Dismantling Gendered Hostilities in Higher Education
by Lo Marshall
Who has your back and whose back do you have?
-Patricia Hill Collins
When invited to contribute a piece on hostile environments in higher education, my mind immediately drifted to a scene in the film A Fantastic Woman. It follows Marina, a transgender woman, as she walks along a street in Santiago, Chile. In a metaphor for the relentless social and institutional transphobia that she is navigating, the breeze becomes a wind storm. Marina forges a path forward, her arms raised in self-protection as she is pummelled by a tirade of debris thrust at her by the wind. As the hostile conditions intensify Marina comes to a halt, her body pitched at an oblique angle to maintain balance. This exhaustion of existing off-kilter to remain standing, let alone move forward, in hostile conditions is not only familiar to trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people; these are the conditions that the institutional ecologies of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) are supposed to redress.
This text was originally written in the summer of 2020 as part of BREAK/ / LINE’s Unbuilding project. It was later reprised and revised for a picket line teach-out in 2022 which turned its focus toward the question of care, however, this third iteration is closer to the original. Since 2020, the potential for higher education institutions to cause harm continues to be increasingly clear where EDI initiatives neglect the complexities of inequalities they purport to address, where the expertise of EDI professionals and academic researchers was disregarded, and personal, professional and intellectual needs of LGBTQ+ staff and students are devalued.
At UCL, I have been an MSc and PhD student, a visiting lecturer, a PGTA, a research fellow of various kinds, and a member of an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which has carried me between Faculties, Departments, Schools, Centres and Institutes. I write as a mid-thirties white, queer and non-binary person who is neuro-divergent, non-disabled and middle-class, and whose educational and professional path from state schools, further education college, more non-academic jobs than I can remember, and higher education has taken various detours from the ‘traditional path’. In other words, I was never going to seamlessly fit into any elite British university. Don’t get me wrong, I have met, befriended and been supported by brilliant and generous people who are committed to making neo-liberal universities more humane. People whose dedication to meaningful equity, diversity and inclusivity I revere, whose labour and expertise is frequently underestimated. People whose exhaustion and exasperation is routinely suppressed as a matter of self-preservation, in order to continue doing the work of tackling and mitigating institutional hostilities. In the following, I reflect upon some personal experiences of exhaustion and exasperation and hope to shed light on more and less visible ways that hostilities in higher education are reproduced and maintained in relation to gender.
As ever, I am indebted to feminist thinkers like Sara Ahmed and Audre Lorde, who are attuned to intersections and implications of difference (including but not limited to race, gender, sexuality, race, class, and disability) and the harm enacted when institutions favour superficial measures over meaningful change, including under the guise of what Ahmed terms ‘equality regimes’. In her 1979 speech at the New York Institute for the Humanities conference, celebrating Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Audre Lorde addressed the violent erasure of the existence and needs of women who are underserved and overlooked by academic feminism:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (emphasis added).1
In this speech, Lorde reflects on the arrogance of academic feminism in the US in upholding the ‘pathetic pretence’ that differences do not exist or matter. She forcefully highlights failures to take difference seriously and learn from women whose lives are lived at the intersection of racism, homophobia and classism, and those who are detrimentally impacted by the legacies of colonialism and enslavement. Lorde calls for community and change based on feminist solidarity across differences. A call for community and change that is formed through the labour of women who experience privilege beyond patriarchal oppression. Although Lorde’s words were (and depressingly continue to be) widely relevant, it feels pertinent that they were written for and first spoken in a university-affiliated institution.
When trying to make sense of how hostilities operate I often reach for Sara Ahmed’s thinking on hammering:
A history can become concrete through the repetition of small encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. Actions that are small can also become wall. They can feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down.
Chip, chip, chip.2
Writing on transphobia and informed by incidences and cultures in British universities, Sara Ahmed suggests that the need for ‘trans people [to] prove their legitimacy can be experienced as a hammering that persistently chips away at trans existence’.3 Perhaps we can bring Ahmed’s and Lorde’s thinking together to see hammers as part of the master’s toolkit that, instead of dismantling those hardened concrete histories of inequality, can and do inflict small but violent blows that chip away at us when our existence is negated, questioned, and/or not embraced in its fullness and complexity.
Let’s dwell for a moment on teaching. There is a growing amount of teaching and teaching resources that are LGBTQ+ inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, decolonial. EDI committees and initiatives often depend on the under- or uncompensated intellectual and emotional labour of minorities and marginalised people who care deeply and are trying to fix breaks in the system that have disadvantaged and hurt them by creating such resources. Can EDI do more than patch up wounds? How do we get our hostile house in order? Is it even possible?
As students, teaching is our first contact with higher education and shapes our research interests and trajectories, however far they take us. Having enormously benefitted from incredible teaching across my education, and been supported, inspired and uplifted by scholars whose own identities and teaching have tended to be marginal in UK higher education and society, I have never (knowingly) been taught by someone whose gender, sexuality and background coalesce in a way that mirrors my own, nor has gender diversity, queerness and sexuality featured in formal teaching I received as a student. Similar experiences are common among students who are people of colour (especially black women), working class and/or disabled, and these absences of role models and barriers to knowledge, that reflect who we are, compound as intersections collide. These absences matter to individuals and have broader implications that are detrimental to the learning of all students. This is not only about the potential of enabling students to explore and understand their own identities and position in the world; it is also about equipping all students to look beyond their own experiences and critically engage with how power operates through structural inequalities. This institutional politics of knowledge production and suppression are as relevant to science and medicine, technology and engineering, maths and statistics, as to the arts, humanities and social sciences.
As teachers, many of us work to address intellectual and interpersonal absences in the master’s toolkit, the histories and endurance of which are not incidental. Sometimes this is the labour of tenured academics that create these chances, although frequently this work depends upon the precarious, under- or unpaid labour of doctoral students and early-career researchers. Because un/underpaid lecturing is a good and necessary experience. Because ‘the budget wasn’t allocated’. Because ‘that’s just the way it always has been, we’ve all been through it.’ Because the order of the house is built on exploitation and assumptions of personal wealth. Thinking with Ahmed, we can see the potential for ‘inclusive curricular’ to become ‘equity regimes’ where diversity depends on devaluing marginalised peoples’ knowledge and labour through the expectations that researchers should work for free or low pay in the name of inclusivity.
A course convenor may be commended for diverse programming while the lecturing labour is exploitative. In the past, I fell through the trap of teaching for free in an attempt to rectify an absence that I had experienced. I quickly realised that having my labour exploited by a wealthy institution to teach about the oppressions that I and members of LGBTQ communities live with and struggled against, is a very special kind of discord and a hammering that I now refuse. It is not the ethical responsibility of unpaid and precariously employed teachers to fix institutionalised failings. Through conversations with a friend, – a fellow doctoral student and EDI committee representative; a black woman who does brilliant decolonial research – we realised that we had both fallen into the trap, yet speaking to fellow doctoral students who were white, heterosexual and cis, we heard a different story. We turned our observations into a small survey, the results of which substantiated our concerns that those of us who are minorities had disproportionately been unpaid for our lecturing labour. We raised this through EDI channels and were told it was an administrative issue, and an existing policy that all guest lecturing should be paid for was clarified. I have since left that department, so I do not know how this policy translates into practice these days. I do know that administrative structures served some of us better than Others. I know that there are humans putting those administrative structures to work. I know that I was not invited back once my lack of payment was questioned. There may be other reasons for this… I was too tired to find out.
Shifting focus briefly to EDI measures, I would like to the illuminate the dissonance I have experienced when participating in EDI committee meetings as a living, breathing non-binary person, discussing Athena SWAN data that negates my existence and that of other people whose existence exposes flaws in binary understanding of sex/gender. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN is a commonly used charter framework that aims to address gender inequality in higher education and research. Initially intended to address barriers to the professional advancement of women in higher education, Athena SWAN ‘Transformed Charter’, introduced in November 2020, gives the option of including all genders, not only men and women. From what I can tell this opportunity to record accurate data has not been taken up by UCL. It is pertinent here that, as Kalwant Bhopal’s work shows, ‘white women have been the main beneficiaries of equalities policy making’, which the pursuit of Athena SWAN awards. Equality for all women matters, but for gender equality to be meaningful it must include everybody.
These erasures and asymmetries in the pursuit of partial gender equality are far from abstract measurements. On a personal level, it is disheartening to experience well-intentioned and otherwise supportive colleagues being effectively forced into complicity in the pursuit of selective gender equality. I still feel bruised by this experience, perhaps because of a naïve sense that I should not have to deal with such manifest exclusion in EDI contexts. This disenfranchisement makes participating in EDI initiatives unappealing and exhausting. How is it that an equalities mechanism used by universities can be so dislocated from a rich body of multi-disciplinary academic knowledge demonstrating how binary sex/gender essentialisms are built upon imperialist, racist and cis-hetero-patriarchal foundations? In ‘On (not) being the master’s tools’ Allison Phipps and Liz McDonnell, whose analysis is similarly informed by Ahmed and Lorde, argue that an ‘institution is preserved through modes of measurement, monitoring and audit that encourage surface-level tinkering rather than deep thinking and meaningful change.’ I am inclined to agree, as my personal experiences attest. When they fail to meaningfully address the realities of diversity, EDI ‘equity regimes’ can be part of the master’s toolkit, even when delivered by people with the best of intentions. Collecting inaccurate sex/gender data is not a neutral position; it is complicity in the perpetuation of oppression, erasure and exclusion. As such, Charikleia Tzanakou and Ruth Pearce have argued for a ‘collective weaponising of charter schemes’ like Athena SWAN in the pursuit of survival and social justice, demonstrating the inseparability of politics from seemingly apolitical EDI initiatives and mechanisms.5
This moment in the committee meeting is just part of a cacophony of hammers that chip, chip, chip away. Building upon Audre Lorde’s wisdom, and reflecting on their own institutional embeddedness, Alison Phipps and Liz McDonnel suggest that ‘you cannot be a revolutionary in the pay of the master: at most you can hope to mutiny and start an insurrection.’6 I’m not sure if I’m ready to abandon my romantic vision of meaningfully equitable, diverse and inclusive higher education. My hope is sustained by friendships and academic networks through which alternatives are imagined and insurrectionary moments and movements are built. These connections and collaborations, these solidarities and communities, are a collective insurgent push for change that Lorde called for. This hope keeps me upright and moving forward, albeit exhausted and off-kilter in this hostile environment.
LO MARSHALL is a Senior Research Fellow in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within the Built Environment at The Bartlett, UCL and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL. Their work focuses upon LGBTQI+ people, communities, and spaces, as well as equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education.
Image: Pawel Czerwinski