An Open Letter to UCU

Dear Jo Grady,

We are a collective of early-career feminist academics (CEFA): postgraduate research students, postdoctoral research fellows and lecturers. We are women starting or developing our careers at universities in the UK, negotiating the landscape of precarity, casualisation, intensifying workloads, and inequality highlighted in UCUs ‘four fights’ campaign [1]. Our collective includes migrant women, disabled women, lesbians, and mothers with young children. Most of us are on insecure contracts. We are women who need union support, yet we find ourselves without it.

Women’s endemic disadvantage in academia is well documented. Women are the majority of undergraduates (56%), but only 28% of professors [2, 3]. Despite numerous initiatives, this ‘leaky pipeline’ persists and has been exacerbated during the pandemic [4, 5]. There is still a long way to go before we reach parity with men in this profession. More recently, women in academia have also faced a new challenge: an alarming and growing intolerance towards those who hold what have come to be known as ‘gender critical’ views.

These are views that are widely held, based in established scientific fact, and core to feminist thinking. We believe that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ refer to different things [6]. ‘Sex’ refers to a biological category which cannot be changed [7]. ‘Gender’ refers to a set of social expectations for male and female people in relation to, for example, their behaviour and appearance. ‘Gender’ is therefore not innate, changing as it does from culture to culture and through time, but a socially constructed hierarchical system that operates to naturalise and perpetuate the oppression of women. In other words, women are discriminated against on the basis of our sex, via gender – also known as sex stereotypes and roles [8]. Sex as a category is fundamental across the full spectrum of academic disciplines, such as the humanities, social and biological sciences. We need to be able to use these categories to do our jobs as academics [6].

We fully support robust academic critique and debate of any scientific, political or philosophical position. But it is not academic critique that women are facing on this issue [9]. Both academics and students have endured abhorrent treatment, including defamation, harassment, blacklisting, attempts to deprive them of their livelihoods, as well as threats of violence, rape and even death [10-19]. The dynamics of the broader debate, where people “have sought to shut down debate, often using violent misogynistic language and behaviour” have become commonplace in academia, creating a ‘culture of fear’ [20, 21]. The visibility of recent cases renders this a reality that can no longer be denied or ignored.

In this situation, our union should be our defender. The primary purpose of a workers’ union is to defend workers’ rights and ensure our employers are abiding by the law as it pertains to those rights. Those of us who take a so-called ‘gender critical’ position are predominantly women. Women as a sex class, and the ‘philosophical belief’ that sex cannot be changed, are both protected by the Equality Act 2010 [22]. Moreover, a stated role of UCU is to defend our “freedoms to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty” [23]. These freedoms are also protected by law:

“Academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs and privileges they have at (the institution).” [24].

Despite this, we have been appalled to see UCU leadership repeatedly fail to defend basic principles of academic freedom and protection from harassment. The most recent high-profile example of this abhorrent treatment was the three-year-long campaign against Professor Kathleen Stock whilst she was an academic at the University of Sussex [25]. Professor Stock experienced continuous bullying and numerous attempts to destroy her professional career for expressing her views on sex and gender [26]. When this targeted campaign culminated in October, it was not her union who condemned the violent threats against her, but her employer [27, 28].  Our union appears to have deserted its primary purpose, to defend workers’ rights, and opted bizarrely to attack its members for seeking to “instrumentalise” our “employment rights” [28].

How much more does the climate of hostility against feminists need to escalate before the UCU unequivocally condemns it? When we are the victims of harassment and bullying, we should be able to turn to our union for protection. For the absence of doubt, we expect UCU to denounce attacks on academics without qualification or implication that they deserve it. Authoritarian and violent tactics have no place in academia. Freedom of speech is not free if intimidation or threats of “consequences” hang in the air for any woman who dares to disagree with a prominent ideology [29]1

There is a perception that because high profile ‘gender critical’ academics are senior professors, that this is a generational issue. With misogynistic ageism, these women are often dismissed as ‘out of touch’. But this assertion is false. Established academics have the job security to speak out and the seniority to be heard. Early-career academics do not. There are many in more precarious positions who hold similar views but remain silent or leave academia altogether [30]. We are some of those women.

We are writing to you as members of UCU. We are women who are struggling to see a future for ourselves in academia due to the pressures and threats faced for holding our views, and the chilling atmosphere that has settled around this debate. An atmosphere that repeatedly fails to condemn violence against female academics, supports acts of defamation and blacklisting, while discouraging robust critical engagement. This inhibits our ability to carry out research aimed at understanding and combating the historical and global oppression of women and girls. It prevents us from collecting meaningful data. It impacts our psychological health. In this environment, our feminist views, and even our scientific understanding, may credibly force us out of this sector – an astonishing situation for British academia in the 21st century. Will you support us? Or are we disposable?

We are women who need our union. It’s time for you to represent us again.

CEFA: Collective of Early-career Feminist Academics (UK)

1 Since writing our open letter, ‘The University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network’ have edited their original response to the ‘Sex Matters’ letter. The most recent response is provided in the references below. The original response can be found here.

References:

  1. UCU. (2021). Our Four Fights. https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10715/Our-four-fights/pdf/ucu_four-fights-explainer.pdf
  2. Office for Students. (2021). Equality, Diversity and Student Characteristics Data. https://www.‌officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/equality-diversity-and-student-characteristics-data/
  3. HESA. (2021). Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2019/20. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/19-01-2021/sb259-higher-education-staff-statistics
  4. Reese, T. A., et al (2021). Supporting women in academia during and after a global pandemic. Science Advances, 7(9).  https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abg9310
  5. Crabtree, S. A., & Shiel, C. (2019). “Playing mother”: Channeled careers and the construction of gender in academia. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019876285
  6. Sullivan, A. (2020). Sex and the census: Why surveys should not conflate sex and gender. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(5), 517 – 524. https://doi.org/10.1080/‌13645579.2020.1768346
  7. Hilton, E., Thompson, P., Wright, C., & Curtis, D. (2021). The reality of sex. Irish Journal of Medical Science, 190, 1647. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11845-020-02464-4
  8. CEDAW. (1979, Dec 18). Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CEDAW.aspx
  9. Somerville, E (2021, Oct 13). Cambridge University ‘Terf-spotting’ guide condemned as a ‘witch-finder’s charter’. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/10/13/backlash-cambridge-uni-womens-officer-issues-terf-spotting-guide/
  10. Turner, C. (2021, Oct 19). Open University professor ‘shunned’ for ‘transphobic’ views set to take legal action. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/10/19/open-university-professor-shunned-transphobic-views-set-take/
  11. Fazackerley, A. (2020, Jan 14). Sacked or silenced: academics say they are blocked from exploring trans issues. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jan/14/sacked-silenced-academics-say-they-are-blocked-from-exploring-trans-issues
  12. Griffiths, S. (2021, Oct 17). 200 academics tell of death threats and abuse as battle rages for free speech. The Sunday Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/200-academics-tell-of-death-threats‌-and-abuse-as-battle-rages-for-free-speech-hp99fnzjh
  13. Fazackerley, A. (2018, Oct 30). UK universities struggle to deal with ‘toxic’ trans rights row. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/oct/30/uk-universities-struggle-to-deal-with-toxic-trans-rights-row
  14. Somerville, E. (2021, Feb 28). Academics face transphobia probes for ‘liking’ tweets amid riding censorship fears. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/02/28/academics-face-transphobia-probes-liking-tweets-amid-rising
  15. BBC. (2020, Jan 25). Oxford professor given protection following threats from trans activists. The BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51248684
  16. Rice, L. (2020, Jan 25). Selina Todd: Oxford professor given security. Oxford Mail. https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/18187075.selina-todd-oxford-professor-given-security/
  17. Wade, M. (2021, Jun 9). Lisa Keogh, student investigated for saying women have vaginas, is cleared. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/student-investigated-after-saying-women-have-vaginas-is-cleared-qcggvm2c8
  18. Somerville, E. (2020, May 25). Student to sue university over ‘transgender bullying’. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/student-to-sue-university-over-transgender-bullying-vmpdnzkdq
  19. Women Talk Back (n.d.) Feminist Student Society Sanctioned for Being Women-Only. https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/student-society-sanctioned-for-being-women-only/
  20. Suissa, J., & Sullivan, A. (2021). The gender wars, academic freedom and education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 55(1), 55 – 82. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12549
  21. Cloisters News (2021, May 18). Reindorf Review on ‘no platforming’. Cloisters. https://www.‌cloisters.com/reindorf-review-on-no-platforming/
  22. Maya Forstater v CGD Europe and Others: UKEAT/0105/20/JOJ. (2021).
  23. UCU (2021). UCU Statement on Academic Freedom. https://www.ucu.org.uk/academicfreedom
  24. DfE (2021). Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom. https://www.gov.uk/‌government/publications/higher-education-free-speech-and-academic-freedom
  25. Griffiths, S. (2021, Oct 10). Kathleen Stock, the Sussex University professor in trans row, urged to get bodyguards. The Sunday Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/kathleen-stock-the-sussex-university-professor-in-trans-row-urged-to-get-bodyguards-2khmgzk98
  26. Barnett, E. (2021, Nov 3). Professor Kathleen Stock; Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin; Richard Ratcliffe. BBC Woman’s Hour. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001153q
  27. University of Sussex (2021, Oct 21). Academic freedom and lawful freedom of speech. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/56535
  28. UCU Sussex (2021, Oct 13). Statement in Support of Trans and Nonbinary Communities at Sussex. https://ucusussex.wixsite.com/ucusussex/post/statement-in-support-of-trans-and-nonbinary-communities-at-sussex
  29. The University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network (2021, Oct). In response to ‘Sex Matters’ letter. https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/staffpridenetwork/2021/10/21/in-response-to-sex-matters-letter/
  30. GC Academia Network (n.d.). Your Stories. https://www.gcacademianetwork.org/

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