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Feminism in the precarious academy

As the University and Colleges Union strike enters its final week, Ruth Pearce discusses the importance of building alliances and fighting back

6 to 7 minute read

A cardboard placard reads: Pensions are a Gender Issue at a UCU picket line

The university is not built for us.
We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of celebrated white men around campus.
We know this in our bones when we climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy.
We know this in our sharp intakes of breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us in meetings, and claim responsibility for our work.
We know this most of all when we ask for change, and are met with obfuscation and lies.

Speaking out on inequality

The UK’s higher education sector is currently in the midst of the most protracted industrial dispute in its history. In February, librarians, IT staff, teachers, administrators, researchers, lecturers, and other education professionals in the University and College Union committed to a 14-day strike at 74 universities over four weeks, from 20 February to 13 March. This follows an eight-day strike in late 2019. Both actions centre on a long-running dispute over pensions, plus the ‘four fights’, a joint claim that addresses pay cuts, racial and gender pay gaps, unrealistic workloads and precarious employment in higher education.

In October 2019, I was asked to deliver a short talk on a panel themed around these issues, at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association event Feminist Dilemmas, Feminist Hope? at City, University of London. I was invited to speak about my experiences of doing feminism in the ‘precarious academy’, specifically through my research on trans issues.

My work focuses on power relations and the material conditions of healthcare inequalities, and how new approaches might de-centre patriarchal medical authority and support decision-making by patients. These interests are informed by a wider commitment to exploring gendered power relations within institutions.

For example, my research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN can over-burden the very women they are supposed to help. At City, I talked about discourses of consent, autonomy, sex, and gender as they circulate within and between patient communities, activists, and professionals.

I am very rarely invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak simply about being a trans woman, and what that is like.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people – and especially few trans women – working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. But if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division

I know how important it is to talk about the substantial barriers faced by the vast majority of trans staff and students in higher education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical, and sexual assault. It is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class prejudice, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who encounter intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how the same anti-feminist talking points used by the religious right – such as the notion of ‘sex-based rights’ or the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology – are being laundered through anti-trans groups and Guardian opinion columns.

I know it is important to talk about the current, unprecedented rise in transphobic discourse in higher education. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. It is terrifying.

Nevertheless, I want to talk about other things.

I want to talk about being a woman, rather than just about being trans. I want to talk about unfair employment practices, and the horrible uncertainty of casual employment. I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division. I know that other women who experience intersecting forms of oppression experience these tensions too.

New postgraduate students frequently ask me for advice on surviving in university departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation. To quote Patricia Hill Collins, ask: ‘Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

Uniting against unfair conditions

I want to talk about the anti-casualisation campaigns I have been involved in, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. This is feminist academic work, too. 

In 2015, the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed university-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching. Teaching staff were told that this would benefit us, providing new flexibility and technical support. The university’s hope was to create an Uber for academia, a model by which hourly-paid workers could be shifted onto even more insecure contracts. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualisation is linked to the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, ‘TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist’. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely.

We knew that increased casualisation only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. Ours had to be a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, over 40 per cent of teaching at the time was undertaken by low-income postgraduate and early-career researchers on fixed-term, hourly-paid contracts. A majority of us were women; many were also migrants, or disabled. We were all deeply insecure: but we found that that very insecurity could work against our employer. Our short-term contracts offered us no guaranteed future work, but also meant that we had few legal obligations to our employer. We could take action that other union members could not. 

The university hoped to create an Uber for academia, shifting hourly-paid workers onto even more insecure contracts. The proposals were defeated by organised resistance

We organised a teaching boycott: none of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. We relied on these jobs to pay our bills, look after families.

It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise; we benefited from building solidarity within our cohort, and from the explicit support of senior colleagues on more secure contracts.

The head of department disparaged our letter in a departmental meeting, calling us ‘childish’. He proposed replacing our labour with insecure workers from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

I learned a great deal from this experience about how we can claim space for women – and for feminism – in the precarious academy. By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances. By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as through our research. By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

It’s time for change on our campuses. We must make that change together.

Ruth Pearce is a social researcher based at the University of Leeds, a musician and gig organiser, and author of Understanding Trans Health (Policy Press)

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