Travelling as a disabled professor: Ableism in academia and Nordic welfare

asian people
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This week I had to ask the Department of Work and Pensions Access to Work scheme to fund me taking my disability assistant to a conference on long term care in Copenhagen. They asked why I needed to go, and to take her. I explained that part of my job as a professor to attend international conferences, and that due to the fibromyalgia I couldn’t navigate my way through unfamiliar places, and I needed help with transport.

My assessor said ‘I didn’t know disabled people could be professors.’

Of course, I only thought of Professor Stephen Hawking twenty minutes after that – at the time I was too gobsmacked that the someone working for Access to Work (whose purpose is to support disabled people IN WORK) was surprised that disabled people could be academics. It, after all, a job that involves a lot of sitting down, and lends itself to the kind of practical and physical support that Access to Work can easily fund.

But the ableism didn’t stop there. Because I needed her to be with me at the conference to help me find my way around, and negotiate things like lunch queues and taxis back to the hotel, my disability assistant needed to be registered. Access to Work were obviously not going to fund her full conference fee: she was there to help me, not listen to papers on long-term care policy.

However, there was no way to register an assistant. At a conference designed specifically for academics to share research on care policy and practice, no-one had considered that a disabled person *needing* care might attend.

As part of preparing for her attendance, my assistant checked whether the boat trip planned as a social event would be accessible for me. Yes, she was assured, the gangplank was level, and there would be assistance on and off the boat. Well, good job she checked, and decided to accompany me, because access to the boat was down some very narrow and dangerous steps which I could not navigate without her help.

Copenhagen is the capital of a country which prides itself on its universal welfare state and delivery of long-term care. Citizens of Denmark have the right to access support services if they need them: unlike in the UK there is not a presumption that families will provide care and the state will only step in if families are not available or able to care.

However, in my experience of navigating airlines, transport and generally being in public as an obviously mobility-impaired disabled person, this meant Copenhagen was, in fact, curiously inaccessible. This inaccessibility stemmed, I think, from the assumption that a disabled person should not be *out*, working, but should be at home being cared for. And that if they were out, they would have a professional care worker with them.

Shops were frequently inaccessible due to steps, and when I attempted to enter using my crutches (and at times shuffling upstairs on my hands and knees because honestly, my desire for Danish pottery to take home as a present for my daughter is far stronger than any sense of personal dignity or shame), NO-ONE offered to help me. At cafes, noticing that I couldn’t balance a tray and crutches, not a single server offered to carry my tray for me. Taxi drivers seemed genuinely puzzled as to how to accommodate me and my crutch, and in fact I didn’t see a single wheelchair user or wheelchair accessible taxi the whole time I was there.  Disability assistance at Copenhagen airport seemed to rely on the presupposition that you would have a carer with you to phone the wheelchair operators when you entered the building, as information directed me to line up in an enormous queue to check my luggage in and then ask for assistance at the check-in desk. ‘The WHOLE REASON I have booked disability assistance is that I CANNOT queue or stand for long periods’ I irately told the airline staff, who seemed to think this was not their problem. ‘Could you PLEASE call disability assistance here RIGHT NOW to help me before I fall over and block the queue?’

I have travelled extensively since my mobility and memory have worsened, and in my experience, this is very common in Nordic welfare states, and very UNcommon in neoliberal Anglo Saxon regimes. In the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia, in similar situations, shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, airline workers and other customer focussed personnel fall over themselves to help me. Not only that, but they seem to be able to speak to me and ask me whether they can help, and what kind of help I need, rather than either assuming they know, or asking my disability assistant.

It’s a good job that intellectually and professionally the conference was amazing, because from the point of view of an ethnographic participative study of ableism in action, it was first class. I only wish I had thought to get funding and ethical approval to write it up.

I campaign and research and write extensively about the need for a comprehensive social care system to support disabled people. If we could rely on proper support, I often argue, just as we in the UK can rely on the NHS to treat and where possible heal us without bankrupting us, then disabled people could work, could volunteer, could parent, could participate as full citizens in society without having a burden of gratitude to a piecemeal network of families, friends and supporters. If we could rely on properly funded care we could flourish.

I still wholeheartedly believe that, and my research and personal experience still supports that belief. But every time I have an experience like that in Copenhagen (and similar ones in Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsinki, just to prove it isn’t a uniquely Danish thing) I wonder if the paternalism of the Nordic universal welfare state isn’t somehow stifling co-operative and support in civic society. Shops don’t need to be accessible if disabled people have carers doing their shopping for them. Staff don’t need to be helpful if everyone has a paid helper with them. And I wonder if somehow we have lost the idea of *mutual* care and support: the emotional part of caring that links us all in a harsh world.

I think we all have an obligation to be caring and respectful towards each other, and not just assume that is someone else’s job.

woman on black folding wheelchair
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#transwomen, self id, #gra and protecting women and girls from #vawg


Let’s cut through the bullshit caused by the recent media outcry over a #transwoman who raped a woman in a female only jail. Let’s put aside the myths than #transphobic women are placing razor blades under stickers to hurt those who try and remove them. Let’s ignore the violent trans rights activists who assault women. Anyone who physically assaults a woman for being a woman isn’t part of a debate I want to have.

Radical feminists themselves disagree on whether #transwomen are women: Judith Butler says they are, Germaine Greer says they aren’t. There’s a lot those women write that I agree with, and a lot I disagree with. One of the great things about being a political and academic feminist is that feminism is a constantly shifting, self-questioning, and learning movement. If the definition of a woman is someone female by birth, then clearly #transwomen are not women. But feminism is not about biology. The oppression that women experience is not because they have wombs, vaginas or breasts; it is because a patriarchal society accords women lesser status. It gives men privilege and power over women, and puts social structures in place that reinforce that privilege and power.

#Transwomen grew up in that patriarchal society. As young boys, they, consciously or subconsciously, learned from it. They grew up in a society where boys were socialised to be valued, to be strong, to have power. They weren’t probably aware – how could they be, how can you experience something that you are not experiencing? – that at the same time the girls around them were growing up and being socialised to be under valued (or only valued for what they can offer to men), to be compliant, to only have limited power. Transwomen learned appropriate roles for boys and girls, and decided that the roles for girls were more in line with how they perceived themselves. So they decided they wanted to be women.

Many of them take a brave and radical decision to physically alter themselves, to undergo hormone treatment and surgery to biologically transition to being women. This is a painful and expensive process, and requires medical intervention. As UK law stands at the minute under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, once they have undergone that, they can legally be women. They are entitled to all the rights and protections that women who are born women are entitled to. And here is where I part ways with my ‘TERF’ sisters like Germaine Greer because to me, transwomen who have taken that radical step are women. They have experienced trauma and abuse as a result of their gender identity. They have fought hard for the right to that identity. They deserve protection as a result of that identity. I’ll march to the barricades and shout down anyone who says they don’t.

It’s not surprising that many transwomen would like to become women without having to undergo that painful physical transition. Suggested changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act would enable that: those born into a male body who consider themselves to be women would have to go through a process of self-identification, but would be able to be women without undergoing surgery or treatment to physically alter their bodies to become female.

And here’s the problem. These transwomen did not grow up as girls. They never experienced the socialisation that has led to women’s oppression. They do not understand why having a penis in a female changing room is threatening to other women. They were never taught that penises were weapons of rape and violence. But we who were born girls were. So many of us learned growing up that men were powerful and men could physically assault and rape you if you stepped out of line. 1 in 5 of us got to experience it first hand, with many more experiencing sexual assault, harassment, intimidation on a daily basis. Every girl I know grew up knowing not to walk home alone at night, because if we were attacked by a physically stronger man, we would be blamed.

So many of us looking at the issue of self identification and transwomen are concerned. If a woman is still biologically a man, and grew up as a boy and a man, then they still have the socialisation that says they are powerful and entitled, and they have the physical capability to act on the power and entitlement.

And the worst transactivists – the ones who use TERF as a slur, who toss around accusations of transphobia as a way of silencing women – reinforce our concerns. These are people acting like entitled men. They are shouting about their rights, and silencing anyone that disagrees with them – and when those people are women, they are using violence and aggression to reinforce their power.

Men who commit rape and domestic violence have one thing in common: not race, class or education, but an overarching sense of entitlement. The (much, much smaller) number of women who use violence against men often are the victims of abuse themselves, or in thrall to a violent partner, or suffering with alcohol, drugs and poverty. Men don’t need those structural supports to make them violent: they grow up in a world where their violence is condoned, expected and rewarded.

So letting biological males who identify as women into women-only spaces is problematic. Women-only spaces – particularly to protect vulnerable women and girls, such as those who are the survivors of domestic violence – are there to reinforce a fundamental human right for women: the right to life, and safety. That right is far more important than anyone’s right to self identify as a woman if they still have the physical capacity to act as a man.

Transwomen who grew up as boys and are still biologically men are just as likely as other biological males to be violent, abusive and have a sense of entitlement. To be clear: ie, not very. Most men DON’T rape women. Most transwomen AREN’T violent. But a violent abusive biological man who identifies as a woman is still violent and abusive, and a threat to women and girls.

And that is why, as a feminist, I do not support the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Not because I am #transphobic: I neither hate nor fear transsexuals, on the contrary I fight ardently for their human rights. But because as a woman who has experienced abuse and rape, I understand, from the depths of my soul, that women and girls who need safety from abusive men need safety from men with biologically male bodies.

I support the right of #transwomen to self identify as women. And I would encourage the providers of most services and organisations aimed at women to include those who identify as women regardless of their biological status at birth or any other time.

But I would propose an amendment that states that the providers of any single-sex service recognised under the Equality Act 2010 can deny access to that service to anyone who self identifies as a woman but is still biologically male. Because those biological males are socialised as men and can abuse and rape, and my duty as a feminist is to protect them above all else. I would also point out the need for additional resources and services to protect #transwomen who are biologically male: transwomen experience domestic violence and rape at the same rates as women and need their rights to safety and protection to be recognised too.

Proviso: These are my own views, not those of the Women’s Equality Party or my employer.



#notallwomen, @WEP_uk & the #transwomen debate on #GRA

laverne cox<image Laverne Cox>

I am so sorry that I can’t get to the WEP conference this weekend: a combination of work, family and health issues have made it impossible without a Star Trek transporter. I wanted to tell you all how much I will miss you, and also say what I would have said, had I been there.

The Women’s Equality Party stands up for all women. It is intersectional. We fight for BAME women, for disabled women, for White women, for LGBT women, for left-wing women, for right-wing women….you get the picture. Because some of us ARE those women, and all of us support them. Because we understand that inequality hurts everyone. Because we signed up the party to be part of a political force for equality. This is why we march, we campaign, we run for office, we debate, we tweet, we rattle buckets, we run marathons, we host book clubs and pub quizzes, we stand outside in the freezing rain standing up to pro-Lifers and men rights activists….

This weekend, we are going to debate the reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and its implications for the 2010 Equality Act, and the safety of women and girls. We’ve never had a topic so likely to cause division in the party, as it does in wider society. I want to say here what I would say if I were in Kettering with you this weekend.

Firstly, #trans rights are human rights. That is not ever under dispute. #Transwomen have faced discrimination and violence on the basis of their gender. #Transwomen are women, that’s not up for debate. @wep_uk must absolutely always stand up for #transwomen.

Secondly, the proposed changes allow for self identification. Now, in any other field of discrimination where there was a protected status at stake, this would never be the case. Disabled people can self identify all they like, but in order to access help and resources on the basis of disability, they must prove a ‘substantial and permanent’ impairment or condition. Victims of racial harassment and hate crimes must prove that the actions took place *on the basis of their race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion* to be considered hate crimes. None of us get to decide our own status, particularly not if we are using that status to claim discrimination or protection.

Thirdly, the #transactivism that has turned to violence, threats of violence, hate speech, no platforming etc, does not represent the views and experiences of the majority of #transwomen. Any more than extreme radical feminists who claim that all heterosexual sex is rape and all men are rapists represent the vast majority of #feminists or even any branch of #feminism that I recognise to be valid. Threats of #vawg (punch a TERF) are male pattern abusive behaviour, even if they are carried out by women. @WEP_uk must never ever tolerate that. Just as we shut down the #MRAS who want to silence women, we should shut down #TRAs who threaten violence. It’s a no brainer. TERF has become a violent slur against women and is now hate speech – even though its roots were from trans-exclusionary feminists who were questioning whether to be female – and to experience oppression on the basis of being female – was intrinsically linked to biology, which is in itself a reasonable enough question (and when you look at how much discrimination women face for being mothers there’s plenty of evidence that suggests biology and reproduction do have something to do with it). Even Wikipedia has it wrong:

Feminists holding transphobic views are called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or “TERFs” by opponents. 

Transphobia is ‘dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.’ Questioning whether androcentrism and biology define you as a woman is not dislike or prejudice. TERFS are not by definition transphobic. Let’s use language responsibly.

Fourthly, safe spaces for women and girls, and women-only spaces are absolutely needed. They aren’t for everyone, but then not everyone needs one. Just because as a White woman I am unlikely to experience #racism (#antisemitism is another matter!) doesn’t mean I don’t understand that sometimes BAME feminists are sick and tired of bearing the emotional labour of educating privileged White women on #blacklivesmatter. It doesn’t mean that I object to the conversation sometimes being about #race just because it doesn’t include me. And just because I am a survivor of #rape and #abuse who didn’t need or want a woman-only space doesn’t mean I don’t understand that sometimes you do need to exclude men (and that can include #transwomen with penises). Domestic abuse shelters and other areas where vulnerable women and girls need protection should never, ever have to admit an adult human being with a penis no matter what they self identify as. It is not #transphobic to say that. Nor should the accusation of transphobia be weaponised to silence women.

@wep_uk is the only political party to have compassion and kindness for each other embedded into its constitution. I am deeply proud of that. I really hope you all remember that as you debate, and it isn’t going to be easy. But I know you can do it.


Open Letter To Some Of Those Attending The Global #DisabilitySummit #NowIsTheTime

Recovery in the Bin

Open Letter to some of those attending the Global Disability Summit


Lenin Moreno, President of Ecuador

Gabriela Michetti, Vice President of Argentina

Sophie Morgan

20 July 2018

We are writing this open letter to you on behalf of Deaf and Disabled people across the UK concerning your involvement in the global disability summit being co-hosted by the UK government in London on 23 and 24 July.

We are strongly in favour of international support that improves the lives of Deaf and Disabled people across the world and welcome co-operation between States that lead to stronger human rights laws and protections. We particularly support the building of international solidarity and links directly between Deaf and Disabled People, our organisations and campaigns.

However, we have the following concerns regarding the July summit:

The role of the UK government in co-hosting the event. Following an unprecedented investigation carried out by the UN…

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The Mad Professor

Virginia Woolf

I am often told I am ‘brave’ to be open about my mental health issues and working in a job where your mind is your product, this may be so, but I don’t think so. Living with a mental health condition – particularly when it is serious and life threatening as mine is – is the real act of bravery. Talking about it – just as being honest, as a feminist, about the rampant sexism in academia – is to me just activism on another front.

Four years ago my mind exploded, partly due to overwork, and latent complex PTSD – which I had successfully avoid since a minor breakdown in my twenties – became a feature of my life. I am in recovery – which means generally I manage to live well with the illness – but occasionally I have relapses, and I am in the midst of  work-related one now.

So it is slightly disheartening to read a report showing that over a decade after alerts about the need to structurally reform academia to protect the mental health of academics and students, that nearly half of academics are showing signs of mental health problems. I thought the humorous tag of ‘Mad Professor’ was mine, but the experience of serious mental health issues is shared by nearly a third of my colleagues.

And let me make this clear: I am not talking about work-related stress, although that is an increasingly common feature of academic life. I am talking about being unable to breathe, to think, to feel the walls closing in, experiencing terrifying hallucinations, voices, an overwhelming desire to self harm, harm others or kill yourself, because that is the only way the relentless terrifying pain will stop. Like being trapped in a horror movies only it’s real and there is no way out of danger that faces you.

In my case these feelings can go on for days, weeks or months. Then, with the help of medication, self-help and talking therapies, I gradually start digging myself out of the tunnel. Occassionally the brightly lit door marked ‘exit’ (ie suicide) appears and is tempting, particularly as I know once I am out of the tunnel it won’t be sunny and light, it will be to a dense dark mist-filled forest through which I have to navigate with no map, just carrying on until at some point the sunshine starts to break through and I can breathe normally again.

And as this recent episode was work-related, all I could do was wonder, why on EARTH would anyone want to put anyone else through that? Particularly someone who, when well, is good at their job, does all the things she is supposed to do and well, brings in research money, teaches, supervises PhD students, writes some (if I say so myself) pretty  good stuff.

I don’t for a moment think that individuals, even senior management, in academia are actively trying to send their colleagues mad. But I do think we have become as a sector overly managed, overly concerned about REF and TEF and league tables and publish-or-perish, and senior managers are expected to run universities as businesses.

We may well, in our current neo-liberal days, have to accept the marketization of the academy. In any case I am not convinced that is worse than the times when it was an elite ivory tower only open to a narrow network of white middle class public school boys and girls. But when I started, at the tail end of that era, it was enough to be bright, brave, good at what you did, curious, good at critical analysis and inspiring students to learn to think for themselves.

Nowadays early career researchers face job insecurity unparalleled in any similar field, mid-level academics face pressure from students and managers to teach, research, and carry unmanageable workloads as a matter of course, and professors face the choice of giving in to bullying senior management, or seeing their careers and research underfunded and undervalued.

I have many friends who found academia intolerable and left – bright, inspiring women who feared for their mental health and their families. As I have zero non-academic skills and a large mortgage to pay as the primary breadwinner this is not really an option for me. Besides, when it is not sending me mad, I actually love my job: I am still inspired by my research, I still enjoy writing and teaching, I love mentoring and supervising early career researchers and seeing where they take their skills and enthusiasm and how it in turn benefits society.

In response to the growing mental health crisis that led to Malcolm Anderson’s suicide at Cardiff University, the sector is responding by calling for better mental health provision and support for students and staff, with the UK universities minister calling for Vice Chancellors to show leadership. This either rather spectacularly misses the point, or places the responsibility where it should lie, depending on your point of view. Whilst it is beyond an individual’s scope to change the issues in academia that threaten our mental health, it is Vice Chancellors who have the responsibility to set the tone and behaviour of their institution. Bullying, stress, unmanageable workloads, the individualisation and blame culture, marketization, job insecurity have all led to toxic workplace environments where neither students nor staff can flourish. This can be undone and we can resist, but only if our strategic leaders are committed to challenging established structures and norms: those very structures that put them in power in the first place.

However, just as the Athena Swan kitemark can enable institutions to undertake tackling gender inequality in a tickbox way without substantially changing the structures, I suspect that the fact that mental health issues in academia impact most seriously on women and early career researchers (particularly in the natural sciences) will preclude much progress. By definition, those in senior management in academia are either resilient to the toxic mix, collude through silence, or actively perpetrate it – or they would not be in positions of power. There are notable exceptions, but most senior managers in academia do not actively challenge unmanageable workloads, stress, job insecurity, sexism, bullying and other issues which contribute to mental health issues.

Pressure to create a kitemark system for Universities to demonstrate student mental health support is, I would argue, going to make it worse, not better. Although investment in counselling may well be overdue, the emotional burden of caring for students is going to be taken up disproportionately by younger and female academics, the very group whose own mental health is at greatest risk.

If we removed the systematic endemic structural issues that have lead to this mental health crisis in the first place, both the students and staff would be at lower risk of problems, would be better supported when problems arose, and we’d all be able to get back to our research, teaching and taking care of our students. Which is what we all joint the academic to do in the first place.

Mental health, suicide and academia

adult alone anxious black and white
Photo by Kat Jayne on

This week’s news has been dominated by the sad stories of the suicides of Cardiff lecturer Malcom Anderson and chef Antony Bourdain. As someone who has struggled with complex PTSD which was triggered by overwork around the REF 2013, these hit home. In particular, the ‘suicide is selfish’ brigade who take over social media around these events. As a mother, as a wife, as a friend, as a colleague, how on earth could you contemplate suicide?

When you are in the depths of despair it can feel like a long, slow crawl through a dark, dark tunnel, knowing that even if you get to the end, a slow climb back out into the daylight awaits. You will have to find your way through a gnarled, fog filled wood before even a glimpse of light guides you.

At your side you see a brightly lit door marked exit. That’s the suicide door, the ‘easy’ way out.

You may have crawled through this tunnel many times before and know that if you can just keep going you will eventually reach the light. Or it might be your first time. Either way, the lure of that brightly lit door is strong.

If you take that door the pain stops. Not just the pain to yourself, but the pain you are causing those around you. As a mother, you genuinely believe that you are such a terrible person and mother to your children that they will be better off without you.

Of course this isn’t true. Suicide devastates families, and children who lose a parent to suicide rarely recover fully. I imagine that like the colleagues of Dr Anderson, my own colleagues would be upset by my death, as would my friends. Although my death would not devastate them as it would my children, no doubt they would be shocked and feel guilty, as I have done when friends have taken their lives.

Being an academic doesn’t protect you from the risk of suicide. As clever as we are, no amount of critical analysis, scientific observation or empirical research can protect as from the devastating pain of serious mental health issues. In fact, our skills can often be part of the problem: we can bring up any amount of evidence to corroborate our feelings of worthlessness and guilt when we are deep in despair.

I am grateful that I survived my suicide attempts. Grateful to my husband and children for continuing to love and support me, grateful to my GP and mental health nurses who kept me safe til I was back from the brink, grateful to the psychiatrist, psychologist and counsellors who helped me untangle myself from the clutches of anxiety, depression and PTSD. I am not ‘better’ but I manage to live well with the illness, and manage it with the help of support, medication and mindfulness. Had I not, I would not have seen my PhD students graduate, had the joy of seeing my research help develop policy and practice to improve disabled people’s lives, experienced the elation of winning research grants and seeing my work in print. I also would have missed my daughter’s prize giving, seeing my eldest son start university, my husband’s passing out parade…

All that gets me through suicidal ideation now is the knowledge that it passes, that I just need to keep on keeping on and eventually daylight will return, no matter how hard and painful that is. But Michael Anderson and Anthony Bourdain never got to see the light. They couldn’t see a way out of the despair, the overwork, the guilt, the pain….

We are told to ‘reach out’ when we feel suicidal. But when you feel suicidal, you often can’t reach out. You aren’t seeking attention, although you may be emitting a cry for help. All you want is for the pain to end, and you cannot see how reaching out will end it.

So if you know someone who is suicidal, particularly if they are a colleague, do not assume that their intelligence and academic ability will save them. Ask about suicidal thoughts – asking the question will not prompt them, it might well save someone. I remember the utter feeling of relief when my psychologist asked me if I felt suicidal. Being able to admit it out loud took some of the terror away: now it was a ‘thing’, external to myself, and I could try and find a solution to the ‘thing’.

Listen without judgement. Give reassurance: there is help available, and these feelings will pass with support. Encourage them to seek help, and encourage them to work on self care – if they have been living with mental health issues for a while, they will know what works for them. Talking, exercise, sunshine, mindfulness – these things and more can help with mild depression, can elevate moods and buy some time for people to work their own way back to wellness. For more severe clinical depression antidepressants and therapy do work.

Friends did this for me, and I am forever grateful.

But we should note that the academic workplace in itself can be incredibly toxic for our mental health. We are working longer hours, under greater pressure than ever before: younger and female academics who are at particular risk of precarity of employment are at the highest risk of mental health issues and burnout. Bullying, workplace harassment and the associated risks for mental health are on the rise in academia. Senior management are driven by performance indicators which do not encompass staff wellbeing, and are not effective at supporting their staff.

But a mentally unwell academic is not one who performs well. When I was at my very illest, I couldn’t speak to my family let alone to students. It took months to be able to read and teach again. It’s only now, five years on from my breakdown, that I am finally able to write well, to teach and research. Overwork contributed to five lost years. Failure to support the mental wellbeing of staff is costing the sector millions.

It is not just up to us to individually care for our colleagues. The academic sector needs to put its house in order.

Mentoring as a feminist academic

One of the very first things I did as a professor was to start mentoring early career academics. I was lucky enough to work with some brilliant mentors as I was developing my own career, and I felt duty bound to pass on the support and wisdom I knew had made my work possible. I knew from experience that the ‘inside knowledge’ that you gain from being mentored is priceless, as was the support from people who had been there, done that, and survived.
It was particularly important for me because I was a first-generation university graduate, and I grew up abroad. I never learned the middle-class unspoken code of getting ahead. I hadn’t been to the right schools, I didn’t know the right people, I had no role models from whom to learn. I was just bright, feisty, good at research, and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when funded postgraduate opportunities came up.
I got pushed into serving on promotions committees, initially as a representative of the non-professoriat, then later as that rare thing, a female professor who understood how things worked across different disciplines. I got the know the written and unwritten rules of things like the Research Excellence Framework, what an ‘international’ reputation really meant, what ‘counted’ and what didn’t. I learned how to spot successful people and emulate them, how to network, the importance of inside knowledge, and how to represent your discipline and your institution outside your work. I learned about enemies: how you could make them without meaning to, and how powerful they could be.
And the most important thing I learned, the hard way, was how to return to work and get your career back on track after being away on maternity or sick leave.
Mary Ann Mason and other scholars have documented the penalty that academic women pay for having a family, as against the positive boost having a family has on men’s career trajectories.
It isn’t just the time away from work: on return, women are often doing the double shift of the burden of arranging and doing the childcare; out of touch with current research in their field; having given up PhD students and research grants; having their ideas, work and students poached by childfree colleagues; finding international conferences and networking incompatible with the needs of a young family; taking on more pastoral and emotional labour in the workplace whilst their male colleagues are building up their research and absenting themselves from frontline teaching; finding the expectation of working 24/7 just to keep up any kind of competitive ability impossible.
So I took it upon myself to mentor early career academics, particularly mothers, on how to rebuild their careers without losing their sanity. How to build effective, supportive teams. How to focus on their writing and grant applications when they were being distracted. How to avoid the ‘mummy track’ and pull in all the social capital they could to be able to do the work that ‘counted’. How, in other words, to ‘lean in‘ to the world of academia, put their emotions and their bodies to one side and fit in to academic norms.
And whilst I still maintain there is an important role for academic mentoring as a tool for supporting women, I have come to realise how insidious mentoring and the reliance on mentoring has come to be.
Programmes like the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora leadership training rely on senior women providing their labour for free to mentor the next generation of promising academic women, and teaching them how to develop their own leadership skills within the academy.
In other words, women must learn to adapt to academia, and help each other do so, not the other way around.
What would it look like if we stopped making women adjust to the patriarchal world of academia? What if we focused instead on the structural issues that oppress women? On the overreliance and overvaluing of competitively funded research? On the treatment of academics as income generators instead of scholars? On the undervaluing of teaching and pastoral care? On the overvaluing of male markers of esteem such as membership of elite male-dominated clubs? What if we rewarded ‘difficult’ feminists who challenged sexist teaching and scholarship? Or people who acted with an ethic of care in the workplace, devoting their time to research and teaching in a co-operative way and focusing on the wellbeing of others rather than their personal empire building?
What would the academy look like then?
I suspect we wouldn’t need to mentor women, because the oppressive structures that meant they needed the mentoring in the first place wouldn’t be there.
And I suspect we would have a better, kinder, more effective academy for it.