Tuesday 3 June 2014

Now We Are 28: On Feminism and Being Angry

Less than two weeks ago a man who hated women killed six people. Every single day since then I have seen a man on the internet telling people (normally women) that misogyny doesn't exist. Every. Single. Day.

Three weeks ago I went to a work conference and spent an evening explaining to a bunch of otherwise lovely and very clever people why feminism is important and relevant in the 21st Century.

I would love for the battle to achieve equal rights for women to be over, I really would. When I was a child I read about the suffragettes, women's battles for the vote and the fight for equal pay and I really thought that the war had been won, that women were considered equal. Then I grew up. 

In school, the girls were always judged on their appearance - I was considered "ugly" so I always came in for particularly nasty bullying both in school and out. As I got older my friends and I considered it par for the course that we would get felt up without our consent in pubs and clubs. When I waitressed the chefs physically and verbally harassed every woman who came into the kitchen. A senior male colleague once thought it appropriate to complain to my manager about my "very short" skirt (it was knee-length) and told me that laughing at things was inappropriate because I sounded like a giggling schoolgirl. The (male) sales assistant who sold me my new, painstakingly chosen bike spent all his time talking to my boyfriend. The other week a man cycled behind me for over a mile so he could look at my bum. And, like virtually every woman I know, I've been shouted at in the street by random men more times than I can count. 

You know what the worst thing about that list is? That I feel lucky to have got off so lightly. That I am extremely privileged to experience society as a middle-class, thin, able-bodied straight, cis, white woman and thus will never have to endure the hardships that many women face just trying to exist as equal members of society. Most women will endure far worse verbal, physical or sexual abuse than I have ever encountered and this will be accepted by the world. Their experiences will be dismissed or ignored or never even shared. And when a man kills a woman it will be considered an "isolated incident" or the work of a "lone madman" rather than the product of a society which is profoundly unequal. 

I am so angry. I get more angry every day as I see women's concerns about ingrained sexism, rape culture and violence against women being dismissed and belittled. I'm angry that young women today grow up in a world where their right to equality is less understood than it was twenty years ago. I'm angry that women continue to be defined by whether or not they've popped out a baby but at the same time they're likely to get discriminated against because of it. I'm angry that young men continue to be taught that expressing their emotions is weakness and that hurting others is strength.

I have no idea how we fix this. I grew up believing that women were equal because they'd fought and won so many battles. Now I struggle to believe that genuine equality will be achieved in my lifetime. So yes, feminism matters. 

Saturday 22 March 2014

Now We Are 28: On Beauty and Bravery

This week on the internet women taking pictures of themselves without makeup on has been a bit of a thing. It's supposedly in aid of cancer awareness and the associated donations have raised more than £2 million for Cancer Research UK. Millions of pounds in under a week from one-off donations and goodness knows how much more over the long term from people deciding to commit to regular donations to combat a disease which kills people indiscriminately and whose cure often leaves people maimed and forever changed is pretty incredible. So surely an internet campaign that not only raises awareness of cancer but also funding for research into a cure for cancer is good, right?

Apparently not... I've seen a significant amount of criticism of the campaign for various reasons: people taking photographs without donating, which to a certain extent is fair enough, although given the outcome I can't see how this is a legitimate complaint; and the word "brave" being applied to both bare-faced women and cancer sufferers. Taking a photograph of yourself without cosmetic enhancement is seen somehow as a fluffy, ethereal thing and not worthy of sharing an adjective with people suffering from a life-threatening disease. Whilst I agree that taking a photograph and fighting cancer are clearly not the same thing I really object to the belittlement of people making a genuine gesture for a cause they believe in - particularly in light of the outcome. 

The undertone to a lot of the criticism I've seen is also extremely patronising - silly little girls thinking they are brave for putting a photograph of their naked face on the internet, they obviously don't understand what it means to be really brave. However, for a huge number of women in our hyper-sexualised, image obsessed society, going without makeup or appearing in any way less than "perfect" is a genuinely courageous thing to do. Standing up and saying "here I am, with all my flaws and imperfections naked to the world" is a very hard thing for women to do because we are told constantly that being ourselves is just not good enough. As women we are constantly told we need to be thinner, curvier, prettier, fitter, quieter, happier, sexier, more natural, less demanding, more demanding and so on, ad infinitum. To challenge that in any way, however minor, is an act of defiance. It doesn't make cancer sufferers any less brave, it simply demonstrates a willingness to challenge yourself in support of a greater cause.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Now We Are 28: On Nationalism

I'm not a big fan of rampant nationalism or of nationalist politics. The Nigel Farages and Alex Salmonds of this world, with their clarion cries about the greatness of the nation-state, leave me cold. Nationalism values people because of where they come from rather than who they are or who they might become which is pretty much anathema to everything I believe in.

You see, in the words of Scroobius Pip, I'm from a little place called Great Britain but I don't know if I love or hate Britain. There are lots of things that make being British wonderful - incredible landscapes; the national obsession with tea; the amazing diversity of our language and culture; the prevalence of social liberalism; our rich sweep of history; and Doctor Who to name but a few. But then there are lots of things that make Britain absolutely awful - our political system; ingrained sexism; casual racism; the M6; the bloody weather; the ability of the England cricket team to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; flags on cars during football tournaments; the Daily Mail; the EDL... You get the idea. There are days I love living in the UK and days I loathe it but I'd never really say I'm proud of being British. How can you be proud of something that's an accident of fate? It's like saying I'm proud of having green eyes - I had absolutely no say in the matter!

People are though, aren't they? Proud of their little strip of land, of their English (or Welsh or Scottish or Irish) descent and scathing about anyone who isn't from these shores. Given that the UK is essentially an island of incomers this always seems to me a rather hypocritical position to take but whatever. I don't get it, how does love for one's country become hatred for other countries and other people? Surely you can have affection for the place you were born or where you live without using your nationality as a weapon to oppress others? And if your strip of land is that great why don't you want to share it with people and attract people from all over the world who can add to it's greatness? After all, this island would be pretty empty if it weren't for immigrants...

Monday 3 March 2014

Now We Are 28: On Writer's Block

I'm really struggling with blogging at the moment and I have been for a while. The reason I started this "Now We Are 28" thread was as a way of getting back into writing, something I have always loved doing, but I've struggled so much more than I thought I would. I either have nothing to say or no confidence in what I'm writing which is weird considering I never bloody shut up and consider writing one of my core skills. 

So why am I feeling like this? For a start I'm definitely out of the habit of writing anything. I used to spend a lot of time writing both personally and professionally - I did a history degree for goodness sake, if I wasn't reading some mouldy old tome I was writing about why I agreed or disagreed with the author of said mouldy old tome. I was also a very angsty teenager (and twenty-something) with a penchant for keeping diaries chronicling my dating disasters and emotional dilemmas. Nowadays I have a job that seldom requires me to write anything original and virtually zero emotional angst. Does that mean I have nothing to say? Well obviously not, as anyone who's ever got me drunk and asked me about politics or feminism or The Smiths or people's attitudes to cyclists (and so on) will attest. Do I write this stuff down? Not really. Why not? Um... 

Often I have my best thoughts when I'm out walking the dog or cycling to work and so when I come to try and write them down my ideas seem to vanish like smoke. I'm not writing to any purpose, I don't have any particular desire to have my blog read by thousands of people or to become a Guardian columnist. I just want to occasionally empty my head of the thoughts which buzz around in there. So why do I struggle to commit words to (virtual) paper so much? Partly I think because I'm my own worst critic - I have about ten half written posts for this blog that I've dismissed as too boring, too personal or too ranty. These days everyone writes and there's always a little voice at the back of my mind that asks "what's the point? What have you got to add?" 

I don't know the answer to that question. But maybe I don't have to add anything, maybe I can just write for my own reasons. I've never known how to silence that voice in my head that tells me I'm not good enough but maybe it's time to learn how.

Monday 9 December 2013

Now We Are 28: The Day Job

I was never the sort of person who had their career planned out - my standard line to careers advisors and my parents was that I wanted to be a barrister but, when faced with the reality of what exactly that entailed, I soon realised it wasn't the career for me. To be completely honest until I was 21 I'd never really thought past graduating from university and it took me a while to work out what I was going to do for, if not the rest of my life, at least the foreseeable future.

Like most people I almost fell into my career by accident but once I started working in Higher Education it didn't take me long to work out that it was where I wanted to stay. I'm not a teacher or a researcher - that PhD application remains on my to-do list - but I've never been very good at talking about what I actually do for a living. Even the boy doesn't really understand my job and the standard response I get from people when I tell them my job title (Knowledge Exchange Officer) is "oh well that's a bit meaningless". It's no more meaningless than most job titles but people tend to get bored by explanations which take more than a couple of words...

Knowledge exchange is the term that's currently in vogue for the higher education "third mission" - essentially the huge amount of business engagement and economic development activity undertaken by UK universities. It covers a huge range of activity and so people who work in knowledge exchange tend to have a bewildering array of job titles - business development officers, research development managers, corporate partnership executives, the list goes on. Since I got involved in this area of higher education my day job has been anything but routine - in any given week I can be involved in planning or delivering an event, costing a research proposal, developing a relationship with an external organisation, writing marketing materials, undertaking market research, attending a conference, writing a policy briefing... Well you get the idea - my job is varied! 

There's a huge lack of understanding about how important universities are for this country - not just for the students they teach or the research they undertake but also for the contribution they make to the economy. The recent Witty Review clearly recognised, perhaps for the first time, the vital role universities play in economic growth. Universities provide employment true but they also provide support, mentoring and funding for thousands of small businesses each year. Major investments by large businesses in the UK are almost always as a result of a partnership with one or more universities - and they aren't always the ones you expect. Post-92 universities, the often sneered at ex-polytechnics, are just as vital to the UK's businesses as the Russell Group - when it comes to business engagement universities such as Coventry and Hertfordshire are up there with Oxford and Cambridge. 

The debate about UK higher education is too often framed in terms of student fees or world class research but there is far more to the story. Since 2001 successive governments have invested a relatively small amount of money (£150 million pounds per academic year) in pump-priming knowledge exchange activities through the Higher Education Innovation Fund. This funding has an estimated return on investment of £6 generated for every £1 spent. In addition, myself and thousands of other knowledge exchange professionals work hand-in-hand with our academic colleagues to ensure that the incredible knowledge base the UK's universities possess in both blue-sky and applied research is a resource that is accessible to the whole of the UK economy. 

When I graduated I had no idea what I was going to do with my life so no-one is more astounded than me that seven years later I actually seem to have a career. I've been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work in two amazing universities with some wonderful people and to make a difference, in some small way. I'm passionate not only about what I do but also about the value of the third mission in higher education. Whilst I don't expect everyone to share that enthusiasm, it is important to recognise the value of our country's diverse, vibrant and economically-engaged university sector. 

Sunday 10 November 2013

Now We Are 28: On Remembrance

Remembrance Day seems to be increasingly controversial - there's been lots of debate this year over the wearing of poppies and the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The wearing of poppies becomes more and more of a fraught issue every year - does their ubiquity take away their meaningfulness, should the BBC insist on people wearing them, is it hypocritical for politicians who have sent troops to war to wear them?

I have stood in the battlefields of Northern France, now so still and peaceful, bearing few signs of the slaughter that took place there nearly a century ago. As a fourteen-year old to stand in the Commonwealth War Graves was one of the most profound and sobering experiences of my life - particularly when I saw the grave of a boy my own age. That experience is why Remembrance Sunday is important to me - the first hand understanding I gained of all those who died so that I could be free is one of the most significant things I have ever learnt. It is why I buy a poppy and watch the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph whenever possible - not because I feel I have to but because, to me, it is important.

The First World War was a mess, a pointless war caused by rampant imperialism, but that does not mean we should ignore or make less of the sacrifices a generation of men and women made as part of that conflict. The Second World War was perhaps a more just war but I have always questioned whether, without the First World War, Hitler would have had either the motivation or the opportunity to rise to power in 1930s Germany. Rampant nationalism and the need to protect one's perceived interests at home or abroad have caused wars beyond counting throughout human history - the so-called "war to end all wars" was nothing of the sort. War is futile, it solves nothing and almost always promotes further conflict and instability.

Condemn war all you want but don't condemn those who remember, however they choose to do so. Wearing a poppy isn't just a visible symbol of commemoration but an opportunity to support a very worthwhile charity, The Royal British Legion. Equally, however, the wearing of a poppy should never be something that we compel - gestures of this kind ought to come from the heart not as part of a PR campaign. Wearing a poppy, observing a Remembrance Sunday silence or laying a wreath at a war memorial aren't acts that rejoice in war or of national pride - they are a reflection of shared grief, dulled but not lessened by the passage of time.

As the First World War and Second World Wars become history rather than memory it is more important than ever not only to remember but to understand these conflicts in the hope that one day we might move beyond military force and the death of countless human beings as a way of resolving our differences. The saying "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is as true today is it ever was.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields."

                                            John McCrae

Monday 30 September 2013

Now We Are 28: A Sense of Belonging

Last weekend marked the ten year anniversary of my first week at Durham University and thus it is also ten years since I left home for the first time. In the intervening decade I've lived in five different cities, six houses, seven flats, and packed my entire life into boxes at least 15 times. I still live more than 100 miles from my entire family, most of my friends and the town I grew up in.

Much in the same way as I love the feeling of travelling I love the possibilities of living somewhere new but I don't think I've ever felt I "belonged" somewhere as much as I did when I first moved to Durham. I was terrified when we first arrived of course, for some reason I spent most of the journey panicking that I would be ostracised for bringing too much stuff with me (I needn't have worried) and that I wouldn't make any friends (ditto). But within two weeks, once I'd survived fresher's flu and navigated a nightmarish train journey back to Wales, I felt more at home in Durham than I'd ever felt anywhere in my life. This wasn't an indictment on my much-loved family and friends, just a reflection on how much of a fish out of water I'd been. Leaving Durham three years later was one of the most difficult things I've ever done - and remains so, seven years of difficult decisions later.

By now, almost everyone I know is pretty settled - most people seem to pick a place and stay put, whether by birth or by choice. That happened pretty quickly with a lot of my friends - people dispersed to various locations once we left university and then seem to have remained there. People often look at me strangely when I talk about moving around the country or when I happily travel 100 miles for a night out with friends. It's odd because I don't consider myself particularly well travelled. The wanderlust is unintentional, I like to arrive at new places but I also like to leave - if you've ever met my dog Roscoe you'll know he is also very much of this persuasion! 

So, true to form the latest move - to Nottingham, a mere four months ago - was decided pretty much on the spur of the moment, I'd been offered a job and the boy had been made redundant so we thought we'd try a change of scenery. Unexpectedly it was a bigger adjustment than I'd been expecting, somehow I'd become settled whilst I wasn't looking. The job I left behind was one I loved and only left because it was made very clear to me that, however hard I worked and whatever additional responsibilities I took on, I'd never be able to earn a promotion. Actually leaving was heartbreaking but after months of frustration it was the only choice. Similarly, I cried the day we left our little house in Leamington - it may have been too small and possessed of an extremely irritating landlord but it was the boy and my first home together. For someone who claims to thrive on change all of this upheaval was harder to deal with than I remembered... 

I feel like I belong everywhere and nowhere all at once - home is where my boyfriend and my dog are, where my family are, where my friends are. I could be happy anywhere - a big city, a small town, the side of a mountain - which is a blessing in many ways. At the same time part of me wants to find a place where I can put down roots, knowing that I'm not going to have to pack my life into boxes and deconstruct all my bookcases yet again.  Is that part of getting older or will I still get the urge to gallivant around the country when I'm 60?