Another Education is Possible, Spring 2018, Gender Equality: Time’s up and the #Me Too movement

Gender Equality: Time’s Up and the #Me Too movement

– A change in public attitudes and women’s resistance to sexual harassment

Sue Abbott

The Guardian (9 February 2018) highlighted that more than 3.4 million women in England and Wales had been sexually assaulted since the age of 16 according to recent figures. 3% of women aged 16-59 had been assaulted in the past year. The Guardian article noted that ‘the Office for National Statistics said the scale of sexual assaults against women had changed little since 2005 and that ‘more than 80% of victims did not report their experiences to the police’.

For many of us who have been involved in challenging sexism and sexual violence this is shocking but not surprising. But this year we have seen an increased awareness and a change in public attitudes to the topic of sexual harassment.

Since the Weinstein case many situations have come to our attention. For example, The University of Cambridge in February 2018 admitted that it had a ‘significant problem’ with sexual misconduct after it received 173 complaints in 9 months after launching an anonymous reporting system. The majority of these (119) involved student against student misconduct with 7 cases made by staff against colleagues and 2 cases by students against staff. The rest involved neither staff nor students. Other Universities have introduced similar anonymous reporting tools including Manchester but Cambridge was the first to publish such a report illustrating the problem that remains an issue.

Many of us had been well aware of the situation when we got involved in campaigns to tackle ‘lad culture’ in Higher Education during 2014/15. Following the ‘that’s what she said’ report (NUS, 2014) we could clearly see the need to take a preventative stance to changing the culture in many educational establishments. Universities were required to set up task groups to address the issues but bearing in mind recent events one wonders how effective these have actually been.

In 2016 UCU had published a survey that had taken 2 years to analyse such was the high response rate. In the same year 2016 the TUC published its survey that reiterated the scale of the problem. So when the Weinstein case hit the headlines in 2017/18 it only confirmed what many women activists had been campaigning against for many years. This was further emphasised by the scandal of the Presidents Club dinner. We saw rich men from business buying the services of young women employed by an agency for £175. These young women were at the beck and call of these drunken men.

This year at the 2018 Women’s TUC the key focus was the matter of sexual harassment and UCU’s motion was selected as that which would go forward to September’s TUC this year. In the motion we observed ‘that gender-based violence is endemic in society’ and can often be ‘an unspoken problem’. Our concern was that ‘companies treat sexual harassment and assault in the same way as other kinds of harassment lost within general harassment and bullying policies’. Various ideas are suggested such as working with the NUS and 1752 group, joint research and campaigns and promoting education programmes on this topic. Additionally more training for reps who support members having suffered this abuse. Indeed UCU produced a statement on sexual violence and harassment in November 2017. This promoted having a sexual harassment model policy in all UCU branches, encouraging reps to attend sexual harassment training, working with NUS,1752 and Universities UK, having a ‘16 days against gender based violence’ campaign and circulating information. But are fine words enough when the issue of sexual harassment are reaching such proportions? Do we really want to work hand in hand with UUK after what they have been promoting in the USS dispute?

With regard to sexual harassment it is worth considering the role of the ‘Me too #’ movement. It has been described as a ‘roar’ and ‘life affirming’ (Blasko, 2018). She goes on to say that the logo is about ‘power in words and although they can’t change everything they can alter the atmosphere’ .The movement started and spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment especially in the workplace where it was first used in this context by Tarana Burke and popularised by Alyssa Milano when she encouraged women to tweet it to give ‘people a sense of magnitude of the problem’.

So where does this go now? How can this hashtag really change the culture of ‘everyday sexism’?

Context: the implications for challenging sexual harassment in post 16 education 

So we have a range of bureaucratic suggestions but how much are all these going to actually change what we have known for such a long time?

In UCU we have seen women members at the forefront of leading disputes. The most recent disputes in pre 92 Universities saw women Branch Chairs and Presidents leading the most amazing fightback against an attack on USS pensions. This gives us hope that challenges could be made on a wider scale to the predominant culture.

The context of increasing marketization of education and neo liberal policies cannot be ignored in this debate. The Government sees education as connected to the market and students are seen as ‘customers’. There seems to be no vision of how Higher Education could be and should be. Regular attempts to attack academic freedom are not encouraging. Modern day HE reinforces society’s inequalities and represents injustice to a whole new generation. The elements in new style Universities focus upon the essence of neo-liberal individualism and competition. This can be viewed in the performance management expectations such as NSS scores, REF, TEF and so on.

The Gender Pay Gap

Moore (2018) writing in the Guardian recently commented ‘equal pay for equal work seems such a stunningly fair concept, who could argue against it?’ She goes on to give examples of disregard for gender pay inequality. In particular she notes ‘every single University in the Russell group pays women less on a median hourly rate. Durham University has the biggest pay gap at 29%’. Attending a regional briefing on the subject in November 2016, the accompanying report we were required to read commented ‘there are plenty of fine words spoken at a national level (by the employers) about the need to investigate the issue but little meaningful action’. We were informed by the official giving the briefing that ‘equal pay is a subset of gender pay’ and were informed that a few Universities, had addressed the issue for women professors at LSE and Essex. Further advice suggested establishing dialogue with HR departments and using an equal pay checklist. Additionally it should be part of the Athena Swan dialogue. But how far have we got? Regularly enquiring at NEC we get told progress is happening by the officials but where and when? It should be much more than just looking at the pay of those at the top but also those further down the grading structure.

Casualization and women

Additionally it is worth noting the report produced in January 2016 by Healy and Bergfield for the TUC on the challenges presented by increased casualization of women’s work. Although this covers a wide span of casual women workers in different industries, they note that increased casualization has led to widespread insecurity for ‘both highly qualified and less qualified workers’ and that women are particularly disadvantaged in a variety of ways. For example they note that women are ‘losing out on sick pay and holiday pay, being refused work because they are pregnant or because they are returning from maternity leave, given the worst teaching or in the case of HE given extreme marking loads’. So the context of how women are being treated in education requires early attention.

Kelly’s theory of mobilisation

A key academic theory which is well worth relating to at the present time is John Kelly’s ‘mobilisation theory’. Bearing in mind the experiences we have just had in the USS dispute and the strong role of women leaders, this is a fantastic opportunity for us to improve areas of injustice and discontent.

Kelly’s theory drew upon Tilly (1978) and theory of collective action where ‘interests are the fulcrum of the model and the ways in which people (particularly members of subordinate groups) define them’. For example, leaders need to find issues to draw upon members’ sense of injustice. Injustice creates discontent and when this is shared it becomes collective. The matter of blame is important. This tends to be directed at the employers. Solidarity is key for successful mobilisation. So the aim should be to build solidarity and collective action. Some have criticised the theory because of its lack of focus upon gender. A variety of respected academics (for example, Ledwith and Colgan (2002)) have explored this and commented that issues such as sexism, inequality and discrimination are vital to generate activism.

So where now?

There exists a span of injustices for women in our union. These include particularly at the current time sexual harassment, casualization, and gender pay gap. Too long we have waited patiently for policies to be written, meetings with HR to be organised, conferences and briefings to be set up.

What we have learnt during the USS strikes and ‘teach ins’ is that we do have the power to change things and it is now that we must take these forward. In transforming UCU we need to build a movement based upon solidarity and mutuality rather than accepting a service union.

As a starting point lets learn from Audrey White who worked for a clothes store in Liverpool in 1983. She was sacked for complaining about the sexual harassment of four women in her team. She only got her job back after a five week picket supported by dockers, car workers and other trade unionists. This is the way to win. Let’s start organising now!!!


Blasko S (2018) #MeToo is not just a debate, or a whinge. It’s a reality, The Guardian 25th March

Healy G and Bergfeld M (2016) The Organising Challenges Presented by the Increasing Casualisation of Women’s Work, Report for the TUC, Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, Queen Mary University

Kelly J (1998) Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves, London: Routledge

Ledwith S and Colgan F (2002) Gender, Diversity and Trade Unions, London: Routledge

Moore S (2018) Saying women don’t want the highest-paid jobs won’t wash any more, The Guardian 5th April

Tilly C (1978) From Mobilization to Revolution, McGraw-Hill


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