Women’s networks unite us despite our differences

Debbie McVitty sits down with WHEN staffer Madiha Sajid to find out about a mission to connect and unite women across UK HE

Though at base there is more that unites us than divides us, it’s understandable that in trying to establish and maintain social movements our differences tend to come to the fore.

Feminism has always been fractious. At school we learned about suffragists and suffragettes, and about liberal and radical feminists; historians of the women’s movement are uncovering multiple strands of thinking, as well as many moments where differences of opinion seemed to be irreconcilable.

The current debate over the status of trans women feels a bit like that – especially since it has now become mixed up in the wider culture wars over freedom of speech at universities. But beyond the media headlines, there are many trans and cis feminists in and outside universities getting on with building a new, mutually respectful, settlement, whatever that ends up looking like.

What women need, perhaps, is less formally-staged “debate” – as if someone stating a view in a wood-panelled room while people who disagree with them shout slogans outside the window (or shout at them on Twitter) was the best and freest version of political engagement we could imagine – and more opportunities to practice finding points of commonality.

Many cheers, then, for the Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN), a national network whose mission is “Uniting women with different roles, from different institutions and fields, and with different backgrounds and experiences.”

The going gets tough

WHEN originated in University College London, and has spun out from there, with UCL continuing to fund WHEN’s one member of staff Madiha Sajid plus CEO Alice Chilver volunteers for the initiative while holding another role at the university. It’s a HE sector-wide initiative, and it looks and feels organic, with much of the work of organising events, a termly “edit” of articles and regular webinars and institutional visits undertaken by volunteers.

Getting to meet with Madiha feels like an exercise in “women in the professions 101”. Though I know it’s a conversation that is more important than most of the bits of my working day, urgent Wonkhe matters keep crowding it out. But Madiha is patient and we finally manage to find time for a cup of tea, in a small lab space high above Bloomsbury on UCL’s campus.

Madiha’s journey to feminist activism came through an “intense experience” of parenting a child, which ultimately brought her from Pakistan to London. And while employed at UCL she picked up her studies, focusing on gender, international development and education alongside her professional role in academic administration. She became involved in Athena Swan and other gender equality initiatives, becoming chair of the UCL gender equality network. She now coordinates member engagement for WHEN, combining that role with engagement lead for UCL’s equality, diversity and inclusion team.

Coming from Pakistan, but with a deep experience of UK higher education, Madiha has the dual perspective of the insider-outsider. Inevitably, she’s experienced racial prejudice and is occasionally taken aback by the lack of intercultural awareness demonstrated even in the diverse and international environment of London. It’s particularly annoying, she says, to be complimented on the quality of her English.

There’s also a cultural burden associated with her background: “Every word I speak I’m speaking on behalf of my country. People will be looking for what I have to offer, what are my values, what’s my work ethic. I’m representing Pakistan wherever I go.”

Though Madiha is frustrated by the lack of BAME women’s representation at senior levels in higher education: “Why the glass ceiling? Why do we not have a position at the top table?” her focus is on uncovering the distinctive experiences that contribute to women’s marginalisation across higher education.

Women’s work

Heavy workload is a current hot topic, and Madiha points to a systemic lack of flexibility in working patterns across higher education, including low respect and credibility for part-time work or working from home.

Workload issues are likely to be slightly different for academic and professional staff, who have different levels of autonomy to work flexibly – but Madiha agrees that academic workloads can have a serious impact, “Unrealistic workloads are destroying work-life balance – a few top academics with no work-life balance are setting the bar far too high for everyone else.”

A lack of understanding among managers of the external pressures and expectations bearing on staff can also create issues. For example: “For some women from a BAME background, the expectation is that a daughter will live with her parents and look after her parents in their old age – but this is not understood in England.”

When problems like these are experienced or handled as if they are distinctive to one individual, that person may then feel that they are the problem. But by sharing experiences through networks, it becomes possible to see where the system is inadvertently creating exclusions. It also helps people feel less alone. Madiha recalls her experience of facilitating a parents’ network: “Every time I hear parents talking about their experiences I think there’s a bit of them in me and a bit of me in them. Every time, knowing I’m not alone in going through this, it has really helped.”

It is these hidden experiences that need to be brought to light and new solutions developed in order to ensure that policies and practices are inclusive. This is the power of networks: “At WHEN we try to foreground these experiences – the most strength we find is in sharing and talking about these experiences, and trying to work out ways to deal with them. All these issues – inflexibility, discrimination, lack of cultural awareness – these are all contributing to the gender pay gap.”

Managing difference

The principle is excellent – but knowing what we now know about intersectionality and how multiple divergent experiences of marginalisation can create power imbalances even in ostensibly egalitarian spaces, I’m curious about how Madiha manages those issues in facilitating her networks.

“Some women take up more air space than others,” admits Madiha. One example: “Women in academia are far more confident as compared to women in professional services who might not have the same knowledge or research background. Having to navigate and balance that out, that is tricky.” As far as possible, Madiha tries to “facilitate in a manner that encourages inclusion.” By way of best practice she suggests, “Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak – make sure everyone is asked their opinion, don’t assume people can advance an opinion.”

In the course of the conversation, Madiha teaches me something I’d not particularly considered before, as I’d never had to – how day to day exchanges between professionals can be inflected with historical racial inequalities. Madiha gives the example of a commonplace interaction – releasing funds to attend an event. “As a woman of colour, it’s very difficult to ask a white colleague for permission to go to a conference, for example. We’re trying to navigate that in a way that maintains our dignity and doesn’t mess up our identity. We feel the weight of postcolonial history, feeling a need to ask for permission rather than assert an entitlement.” It’s a timely reminder that the weight of inequality falls more heavily on some shoulders than on others.

But WHEN is not only about tackling injustice. Networks of mutual support can also simply be about encouragement to take up the space we deserve as professional women. Madiha shares an example from her own professional experience: WHEN’s event to mark International Women’s Day in 2019 won a global award for best practice. It was an outstanding achievement but, “When the email came I knew it was me and my hard work, but I didn’t know how to own it. I was nervous about posting on LinkedIn, and I’m still a bit nervous about it now.” Though her experience is unique to her, it would not be surprising if it resonated with some other women.

In higher education, how people come together to talk and share insight has impact beyond the university, because it’s how we add to the stock of public knowledge. But simplistic exhortations to “speak out” or “challenge” don’t always take account of how difficult it can be to find the words, or make yourself heard, or have what you say taken seriously. Networks like WHEN can create space for active listening, seeking common ground, and the prospect of being an ally even when the issues faced are not our own. This International Women’s Day, that’s undoubtedly something to celebrate.

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