Kinder “Surprise”

via Reddit

This is a sort-of-guest post, in that I’ve sourced most of the text and images from the excellent Mike Hall, with permission.

It’s a pet peeve of mine, this increasingly gendered toy market we’re seeing, and people’s defence of it; that it’s always been that way, that it’s what parents/children want, that it’s not a problem at all to be hammering old-fashioned and restrictive gender roles into kids from day 1.

Kinder Surprise eggs were part of my childhood; I used to collect the animal figurine series; turtles, lions, hippos etc. They’re probably in my mum’s house somewhere.

They did what they said on the wrapper; you didn’t really know what you were going to get out of this chocolate, in the little plastic popper-container. We’d shake them and listen, thinking that we were like some kind of connoisseur-expert, that we could tell from the sound whether it was a figurine or just another plastic toy you had to assemble.

It could have been a whole host of things. You didn’t know, that was the fun.

But now Ferrero have decided that they have 2 kinds of egg; one for boys, and one for girls. Yawn. Over to Mike for more…


12/08/2014: So yesterday I bought a pink “gendered” Kinder Egg, partly because I fancied a Kinder Egg, and partly to see what I would find inside it.

For those not aware, Kinder have recently started marketing independent “boy/blue” and “girl/pink” versions of the Kinder Surprise. Seems unnecessary to me? But there you have it. And these are a few thoughts on my pink Kinder Surprise.

1. They seemed to come in palettes, with a layer of pink eggs sitting on a layer of blue eggs, sitting on a layer of pink, etc. Don’t know if this is representative of how they are shipped, how the shop chooses to stock them, or whatever. Interesting part of this for me was that customers had only taken eggs from the top (pink) layer. There were no eggs taken from the blue tier underneath. Does that mean no-one gives a fuck about the colour and just want a Kinder Surprise? Does that mean that only women are buying them? Is this just an artefact of the shop being located in the business district in Liverpool where they’re going to be bought predominantly by adults? Would younger purchasers have been more discriminating? Don’t know.

2. The toy inside was a “Pop Star Barbie” (indeed, the pink egg itself is Barbie branded). This wasn’t as bad I was expecting, to be honest. I was expecting princess, nurse, home-maker, socialite, etc.

MikeKinder

3. The toy required very little assembly. I remember Kinder Surprise being more difficult to put together than this. Maybe that was because I was younger? But basically, I have to clip two things together and apply one sticker. Not more than eight seconds work. But then sometimes you get little statuettes inside the egg with no assembly required at all?

4. The leaflet inside indicated that “Pop Star Barbie” is part of a larger “I can be…” range, which looks to be designed with the aim of giving little girls positive role models. Also in the range are Fashion Designer, Chef, Doctor, Lifeguard, Ballerina, Actor and Tennis Player. They are all very “girly girl” along with their vocation (e.g. Doctor Barbie is wearing heels and a sequinned mini skirt, Chef Barbie has pink wooden spoon, etc.), but they do come over as successful (e.g. Actor Barbie is holding an Oscar).

5. I’m wary here of coming over as denigrating the choice of some women to be “girly girls”. Of course, that’s a valid choice. Being a doctor in a mini skirt is a valid thing to do if that’s what you want to do. Though I do worry there is a fine line between the message “being feminine and being a doctor aren’t mutually exclusive” and “obviously you must be very feminine, but you can still be a doctor too”.

6. It could have been worse; it could have been only feminine stereotypes, without the attempt at giving positive role models. But it also could have been a lot better. Like not producing daft gendered toys in the first place and letting kids play with what they want to play with.

7. Overall, it comes over to me like a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class guys got together in a room… then tried really, really hard to be progressive about it. And missed.


MikeKinder401/09/2014: Bought another Kinder Egg today — this time a blue/boy one. It was a Hot Wheels car (also a Mattel brand).

It came in two parts, which snapped together very easily. Probably a simpler assembly job than Barbie, if anything. Plus the application of three stickers.

There was nothing along the lines of the “I can be…” message of the Barbie-branded egg, just the car with a photo of which other cars you can collect. This car came in a lovely poo-brown colour.

From the leaflets inside the two eggs I’ve bought — pink/girl and blue/boy — it looks like all the pink eggs are Barbies with various professions. And all the blue eggs are cars of various designs and colours. So no gender stereotyping in there whatsoever, no sir.

Interesting that the boys are given things they should want, and the girls given things they should want to be? Don’t know if that’s deliberate, or subconscious, or if I’m reading too much into that?


Thanks again to Mike for sharing these posts.

Looking through some other comment pieces, it does seem that there’s some evidence for this trend being sexist parent-driven rather than just from the market itself (although as a circle rather than linear effect, it’s hard to separate those out completely):

The company said in a statement: “We do not advocate or promote our products as gender specific. Instead, Kinder Surprise Pink and Blue offers a range of interesting new toys in coloured eggs which help parents navigate the toy ranges on offer and make purchasing decisions based on what is most relevant for their child.

“Research that we undertook prior to launch indicated that parents welcome this product, with 66% of parents saying it was a good idea to have two separate ranges of toys. In addition, 66% of parents agreed that having a pink and blue Kinder Surprise egg made it easier for them to know which treat to buy for their child.” “

- Marketing Magazine

There has been a Change.org petition set up to challenge the company’s decision on this, which is obviously met with the usual “find some real issues” type comments. But, if we don’t take the low-hanging fruit where we can, how are we ever going to address those bigger issues too? Feminism isn’t about only ever thinking of the most devastating issue; not only is it not possible, but ignores the fact that people can care about more than one thing at once.

See the links below for more, and do share if you have some experiences on the subject.

Links

- “Kinder Surprise denies gender bias with pink and blue eggs, plus five sexist marketing fails” – Marketing Magazine
- “Kinder Predictable” – Let Toys Be Toys
- “Kinder Surprise in stereotyping row over pink and blue eggs” – Independent
- “Why New Pink Kinder Surprise Pisses Me Off” – HuffPo
- “What do toys have to do with inequality?” – Let Toys Be Toys

Charity Challenges

I’m sure you’ve heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge. More and more people are doing it – film you or a friend dumping a bucket of ice water on your head, post it online, make a donation to charity, and nominate some other people to do the same.

In the UK social media circles – due to a shift that probably happened in the US where this is a better-known disease perhaps because of Lou Gehrig, the famous baseball player who suffered – it seems the most common cause to donate to is for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research charities. ALS is a form of MND; a degenerative disease that leads to muscle degradation, paralysis and eventual suffocation. Our famous sufferer is Stephen Hawking.

The Wellcome Trust did a great video explaining the condition, for those who’d like to learn more:

A wonderful friend from university whom I have seen far too little of in recent years decided to nominate me yesterday as he took the challenge. Having done the right thing and made a cup of tea ready for the aftermath, he decided to donate to Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund. I’m sorry I haven’t been “a good sport” as he put it and made my own video, but you can watch his and, if you like, read on for some more thoughts on the phenomenon and my explanation of why I’ve decided to donate and write this instead.

“I’m donating towards the Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund via GlobalGiving. One good turn deserves another so Kevin, Orr, and Marianne (because I’ve enjoyed her Facebook ruminations on this topic and I know she’ll be a good sport) get your ice and buckets and don’t forget to donate.”

All for one or..?

Despite the shift in focus to ALS, as the wikipedia page for IBC explains, the origins of the challenge are fuzzy, and it doesn’t appear to have been started by ALS charities specifically; people have donated to a range of causes for it. It’s often said that the point of the ice water is to, if only briefly, mimic some of the pain ALS sufferers experience. But cancer research and firefighting also seem to have been origin-causes. Macmillan are raising money through the challenge too – without them, my dad’s end of life care would have been even more difficult, so if the Ebola fund isn’t your thing, maybe send some cash their way.

As I said in a previous post about the similar viral fundraising campaign, No Make-up Selfie, it’s important to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, give people a) the means to donate and b) find out more information about the cause you’ve chosen to support. Otherwise it really just seems like an attention-seeking exercise, with the added bonus of some money going to charity, which is great.

Extrovert’s dream

So why haven’t I made a video? Sorry. I don’t like videos of me  – there’s only one that I know of. I like writing stuff – as you can see – I love talking to people on social media, sharing things I find interesting, having rants about what annoys me (quite a lot of stuff). But I’m not particularly attention-seeking in terms of people-staring-at-me. I know I’m not alone in that – some friends have said they too would find a nomination mortifying or otherwise uncomfortable. It could be an introvert’s nightmare.

People have different kinds of personalities, enjoy different things, struggle with different aspects of social interactions (or sometimes none at all). Those things manifest in different ways. This kind of challenge just doesn’t suit everyone, so I’m all for offering up alternatives.

Team MB all_namesThis is mine – have a look at the issue in a wider context, send some money anyway, but in a less showy fashion. That’s not to say this way is better, that the videos are wrong – just different.

A request

What I would ask is that, having read this, could you please donate either to the Ebola relief fund, Macmillan, a charity of your choice (let me know in the comments!) or to me!!

Not personally, you understand – I’m doing my own Charity Challenge next month, walking 25km on the Thames Path Challenge, for Barts Cancer Institute. There’s a little team of us, so you can pick your favourite on our BT Donate page (me, I hope, given you’re here).

If you’re wondering about the hat, follow the link on our team page, Arrow to the Knee.

Blah blah blah

As I said, I ramble about things online, so I suppose this started when I posted the following (ish):

- Donating to charities that don’t get much attention is good
– People are always going to be vain and irritating, especially online/in media generally; if that turns into a way to make money for charity occasionally, bonus.
– If you don’t want to watch them, don’t.
– If the self-congratulatory aspect annoys you, just donate quietly – as you may already do.
– Complaining loudly about it makes you as bad – if not worse. Unless you’re sending a donation with your complaint. But then what was the point of complaining in the first place?
– Go to learn about ALS/MND on Wikipedia for a bit. It’s what Stephen Hawking has, and he’s amazingly old considering. It’s a really difficult-to-research condition. Tack it onto your complaints if you feel information is lacking somewhere, or link to a charity.
– It doesn’t necessarily mean people are donating less/other charities are worse off. That’s not how it works.*
– It’s a bit like no makeup selfie, which I wrote a long thing about. Similar questions can be asked. Curiosity about how this kind of fundraising is good; critiques can be useful. Pretending you’re so much better [not so much].

*This is something I seem to be wrong about, more on that in a bit.

Edit: our Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia has some stats that are mildly encouraging

https://twitter.com/jimmy_wales/status/505010767432019968

Criticism

This word, ironically, gets a lot of criticism. I don’t think it’s as bad as all that – it’s a means of pushing for improvement. Without criticism, how can we improve? It’s not just about being negative, although identifying where things could be done better is a big part of a critique, it’s not the only aspect. Making note of what does work is also necessary.

It also doesn’t mean that, just because you have offered up criticism, you are “a heartless bastard”, as a friend put it. Are we all so sheltered as to think everything we do is beyond reproach, or so arrogant to think we’re already doing everything right?? Critical thinking isn’t just about deciding everything is rubbish, it’s about analysis, evidence, common sense, digging for truths and betterment.

I’m not usually one for dictionary definitions, but while a common use of the word is “expressing disapproval”, it’s also about “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults” – while this is usually applied to the arts, it needn’t be its sole preserve. Should we not be considerate and critical of most things we do?

Charity Critiques

via Wikimedia Commons/Givewell – public domain

A huge, sprawling topic I won’t get too deep into here – I just want to return to the *people are donating less/other charities are worse off aspect. It’s most people’s gut feeling that simply stepping up to a random challenge wouldn’t change people’s donation behaviours, or that a successful campaign for one charity would negatively affect others.

But, it seems that is in fact the case. Is charity giving really a zero-sum game? I can’t say with conviction here, but it seems at least in the US where donations have apparently been fairly static in recent years, that it is more a case of charities fighting it out amongst each other for their shares of that restricted pool than simply coming up with new ideas to add revenue to their available budget.

In reality I’m sure it’s a bit of both, and if you have access to some enlightening research on the subject, please do link in the comments. The “problem of forgotten emergencies” is similar and perhaps sheds some light on this. The UK does well at giving to charity, and I expect the nuts and bolts of inter-charity competition differs somewhat depending on which country you look at – and whether you’re interrogating individuals, corporations or other revenue sources.

Charities need money in order to function (government funding of research being a related issue). They need to ask people for money but people don’t like being asked for money. So “raising awareness” and other slight misdirections are more fashionable now – plus, with the increasingly popular phenomenon of social media permeating our lives, of course it’s an avenue to explore. And it’s not going to be perfect the first time.

Charities didn’t seem to have started this, really. At least it’s not a campaign masterminded and owned by any one in particular. If it were, we could hold it to higher standards, but I think we need to make the best of it – while being open to criticism.

Holier Than Thou

I suppose what made me notice the complaints was the context some of them came in. Ridiculous meme-like photos juxtaposing happy-looking Americans throwing water on themselves with a child living in poverty being fed water from a rusty cup. I don’t find this kind of complaint useful.

People in developed countries are better off than people unlucky enough to be living in developing countries. Some developing countries have water shortages (the whole of Africa, however, does not) – throwing water on yourself in a developed country doesn’ t make you an awful person. It makes you lucky, and we’d do well to be grateful for that sometimes.

Other people having bigger problems does not negate all of our own, and we cannot be mindful of every single problem all of the time; it’s impossible. You can just stand up for causes you care about and believe in and do your best not to be apathetic about everything.

If you criticised someone for doing this challenge when “there’re droughts in some states/Africa!” then I hope you are a regular supporter of Water Aid. If not, you really can’t use this line of attack. Not using water frivolously in one country does not mean that water will be shipped somewhere it is needed; that is not how water provision works, and probably where I put a foot wrong in shifting that argument over to the cash flow issue without thinking it through.

Thames personalised A2KsmallSo I would like to nominate you, reader, to do what you think is best.

Send some money where you think it’s needed. You might already be doing that – great! You might want to throw ice or coffee or baked beans on yourself. You might want to run a 5k or sign up to a challenge next year. I don’t mind – just remember to check your charities are “legit”.

Charities mentioned in this post:

Related

  • Yahoo, Natasha Bird: Challenging the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – the problem with mega-donations
  • Independent: ALS ice bucket challenge: Over half of Brits polled did not donate to charity afterwards
  • Quartz: “The cold, hard truth about the ice bucket challenge”

Women and sexism in STEM

STEMNETLast week I tried to explain to someone whom I saw adding to abuse directed at a woman on Twitter why that’s a very bad thing for a STEM Ambassador to be doing – once I noticed that they shared that voluntary occupation in their bio.

Background

STEM is now a popular acronym that describes “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths” – the sciences and their applied disciplines, essentially. Some like to add another M for Medicine but I think that’s covered by Science and Technology, really. Separate debate.

What is not worth debating is whether women are disadvantaged, underrepresented, discriminated against and put off in these fields. It has been shown time and again, and I’ve placed links and references in this piece to demonstrate that. People with the ability to pay attention, women or otherwise, already know this. I intend this to be a resource to demonstrate this fact, and a push for people to try to tackle it however they see fit.

STEM Ambassadors are trained by a group called STEMNET and their purpose is to inspire young people, encourage them to learn about the scientific disciplines and perhaps aim for a career in one of the fields. I believe that if we’re to tackle gender inequality and discrimination in STEM, teaching children that everyone can do and work in science is vital.

mariannegardenlab

Inspecting snails as a child of 6/horsing around in the lab as a child of 24

 

Personal touch

People ask me why I “left science” – I don’t consider that I have, I work at the same place I ventured to 7 years ago to begin my PhD (in cancer research) and I am now helping to spread the word about our work – my job includes supporting our students, new recruits and established staff, many of which are women. Many of whom are friends. I just didn’t feel like lab-based research was for me, for various reasons. I enjoy what I do and I’m lucky to have had the opportunities and support to get there.

I grew up around a lot of sexist older men and I could not possibly fully describe how galling it is to watch people you otherwise love and respect (family, friends etc.) speak of other women (and by extension, you) in a dismissive, insulting and belittling manner. The world already shows us what it thinks of us – we’re underrepresented and discouraged in the entertainment industries: games, film+TV, literature; our bodies are used to sell products; we’re taught they are public property, and people treat them as such.

How many times do strangers comment on men’s appearances in the street or aggressively instruct them to perform something sexual? Would you not find it shocking and inappropriate? Just as one example. These many things and much more is why I have long called myself a feminist, yet people still ask, and yes the question both surprises and bores me.

We are told that the proper, respectable, worthwhile jobs are for men – less than we were in the past, for sure, but it’s still out there with the boys’ toys and the girls’ toys; the blue and pink, the choice of fireman/spaceman/policeman/doctor, or the housewife-cleaner/nurse/princess (that’s not even a job!). I do not believe that women are less capable in these fields – curiosity is all you really need to get started in science, and most if not all children have that.

The “leaky pipeline”

To the point… women in STEM.

Less than 20% of grant applicants are women [1] and fewer grants are awarded to them [2]. Only 20% of UK professors are women [3]. Why? No, it’s not just because of babies and wiring.

Women are certainly discouraged from STEM [4] (very few girls take A level physics for example), and the few of us who get there regardless are still tested regularly [5,6,7]. Not everyone withstands these tests, and women continually ‘leak’ out of STEM fields [8,9].

Academia is still a sexist environment to work in, and it’s a battle for us. Women are not hired equally and paid less when they are [10,11] – even by other women – sexism is in the air we breathe from day 1 and none of us are immune to that, it can just be easier to acknowledge and try to move on from when it’s happening directly to you.

Edit: here’s a depressing piece on sexual assault in science.

A House of Commons report states that the causes of women’s underrepresentation are of 3 broad types:

(a) issues particular to academia;
(b) issues particular to STEM, and;
(c) the gendered nature of work and family care in the UK. [12]

For example, senior members of staff might criticise women who have to take time off for family. In fact, it’s not “what women do!”, as I heard someone put it, it’s what people who want children have to do and unfortunately we’re required to do the physically draining bit – men who want children often can’t seem to grasp this and consider that perhaps pushing for equal parental leave would make things better for everyone.

womenignoredStill, women worry that their job will be gone when they want to return to work and have to deal with these judgments about their ambitions and capability at work; on top of the usual being ignored, harassed and other common experiences.

I heard of one occasion when office allocations were decided in a pub on a Friday night, when people had to go to pick up children, so some find out on Monday they’ve missed that boat and ended up with the leftovers – perhaps official meetings that don’t exclude people with families to look after are more fair?

Obviously it’s not clear-cut, sometimes events must be given evening slots to ensure high attendance, and penalising people who do not have dependants is not always an acceptable trade-off. But the prevailing attitude is still that women have families and they are the most penalised; including being asked at interview whether they’ll “go off and have children”, despite this being illegal.

It’s not even that this is a new phenomenon. Women’s achievements have historically been ignored, erased, claimed by men as their own. We are having to work hard to show people that’s it’s not natural that the famous names are men – we just haven’t been permitted and taught to remember women.

Change: young minds

If you are working with children who want to get into this field, you need to be encouraging to them and try to make sure you’re not displaying behaviours that young women and girls will pick up on and internalise. We are not stupid, we live this and see it all the time so when someone who’s supposed to be advertising an industry to girls seems so ready to belittle and dismiss women, I am very concerned.

“The most effective age for intervention activities is pre-adolescence, before negative attitudes appear.” [13]

Research from California suggests that children need to be taught these things before society can mould them and prejudices set in.

Not good enough

People who insistent they have worked with and supported some women and say things like “But Florence Nightingale was great!” really isn’t good enough. We must at least try to understand that women, worldwide, in all professions, are systematically disadvantaged. We are at increased risk of discrimination, violence, and being blamed for what other people choose to subject us to.

Without accepting that a system of oppression is in place worldwide that constantly erects hurdles along women’s routes of progression, success and what should be simple choices, you cannot claim to be supporting women. Many women frequently discuss these issues and we are repeatedly told to stop. We’re exaggerating.

“Yes, of course, love”     “Lighten up”     “Get a sense of humour”     “You’re a scientist? But you’re pretty”  “Other people have it worse, you know”     “Are you sure you understand?”    “Make me a sammich”.

If official bodies (including parliament [14]) can do the work, look at the stats and tell you and everyone else that there is a problem, can you please accept that and start working to address it, not adding to the problems that already exist. It is actually part of the STEM Ambassador mission:

“The Government “funds STEMNET to run the STEM Ambassador programme which raises awareness amongst children and young people of the range of careers that science and technical qualifications offer”. Although not a central part of this inquiry, we are aware that the STEM Ambassador Scheme is very well regarded.

We have also previously recommended that engagement with industry should be a core requirement of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development as this would improve the provision of STEM careers advice to students.

We encourage the Government to work with the STEM community and schools to tackle gender stereotypes in education, particularly at primary level.

- Gender Perceptions in STEM Careers [14].

To quote that teacher you always respected, it’s so disappointing. Recently a colleague told me his daughter had explained how much street harassment she receives – he seems shocked and apologetic that he didn’t understand before (and her male partner still doesn’t) that this is a global problem that affects all of us.


 

Women are people, not possessions, not a different species, and we deserve the same respect you would show to your male colleagues and the same (if not more) encouragement as you would give boys showing interested in science. It should not require some personal experience to be able to empathise with women who tell you these things.

I’d rather budding feminist dads than sexist dads (like so many of us endured) but I’d rather still it didn’t require that one girl carrying your genes becoming so important to you that only in mid-late adulthood do you possibly start to consider women’s issues more widely.

someone

Understanding and working against sexism is a process. We have to acknowledge that we all harbour sexist prejudices – we cannot exist in our culture and not absorb those messages. So “women do it” isn’t an excuse – we are, again, human beings and equally fallible. From a favourite article:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

So in this case, I would implore you to realise that: sexism is very real. It happens and disadvantages women. You can choose to avoid sexism. You also benefit from lacking barriers that are placed in front of others whose traits you do not share for historical and cultural reasons.

You are not, nor should you be, “genderblind” or colourblind or any of those things – if you think you are, re-examine this attitude because it is not helpful. You do not exist outside of society, you do not breathe “clean air” – you’re as dirty as the rest of us, and unless you notice and work on it, you’ll still contribute.


 

So I hope people who proclaim to be fair and helpful will in future reconsider joining in with the abuse of women in public, because ultimately all fields and all facets of life need to be less restricted to men and male voices alone – how we think of our fellow human beings and address inequality is a fundamental part of that fight.

It feels like a fight so much of the time, because we are met with so much hostility, for even the smallest of things – for just existing, for daring to speak – and it’s tiring. But people care enough to keep pushing, because it is important.

You may not agree with other people’s behaviour. You may not think you support it, participate in it or have anything to do with it. But the thing that’s more important than saying “But not me!” is listening to people who do have those experiences, believing them, and helping. Not being dismissive and accusing people of lying. It happens all the time, I see it a lot – it’s infuriating. You can look at #yesallwomen for more on this (on twitter or the many articles based around it) [15].

Men’s sexism is not the same as women’s sexism (sorry), just as black people are not racist in the way that white people are. History and worldwide context is very important; there is a huge power imbalance at play that again, while you may not believe in or subscribe to, very much exists and makes the same actions impact upon different people in very different ways [16]

Looking ahead

I’d hope that people who have children/grandchildren or know any young people would want a fairer world for them – not just for the girls and women, but for the men as well – absurd ideas of masculinity harm men just as enforcing gender roles harms women. Telling boys not to show their feelings, telling them they must be physically strong, that anger is a permissable emotion above all others; these things reduce men. Accusing women of being tempting and blaming them for what men do is to underestimate men’s humanity and responsibility.

“Boys will be boys”? How about teaching them to treat other people with respect, as well as themselves, and don’t excuse unacceptable behaviour. Stop teaching girls to accept abuse, “He only hurts you because he likes you!” – help them to appreciate and respect themselves and not to settle for those who seek to own them.

This is part of why I challenge people. I think it’s important, and I think people are capable of doing better than what we so often see and experience now, for everyone’s benefit.

References

  1. Women In Science – BBSRC blog
  2. Women trail men in securing Research Council grants – Times Higher Education
  3. RCUK look for evidence of quality – Research Professional
  4. Girls love science, we tell them not to
  5. PNAS: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students
  6. Bias persists against women of science” – NYT Science
  7. Study: Sexual harassment is a real problem in science” – review of PLOS publication
  8. “Stemming the Tide: New Study Examines Why Women Leave Engineering
  9. How stereotypes can drive women to quit science
  10. Women in science, you have nothing to fear but your own subconscious” – Jenny Rohn, Guardian. Links re: hiring discrimination
  11. Sexual discrimination in science: why we must act now” – Guardian
  12. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee: Inquiry into Women in STEM careers
  13. Position paper, California State University: “Why girls participate less in science, engineering and mathematics
  14. UK Parliament Science & Technology: “Gender perceptions in STEM careers” (quoted above)
  15. Not all men: How discussion women’s issues gets derailed” – Phil Plait explains why “not all men!” isn’t useful, just in case what women say doesn’t get through
  16. As bad as each other – men’s sexism, women’s sexism” – different groups, same actions, different outcomes – history, social context.

Added later:
- “When Words Fail: Women, Science, and Women-In-Science” – Jacquelyn Gill
- “Pushing Women and People of Colour Out of Science Before We Go In” – Jennifer Selvidge, Huffington Post
- “Why is the media so obsessed with female scientists’ appearance?” – Guardian
- “Universities are urged to tackle gender segregation on courses” – Scottish Herald
- “Women in science: A temporary liberation” – Nature Comment
- “35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism” – xojane
- “The Gender Equation: Women and Science” – Diamond Light Source

More on this

- “Battling Sexism” – I write about sexist stuff reasonably frequently.
- “The Silent Misogyny” – another of mine with similar points to this post, but it jumps around more.
- “What next? Gendered science toys” – a tale of complaint success and a small victory against gendered marketing
- “Prejudice itself isn’t the only problem” – on accepting the status quo before mending it

Not just women

As is the case with any form of discrimination, it is not unconnected to others, and it is not just women who suffer in academia (and workplaces generally).

People having or belonging to minorities; race, sexuality, physical and/or mental illness/disability – also face adversity in these fields and in life more widely. So it is worth expanding these principles to them, drawing on their own specific challenges, and being mindful of the shared and distinct difficulties.

- BBC: “Fewer university offers for minority groups
- Overcast.fm Gender & Race Swap Online (Podcast)
- “Why reverse racism isn’t real” – see also “reverse sexism”
- “Colorblind ideology is a form of racism” – see also genderblind/sexism.

Prejudice itself isn’t the only problem

I’d say it’s more often about getting people to admit to it.

I actually don’t think “more people admit to racism” is necessarily a problem. In fact, in a way, I’d say that’s a good thing. Bear with me.

Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” may be comedic but it’s true. Power/context/history important – it’s a song though, not an essay.

Everyone internalises prejudice, it’s impossible not to when growing up in a society that has inequality. We’re all sexist because of the messages that objectify and diminish women and this being true through history. We’re all racist because of messages that other and categorise certain races, and the history of it.

So what is the real problem? It’s people who are deluded and think they are not part of it. We all are. By not calling things out we are complicit. By parroting things we know to be wrong and/or reductive and offensive, we are making sure those problems continue.

We can do better, if we want to. Sure, if someone says (or more likely, thinks) “I’m racist/xenophobic because I hate everyone who doesn’t look like me!” then that needs to be addressed too. But a basic “Would you say you are at all prejudiced?” type question does not distinguish real hatred from an acknowledgment that we are flawed in our thinking and behaviour sometimes.

I accept that I haven’t looked too deeply into the questions being asked so I might be wrong about the degree of specificity, but I’ll go with that for the sake of argument. Perhaps it just reflects that more people are aware of what constitutes racism – which certainly would be a good thing; issues can only be tackled once they have been identified and defined.

What matters is:

a) accepting that inequality exists
b) accepting that means that people who are white/straight/male etc. have certain advantages and avoid disadvantages from day 1 that others have to deal with their whole lives
c) because of our culture influencing us, we all harbour prejudices
d) we have to constantly work at educating ourselves and do more to tackle inequality.

Simply acknowledging prejudice is arguably better than insisting it’s not there. “I’m not racist/sexist but [something racist/sexist]” – better to think, yes, sometimes I’m influenced to think negative things about people for no justifiable reason. But I work hard to realise and address when I do that, because no one deserves to be disadvantaged on the basis of something they cannot change. And I can change my behaviour to make my interactions and influences better.

Perhaps that’s an optimistic view but I’ll stick with it. In addition, there have been other angles that say racism has decreased recently.

It might be more enlightening to talk to the people who are affected – the best way to learn about how actions affect people, unintentional as those actions may be, is to listen to the people on the receiving end. Feminism is increasingly, and rightly, criticised for its white-central approaches, and while all too easy to take accusations personally, every privileged group has to remember it’s not about them, as individuals.

Of course, when discussing any kind of discrimination, there are similar and related issues to consider. Much like the list of ‘progress’ I scribbled down above, this is found in one of my favourite articles of late, “Not all men: a brief history of every dude’s favourite argument“:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

So, let’s not pretend we’re all perfect and immune to the very air we breathe – let’s just concentrate on what we do about it.

Related

Death to “Banter”

Just a quick rant about one of my least favourite words today.

In the last few years, “banter” has become an increasingly common excuse people trot out when they’re talking offensive crap and want to be let off the hook “because it’s just bants”.

Another meme that really needs to die on its arse ASAP

The claim tends to be that it describes “joking around with friends”, teasing people and such like, and indeed if it were restricted to groups of like-(small)minded people maybe it’d be fine. But in my experience it seems to mean something else entirely. Namely, while addressing people you do not know, “I want to be a dick here, leave me to it”. Why would someone request that, though?

Traditionally, when people say horrible things, we can remain silent, laugh along, or challenge them. More recently, these challenges tend to be met with calm down, love, it’s banter. This is just the latest iteration of a long-standing silencing tactic; your feelings on this matter are unimportant, my right to speak without consequence takes precedent, you are overreacting and should be quiet.

People like to say “no subject is off-limits in comedy” and the get a sense of humour line is itself quite funny. If you seriously think that parroting some of the oldest, most pervasive forms of discrimination found in our cultures (whether it’s sexism, racism, homophobia or whatever) is in any way edgy or indeed at all funny, it is you who is lacking a sense of humour. These “jokes” are not innovative or clever, they are as old-hat as they come.

“Banter” is simply a get-out-clause people use to protect their “right” to offend, remain ignorant, dismiss others and uphold the status quo that benefits them. Lol none of these things affect me, so I can joke about these issues that I’ve never thought for 5 seconds about and make fun of you chumps who have to deal with it! Get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich #bants

It’s truly pathetic that people think they can hide their sense of entitlement and desperation to fit in under one such revealing word.

So, next time you hear someone say it and they’re not just taking the piss out of this idea (if my favourite facebook group hadn’t been closed I could show you a truly comedic example of the supposedly humourless feminists, punning away on banter like masters; murder on the bantz floor, the unbearable bantness of being, Das Bant… you had to be there) do tell them to shut their stupid mouths and grow up.

I’m glad when I was at university the word hadn’t really taken hold yet – I wouldn’t go back to that culture if you paid me anyway (despite rather enjoying the course) but it would’ve been even worse if all the binge-drinking, cock-waving, bank-of-mum-and-dad-money-burning children had been throwing that wannabe excuse for their behaviour around as well.

For example

Another thing I’m glad I’m not involved in at all: football. I tried, I did. So many people talk about it so much of the time, it’s impossible to live life without having some unwanted info thrust into your awareness. But lots of us just do not care. One of the reasons I was never able to enjoy it is that it’s institutionally sexist.

A prominent example of this is the current coverage of the Premier League chief exec Richard Scudamore’s emails, and Musa says it best:

When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Indeed, LADS, why be satisfied with leading so basic and immature an existence? If the essence of that defence doesn’t offend you somewhat, well, it’s a bit of a chicken/egg concept – how much of that attitude comes from our surroundings? Can we counter it?

A mole in a group called Football weekly extraaaaaaa sent me a screenshot of a discussion – here are my picks of the TOP BANTZ. Burn it with fire.

scudamorebantstwats

Please do add your own examples of the Banter Fallacy and how irritating you find it below.

Edit: related

  • Tom Chivers hates banter, too.
  • Women have had enough – the misogynistic murders and defending sexism
  • Steve Coogan, 2011 – on the Top Gear ‘lads’ and their misdirected attempts at humour
  • On the Ethics of Teasing and Mocking People, in Groups, in Friendships, and in Debates and Satire – Camels with Hammers
  • Independent: Grace Dent on TV: Dapper Laughs is unpleasant sexism dressed up as ‘banter’

Women who eat on tubes make menz cry

This post is to serve a few purposes: a love letter to my former favourite Facebook group - now sadly gone, a plea to fellow Londoners to take a (possibly literal) stand on this issue, and perhaps a bit of a general education to a few people, but I won’t make that objective #1 and I want to keep this short enough that people will read to the end.

I want to describe a phenomenon that’s had a bit of press attention lately, why it’s horrible, what could/should be done about it, and hopefully end on a funny.

Tl;dr: if you find yourself defending people who photograph and ridicule women without their knowledge, stop it. And then tell other people who are to shut up.

What is “women who eat on tubes”?

WWEOT (henceforth) is a creepy project set up by a man called Tony Burke that documents instances of him – and now many others – “catching” women eating something on a tube train in London. It’s creepy because the object of this “game” is to capture the moment without her sussing the photographer out. He started this on his personal facebook page in 2011 but this year the public group and Tumblr have seen a surge in popularity.

The “artists”, as they’ve decided to call themselves, then post these photos to a Facebook group (which I’m not going to link to) with a little description of her – including which train she was on and what time the photo was taken. All without her permission, and without her knowledge – unless someone later alerts her to her image being in public.

Is Burke seriously comparing women to wildlife, and saying every commuter should become a David Attenborough, examining the ‘Female Creature’…?

Yes, he is, because he’s that kind of guy. From what we can see of him online, he comes across as very disturbing. Originally in interviews he insisted the women part was “random”, but if we view his photos, we actually find that he thinks he does nothing annoying on trains ever, and to him it’s always women committing this heinous crime of appetite, which he finds irritating. His friends chip in with fat-shaming, sexual comments and so on. I have documented some of these in this album.

Yet 3 years later he's still going and has even taken to the radio to defend it. As "art".

Yet 3 years later he’s still going and has even taken to the radio to defend it. As “art”.

His film company, called “deadbird” (yeah) have made some telling stuff. He posted with sarcastic sadness about his “sexist films” not being watched on WWEOT (I no longer have access to this due to our group’s removal – see below – and WWEOT being a membership-only-on-request group). He is friends from school or work with many of his fellow WWEOT “artists”, or “digital peeping toms“, more appropriately.

Transport for London has even sent out a statement saying that anyone who feels ‘threatened’ by the pictures should contact British Transport Police.

Some people are genuinely upset by this and feel they now need to modify their behaviour to avoid being treated this way. Surely this is Burke’s goal – to stop women who “irritate” him, to hold and exercise that power. And his friends support it.

What’s your problem?

The comments on WWEOT’s photos tend to be belittling, shaming, and/or of a sexual nature. It’s fair to call it bullying. A more common term, perhaps, is “stranger-shaming“; one of those internet by-products we’re still working out. The most disturbing just now is probably r/creepshots.

It’s natural for us to watch people, to make snap judgments, to have fun with it. But to take that moment in time, capture it and then share it with the world online is a step beyond that can cause real harm.

“I also felt hurt and humiliated – especially by the comments mentioning my “gaping orifice” or sarcastically pondering, “I’d like to know the name of her finishing school.” I was the butt of a joke without my knowledge, in front of thousands of strangers.” – Sophie Wilkinson

There are a lot of “defences” people are now using to justify their membership of, posting in, administrating or general ambivalence towards WWEOT. It’s not art. I don’t really want to go through every single one, suffice to say most of them are standard “arguments” one finds on any bingo card for a discussion of sexism (or any type of oppression, really). For example:

It’s also not about free speech (or freezepeach as we’re now prone to calling it, given the frequency of this parroted argument) – no, I will not defend to the death your right to be a creep, ignore the necessity of consent and mock people openly against their will. Because that ‘right’ does not exist. This is free speech – people scrutinising and criticising what you say, in the hope that you will more carefully consider the results and the lives of others.

Yes, there are worse things that happen on public transport and no, it’s not illegal – but if your only barometer for good behaviour is “not illegal!”, is that not worrying? It was legal to rape your wife until 1991, for example. Women on trains just want to be left alone – why is it so hard for people to respect this?

[Edit: Telegraph pop-psychologist confirms this kind of behaviour should be cause for concern for friends; suggest they get help before they do end up committing actual crimes; a very real possibility]

Right of reply

In response to this growing popularity, as WWEOT approached 20,000 members on facebook, a journalist named Mimi Kempton-Stewart started a group called Men Who Post On ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’ (MWPOWWEOT for short). Another protest group, “Women who eat wherever the fuck they want” also sprang into existence.

MWPOWWEOT

The front page before it disappeared; quotation at the top from a visitor

 

The aim of MWPOWWEOT was simple. Pick a guy who’s posted some “art” in WWEOT, have a look at his profile, and post one of his publicly-available photos on the group’s wall with a little description of how good an artist he clearly is.

I loved this group dearly. I made quite a few friends. We all learned from each other. Maybe we taught some silly boys a little bit about the world (optimism there). It was a safe space for feminist rage, where the people who were made to shut up were, for once, the harassers and creeps and not us – our anger was the visible thing, and their stupidity shone through in their impotent insults. I will miss it.

MWPOWWEOT, as of 8th May, has been closed by facebook due to a report made by a member of WWEOT about an apparent “credible threat of violence” (which is undoubtedly a lie) and facebook has conceded, deciding that MWPOWWEOT was against “community standards”. This is also questionable, and a read of the terms of service would suggest that WWEOT actually goes against clauses 3.6 and 3.7, with the complaint also breaching clause 4. We might resurrect the group in another form soon.

But aren’t you just as bad?

You know what? No. There’s good evidence that lifting the mask of anonymity, removing the shield of unaccountability and pointing the finger of ridicule are good ways to address anti-social and hurtful behaviours. Accosted by a flasher? Point and laugh. Their goal is humiliation, exerting power and control over their target, and taking the piss undermines them. This woman has nailed it – and with art, no less. This guy got his own back on a train.

So, taking images that these creepers have publicly uploaded of their own volition and turning them into a joke is the same or worse? No, taking someone’s image without their knowledge or consent and mocking it surely is not. It’s a similar tactic deliberately. If they’re hurt by it, should they not then realise why people are protesting their actions to begin with? If you really think calling out bullies is as bad as being the bully in the first placeI’m not sure where to go from there.

There are other stranger-shaming sites that I don’t like. People often say “but Tubecrush!” – where people take pictures of cute men on trains and upload them. It’s not, however, derogatory or indeed shaming at all. It doesn’t perpetuate negative ideas about men. It does encourage participants to speak to their subject and obtain consent for the photo. It doesn’t suggest male behaviour should be altered. One that does is “men who take up too much space on trains” – a problem many of us are no doubt familiar with.

I’d rather see these also disappear or at least be anonymised. However, pretending there is no difference between pictures of men and women in public is willful ignorance. If men did not want these groups to exist, they wouldn’t. They don’t care because it genuinely does not affect them. They have the luxury of it genuinely meaning nothing.

To understand the effects of actions on already-disadvantaged groups, you have to first accept the disadvantage exists. Then you have to consider the action in that context. Women face all kinds of judgement and discrimination throughout their lives, not least diet and weight policing. Women’s bodies are made public property in a way that men’s are not, and WWEOT underlines that. Eating disorders are far more common in women.

The same type of action has different effects on different people, depending on where they start in society – to borrow an analogy from a chat with a friend, think of hit points. The more you have, the less the same kind of attack actually hurts. Start of with less, harm is greater and more frequent.

Some people are fond of pretending that things are “just as bad” for the Straight White Man, but they are deluded.  Here’s a succinct comedic expression of that.

safetytipsformen

This train will terminate at the next station

It’s important for people expressing divisive sentiments and acting in discriminatory ways to be called out. If we don’t question and criticise them, their views are validated. This is why the calls for people not to laugh along to, but call out, things like rape jokes are increasing. The kinds of people who think misogyny, racism, homophobia etc. are funny are likely harbouring real unsavoury views. By laughing instead of challenging, you make them think this is normal and acceptable.

A pertinent example is Jeremy Clarkson. Again given a free pass despite clearly being an odious man, because he’s a famous dude who makes people money. People in a less privileged position than him would not be given the same leeway for being nearly as offensive.

“Lighten up and take a joke/get a sense of humour” should not be an acceptable smoke screen for this kind of behaviour. I’ve discussed before how actual decent comedy punches up, not down. Tony Burke is clearly a disturbing individual, as I went over at the start. His irritation at women living live means he can shame them for doing so. Because art. Makes sense – but it’s seriously worrying. People run with it, “If you don’t want to be photographed eating on the train, don’t eat on the train” – classic victim blaming.

Don’t want to be assaulted? Don’t wear that dress then. Don’t want to be taken advantage of? Don’t get so drunk. Women’s behaviour is policed in so many arenas and here’s yet another one. I’m not going to stand for it. Please join me.

Next stop: humanity

What can we do about any of this? Friend-of-a-friend who had a horrible experience sums up:

I don’t want taking pictures in public spaces to become illegal, I just want people to be nice and respectful. And I don’t think this is too much to ask.

Sadly, many members of WWEOT seem to think it is too much, and that, to me, is a red flag. People who think a request of respect is just too great a demand, who do not understand the concept and importance of consent and the sinister nature of watching women Big Brother style – I highly doubt covert photography would be the end of their transgressions against decency. To put it lightly.

if it was called “black people laughing on the bus” there’d be a national outcry and the creators would be dragged around town so we could all throw rotten tomatoes at them.

Indeed I expect we might see similar with “gays being all queer on the street”.

There’s so much more to say on this but I must wrap it up – please do add your thoughts and links in the comments.

I win the internet

Hilariously, last week a male member of WWEOT came to MWPOWWEOT to tell everyone how he thought I was one of the worst people on the entire internet because of the anger and rudeness I express in my comments in the group. Full comment here.

Lots of people found this as funny as I did and a friend has made me a special Interwebz Award (you can submit your own nominations – click on the image to visit the blog!).

If I can annoy creepers that much with my comments (that aren’t even in their own group, I’ll add), then I figure I’m probably doing something right. Cheers, everyone, and if you see a guy with his camera phone staring at a woman having a snack, do join me in pointing him out to the whole carriage.

JustinAward

 

Links

  • TechDigest: James O’Malley covers the group’s closure today, comments from me and Mimi within and comments from WWEOT fans underneath.
  • Imgur album of mole-shots from WWEOT.
  • Imgur album demonstrating some comments on Tony’s original album and an album of some of the visitors we had in MWPOWWEOT
  • MWPOWWEOT has relocated to GooglePlus for now. Click through to see new examples of creepiness.
  • “But women are in WWEOT as well!” Internalised sexism, google it. And read Sarah Ditum.
  • Daily Beast: Tauriq Moosa also covered the creepy stalker-like WWEOT haven
  • Telegraph: The creeps shot TWitter trend: how creeps just got creepier
  • Independent covers the protest picnic of April 14th, which I sadly couldn’t make
  • Straight White Male – the lowest difficulty setting there is” – a nerd-friendly explanation of the idea of “privilege”
  • New Satesman: Why do misogynists deserve the “privacy” the women they abuse are denied?

University adversity – advertising rape

Dear readers, sometimes I feel like apologising that I spend a lot of time in posts on “feminist issues”. But I shouldn’t, so I won’t. I don’t write about this because it’s the only thing I care about, or because it’s particularly interesting – I do it because it’s annoying and it affects too many people I care about, and me, too. Content warning discussion of rape etc.

I’d love to spend more time on other things, but until people realise, accept and get equally angry that sexism and misogyny are everywhere, it’s not going to get better and everything else that’s interesting tends to get polluted with ridiculous-to-dangerous sexist attitudes and actions. So don’t be angry at me, be angry at everything you see that fits the bill – like this example:

Come to our party, find a vulnerable girl!

Kent Students’ Union poster advertising “Party in the Car Park” – apparently withdrawn

For some background: I grew up in Canterbury. I was there at the weekend. I spent a lot of time on the University of Kent campus as I was in a relationship with someone who went to study there when I was at school, and I did some work experience and courses there myself.  So I’ve a certain affection for it, and I know some other alumni who are equally upset by this.

The University of Kent’s official student union, Kent Union, thought this poster was appropriate to advertise an upcoming student event. It’s not – here’s why, here’s what they’ve said, and here’s what I’m doing (and what you could do).

Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Before we get into the other problems this poster presents, let’s start with the fact that they used this image of a student without her permission. She’s drunk outside the campus club, once called The Venue (but perhaps not these days, I don’t know), if I’m recognising it correctly.

On to the other problems.

This poster is advertising a party outside with the tagline that people (the image suggests female students) will be losing their friends and left alone. Yes, it is common to wander around looking for people while out at a busy venue. But that is not recommended, it’s not fun, so why use it? Well, maybe it’s fun for other students who find these lost, drunk people on their own. Why might that be fun? Why are we told to stay with people we trust while we’re out and incapacitated to some degree?

Because there are horrible people around who do not respect the idea of consent. They believe they are entitled to things, things like other people’s bodies, and to use them as they please without their permission. These ideas are reinforced by a lot of media and culture around us, and it’s dangerous. Teaching people they can take what they want without regard for the happiness, safety and wellbeing of others is what creates rapists. People might not think that’s what they are, if they offer to take a drunk stranger home, then go to her room and do things she hasn’t agreed to. She was at the party, alone, she wore that short dress, she didn’t fight me, so it’s fine, right? WRONG.

Why is this such a problem? University students are as young as 17/18. At school, these messages are also received loud and clear. At university, they are reinforced. This problem is not exclusive to Kent University, it is endemic in higher education. That is something that should worry everyone, and something we need to work to counter.

We know that sexual assault is rife at universities, and the majority of cases aren’t reported to universities or the police – for the same reasons rape and sexual assault is generally underreported (women aren’t believed; their behaviours are questioned; they are victimised further by the legal process; by family, friends and strangers; the conviction rate is low; they fear their situation will worsen) and more. You can find out how many people admit to rape and roughly how many victims there are, so long as you rephrase the “rape” part – people seriously don’t realise that it means forced sex. And they don’t realise that “force” is quite broad, or that “coersion” comes into it.

This is the same in the US, where studies show that not only do men admit to rape in colleges, those who do it do it repeatedly. Rapists think it’s normal – they think everyone does it, because it’s their entitlement. People around them must speak up – jokes are not harmless. Challenge, or no one ever learns, and more victims are created, and kept silent, carrying these experiences with them forever.

Existing evidence and guidelines

We already know this is a problem; the NUS knows it, and universities should know it. In 2010 the NUS released the “Hidden Marks” report, detailing the negative experiences of female students in UK universities with regard to sexual assault and harassment. Some exerpts (emphasis mine):

“The picture that we have revealed is disturbing. 14 per cent have experienced serious physical or sexual assault. 68 per cent have been subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Nearly one in four has experienced unwanted sexual contact… violence against women is widespread, serious, and is hampering women’s ability to learn.

Institutions, students’ unions and students have a pressing responsibility to take immediate action to tackle the problem… adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to harassment and violence.

… Respondents reported a range of different consequences of violence, stalking and sexual assault to their health, learning, confidence and relationships, with the most common consequence being deterioration of mental health.”

The NUS and University of Sussex has reported on the effects of lad culture on student experiences. They recommend the following:

“… the student movement must take action to combat the emergence of ‘lad culture’ in higher education and the negative impacts this is having on students. This is not something that NUS can accomplish alone. We will need to work with partners inside and outside the student movement to determine how best to respond to this culture that is at odds with our values and is damaging to our students. We know that this cannot be achieved overnight, and it will require a nuanced and thoughtful response…

We will work towards… creating a safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses”

I hope they can work with Kent Union specifically given this evidence. On to what the union have said in response so far.

Owning up

Kent Union have responded to people’s complaints with this nonpology:

“We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended by one of the posters we have designed to promote this year’s Party in the Car Park. It was never our intention for the poster and its message to be interpreted in this way.

The concept behind our marketing of the event is to use real photographs taken last year combined with factual statements provided by students.

We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.

Sorry once again,

Kent Union”


What is the purpose of an apology, and does this statement achieve any of the aims it should have had?

1) Admit fault. If you’re apologising for something, you have to recognise that the thing you did was wrong/negative/hurtful in some way. You should address that in your apology. The statement above makes no indication that they concede the poster is problematic in any way, that it encourages/endorses sexual violence (or at least uses the prospect of it as a positive reason for people to attend their event) or is otherwise damaging.

They do not apologise for using the image without consent (perhaps unsurprising, given the context). They pass the blame on to the observers. “for… its message to be interpreted in this way.” – it’s not about interpretation! People seeing this have informed them quite clearly about what it obviously means. What possible positives are there to drunk women losing their friends at a party?! Grow up, own up, apologise properly.

2) Apologise for your mistake and the hurt caused. “We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended” is not an apology. “Sorry you’re offended” isn’t saying sorry, it is, again, passing the blame on to you for having those silly feelings.

Also, you haven’t just offended students here, you’ve actively promoted the idea that taking advantage of people is ok – you’ve put students in danger. A range of people besides current students are unhappy about this. It’s not just about the university environment – people leave university and go on to jobs and the rest of their lives. Moulding people into inconsiderate abusers at university has a ripple effect and you have a responsibility to counter this.

3) Commit to rectifying the situation. Saying sorry isn’t enough – you have to do something positive to make amends, if you actually want the situation to get better. “We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. ” A good start. What are the other posters like? I’ve asked if any current students have seen others – do post below if so.

Another good thing would be to create a poster that explains consent to people. There are great sex educators around, like Bish whom I’ve just linked, who could help with this. There are also detailed recommendations in the NUS Hidden Marks report, linked above (pp. 30-33). Includes: “Use educational initiatives to challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes” and “Create a campus environment in which students feel safe“.

4) Commit to doing better in future. If you apologise without any indication of hoping to improve and prevent further harm from your actions, it’s pretty empty. “In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.” – commit to researching the problem of sexual violence in universities, and how marketing actually affects people. Discipline the person/people who designed this in the first place. Make it clear that they will be educated. That everyone in the Union knows this is unacceptable.


 

University reponsibilities

As detailed in the reports linked above, it has been recommended by the NUS that university institutions, unions and students work together on these issues. Given UoK seems to pride itself on its environment:

“Canterbury is consistently rated as one of the safest university cities in England and Wales.”

One would think that they would be concerned by this clear tarnishing of their student life image. Sadly not:

It’s also made clear on the UoK Staying safe page that being around trusted friends is an important aspect of personal safety (emphasis theirs):

Best way to stay safe at night is to stick with your friends.

So, they could at least acknowledge that the union’s promotion was contradicting several guidelines, and that they will (and hopefully already do) monitor their activities and provide guidance to the union. If this is not standard practice in any UK university, why not, and how will the NUS’ guidelines be enforced if they refuse to interact on these important issues?

I’m writing to the Kent Union to link them to this information. Please feel free to use anything presented here if you wish to contact them, too. The more people who do so, hopefully, the fewer people will think this kind of thing is acceptable and harmless.

Edit: a friend points to Kent Union’s constitution (emphasis mine):

“The constitution has to be approved by the University so we can function as a Students’ Union.”

“Section D: Under the Education Act 1994, The University of Kent has a statutory duty to ensure that the Union operates in a fair and democratic manner and is held to proper account for its finances. The Union therefore works alongside The University of Kent in ensuring the affairs of the Union are properly conducted and that the educational and welfare needs of the Union’s Members are met.”

It is also clear that Kent Union receives the bulk of its revenue in the form of grants from the University of Kent:

“As a charity Kent Union receives grants from the University of Kent, income under contracts for the provision of charitable services, membership contributions and income from trading activity closely associated with its charitable purposes. Incoming resources are accounted for in the period in which the service is provided.”

It might be advisable to involve the Charity Commission if the university remain apparently unwilling to appropriately regulate the behaviour of the union.

This is not a problem exclusive to the University of Kent. I’d like to see them do better, and I think they can. They could be an example for other UK universities, and institutions worldwide, if they chose to tackle this with the determination and transparency that it deserves.

As the NUS said, it’s not just their responsibility. It could affect you, too. Maybe it already has. Maybe you have or will have children who are students. Not that we need to be directly affected by things to be decent people who stand up for our fellow human beings (hopefully). We all live in this society with other people, and a lot of them go through university, so let’s work to make it better, shall we?


 

Links

Lots of depressing sexist things are coming up today. Here’s a few of them (and this happens pretty much every day, just to show the scale of the problem a little) and other links:

  • UoK and Kent Union have already been criticised by local media: Medwire, Kent Online (well done Bethany Taylor, women’s campaign officer, for voicing concerns)
  • The NUS have spoken about student feminism and sexual harassment – I hope they will engage with this instance too.
  • I have Storified both some of the responses to the poster and its removal here, as well as pro-feminist NUS tweets.
  • Our government’s cuts are disproportionately negatively affecting women, and as this piece shows, victims of domestic violence. Thanks, Cleggeron.
  • Crisis Pregnancy Centres, who hate and lie to women about abortion, are still open for some reason.
  • Gendered toys are becoming more and more common, but feeble “girl monkeys like pink things and boy monkeys like blue” arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny (New Scientist)
  • Tech website thinks it’s the online tech-focused version of Maxim. And we wonder why there aren’t as many talented women in tech as there really could be? (Sweary post).
  • Everydaysexism‘s book is out soon, and today an exerpt is available, which details some of the shocking experience of school-age girls in the UK.
  • A good post on how people misunderstand rape culture
  • Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.
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