational failings for teenaged girls, particularly those coming from poorer homes.

To illustrate the difficulties faced by teenaged girls today, Stacey shared with us a video of girls sharing their concerns.

As shown in the video, the pressures from social media, bullying, body image, pornography, and exams are immense. This is compounded by educational difficulties and worries about the future: at sixteen 50% of girls from the poorest houses get no GCSE passes; less than 6% make it into higher education; and only 2% reach the most selective universities.

As Stacey explained, many of these girls had high aspirations, but didn’t believe they could actually achieve them.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

Here is where the mentorship programme is designed to intervene.

The programme connects women from a variety of professional and life-experience backgrounds with girls for a series of one-to-one mentoring sessions delivered over the course of a year.

The aim is to be an ally for teenage girls, offering them experience, confidence building, support networks, and a space to think about their future.

Beyond this, the Girls Network offers workshops and work experience placements, and the girls who participate have lifelong access to their Ambassador programme, providing them with long-term support.

The programme clearly has a big impact on mentees. Of the over one thousand girls mentored each year 96% reported improvements in their confidence, and 98% said they felt more positive about their future.


If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for the Girls Network, please apply at https://www.thegirlsnetwork.org.uk/become-a-mentor

There’s online training sessions coming up over the summer months, with mentor-mentee matchmaking events in the next school year. Participating in the programme requires a commitment of 2-3 hours a month.

If you want to get involved by fundraising, offering work experience placements, or delivering workshops – get in touch by emailing stacey@thegirlsnetwork.org.uk

Ovarian Cancer Awareness

NU Women’s latest session was on ovarian cancer awareness, delivered in conjunction with Ruth Grigg from the charity Ovacome, Hillary an ovarian cancer survivor, and Dr Yvette Drew from Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer.

Ruth is part of the Ovacome charity who supply emotional support and information to anyone who’s been affected by ovarian cancer and opened the session. As the charity has been run since 1996, Ovacome has spoken to a lot of women and have gained progress in promoting women’s knowledge of ovarian cancer.

Ruth shared this knowledge with attendees of the NU Women lecture stating that typically there is little known or understood about ovarian cancer. As ovarian cancer is uncommon, with 7,000 diagnoses each year (in the U.K. the chances are 1:52 ), it is not represented as loudly in the cancer community because the chances of other cancers such breast are much higher (1:7 in the U.K). Moreover, ovarian cancer usually presents late as a Stage 3 CD (there are 4 stages), so by this time the cancer has spread to the abdomen and other organs before a GP or any other services become involved.

The delay of spotting the cancer is due to vague signs and symptoms which don’t seem significant in the context of day to day life. Ovarian cancer is most common in people who are postmenopausal which means 83% of cases are diagnosed in those aged 50+. Regardless, the cancer can present in younger people too which is why it was so important for Ruth to go through the BEAT campaign, outlining the specific symptoms:

B is for BLOATING (this is new for you and is persistent)

E is for EATING DIFFICULTIES (you are eating less and experiencing reflux)

A is for ABDOMINAL PAIN (this is new for you and is getting worse over time)

T is for TOILET HABITS (unusual urinary or bowel movements)

Treatment for ovarian cancer requires a major hysterectomy surgery, followed by chemotherapy. 

A survivor of ovarian cancer, Hilary followed on from Ruth and gave a personal account of her journey from being diagnosed in April 2006 at the age of 48. Being a Chemist, with a long experience the pharmaceutical industry, BP and civil service, Hilary explained she was very used to being tired and stressed, especially when she switched between two jobs around 2006.

Notably, she remembers getting a smear test but the nurse couldn’t get a good enough sample as the process was too painful, she was told she would be contacted by the GP and thought nothing more. As life went on Hilary started developing bladder urgency but put this down to menopause. The turning point was when Hilary experienced persistent abdomen pain so severe she physically had to pull off the motorway as the pain was unbearable.

After going to hospital, the CT scans showed a 15cm cancerous cyst which grew to 17cm two weeks after. Hilary explained how her fallopian tubes, uterus and omentum were removed, which was followed by chemotherapy at the end of June. Between starting her chemotherapy in June and her treatment finishing in November 2006, Hilary worked part time with a supportive employer which helped her greatly- emotionally and mentally.

Hillary has now been discharged from her GP, reaching her 5 year remission mark and says that she is in good health but has experienced the side effects of surgical menopause such as brutal hot flushes, memory loss and depression. After 6 months Hilary began HRT and felt much better and is still on a low dose patch for the rest of her life.

After Hilary’s moving account, reminding us that sometimes  the session moved from the personal to the scientific. Dr Yvette Drew gave us a flavour of what the gynecology team are exploring – such as  the challenge of developmental therapeutics in ovarian cancer, as well as the lack of effective screening. Dr Drew explained that there has been significant barriers to progress in developing new treatments, shockingly stating that there has been no new treatments approved between 2006-2013 despite other cancers seeing developments.

However, we learned that this was due to the difficulty finding where the cancer originates. There is a common misconception that the cancer begins in the ovaries but in fact ovarian cancer starts in the fallopian tubes. Sadly, scans fail to show this. Nevertheless the management of ovarian cancer lies with the revolution of PARP inhibitors moving forward to PARPi combinations including immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Dr Drew stressed the importance of needing to recognise that epithelial ovarian cancer is many diseases in cancer drug development (High-grade serous, clear cell, low-grade serous, endometrioid, mucinous) and that programmes for drug development, design of clinical trials, and approaches to systemic treatment need to reflect this knowledge and focus on targeting the sub types of EOC.

With additional thanks to the chair, Nicola Curtin, Professor of Experimental Therapeutics at Newcastle University , this session addressed this challenging topic in an approachable way. Identifying the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer as well as discussing recent developments at Newcastle and beyond, hoping to reach as many women as possible.

For further information about Ovacome and the BEAT campaign please visit the following:

You can watch the recording of the full event below:

Annual lecture 2020: The Gendered Division of Paid and Domestic Work Under Lockdown

With thanks to Alison Andrew and the joint work with Sarah Cattan, Monica Costa Dias, Christine Farquharson, Lucy Kraftman, Sonya Krutikova, Angus Phimister and Almudena Sevilla, the NU Women Annual Lecture last month explored ‘The Gendered Division of Paid and Domestic Work Under Lockdown’.

Alison presented survey data that illustrated how parents in England have been sharing paid and domestic work during lockdown and examined women’s careers in a post-pandemic world. This data offered important insights not only into employment relations in the UK but to the potential solutions that could be used to reduce the division and encourage gender equality.

Alison outlined that women earned 44% less than men in 2019. Even when considering women from a background of higher education the earning gap only improved to 46%, leaving a staggeringly large amount of gender inequality when it came to the questions of paid work and domestic labour before the pandemic. Even when looking at data from women taking time off around childbirth, the short term breaks or part time employment evidenced “scarring” effects on women’s career progression.

Outlining the statistical foundations of gender inequality before going into the pandemic, Alison’s data created expectations that COVID-19 would impact both sides of the labour market and that this might affect men and women differently. This played out in many places of work (especially leisure and hospitality) were forced to close or scale back this meant that there were changes in demand and treatment of employees such as the furlough scheme.

However, it was shown through the lecture that these losses were not evenly distributed because women, especially women in BAME communities, were over or underrepresented in some sectors such as the NHS. Not only did the pandemic pressure accumulate in work life but when additional need for child and older relative care became a priority, home life forced gender norms and habits to rise to the surface, encouraging work division and interruptions further.

Through Alison’s presented data, the legacy of the crisis taught us is that the solutions for sharing paid and domestic work remains open. For example, fathers’ involvement in day-to-day childcare may increase as a result of short-term changes and perhaps through changes in gender norms or attitudes of employers. Moreover, in a number of firms they have started to accommodate flexible schedules and homeworking environments. Nonetheless, the pandemic has been heterogenous in how its effected different households; in some cases, there has been a transition towards a traditional split of domestic and paid work, but there is evidence of an inverse variation too.

You can view the full lecture below: