Following Sarah Everard’s murder, and public discussion about why male violence against women continues to be commonplace in our society, we hear from two members of the King’s community.
Roscoe Hastings is the School Manager, and equality, diversity and inclusion lead, of the School of Population Health & Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine at King’s.
The week beginning on the 8th of March was bookended by International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday. It should have been a week of celebrating women, shining a light on the injustices they face and reflecting on where we have come and where we still need to go in the fight for equality – particularly on how far we must go in addressing the systemic issues for trans women and women of colour. However, it was not the week that any of us anticipated.
It saw us mourning the death of Sarah Everard, another woman murdered after not being able to walk home safely at night; we watched a peaceful vigil (and some would say protest) against that murder being broken up by heavy-handed policing, and yet another woman’s experience of mental health and racism being vilified and questioned on national TV – this time Meghan Markle’s. As ever, sitting behind all these events has been yet more hatred, harassment and gaslighting on social media.
As I watched on horrified and ashamed of what I was witnessing, I was struck by two clear self-reflections. One was how easily I fell into the “I’m not part of the problem” mantra, seeing the problem as “other men”. Secondly, that my silence in not wanting to appear tokenistic in tweeting or speaking out about what I was seeing, or thinking that I should let women speak for themselves, is the problem. I, like many, have been saddened by the sheer scale of the stories that women have told in the last few weeks, of their lived experiences.
It is all too easy to think that our sector is liberal thinking, inclusive and a ‘bastion of progress’. We have seen a shift in the last two decades. We have seen a (slow) increase in the representation of women in the sector – more women vice-chancellors, more women professors; the establishment and success of Athena SWAN; the creation of Women’s networks on many of our campuses; and progress in addressing many antiquated policies and practices in relation to flexible working, probation, promotion and more. I do not want to make out that the job was by any means ‘done’, but there had been at least some progress. I was proud to work in a sector that held these issues as important and non-negotiable and was on a journey trying to deliver change. However, what we have seen over the past weeks has made me question where we are, and how we are challenging ourselves as a sector.
I currently have the privilege of leading the diversity and inclusion agenda in my School, one in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine at King’s, which has been an eye-opening experience. I fell into the role partly because no one else in the School stepped forward to take it on – leading me to ask questions about why this was the case. I have been struck by how many of the colleagues who are leading this work in the university are women and/or are people of colour. While this may seem like a great thing – the people who have for years been underrepresented and marginalised in higher education are leading the charge for change – I have come to realise that this is double-edged. The responsibility for initiating and delivering change in culture, practices, and a system that has been built over centuries on the dominance of white, cis men, is a further burden on those who have been oppressed by it. How can we think that this is ok?
The absence of men, as allies, in these spaces and conversations, is part of the problem. By not being present in the committee meetings, delivering the training, or speaking out when needed, we are complicit in the very problems that we think we are tackling. In leaving women, people of colour and the marginalised to lead equality and diversity work in the sector, we are reinforcing a silence that permits continued harassment, microaggressions, misogyny, and outright racism and sexism that should have been long banished from our universities and sector.
So, what can we do?
- Educate yourself. Take time to reflect on your own (in)action. Listen to women when they are sharing their experiences in a way that inspires trust and respect. This requires empathy, attention, a refusal to interrupt and valuing the experiences being shared.
- Be comfortable in being uncomfortable, the discussions and sharing of these experiences by your colleagues, students and friends may produce self-blame, shame and anxiety. The solution is to learn and engage more, not to retreat and make yourself feel better or absolved.
- Engage in support for women by asking —not assuming — how you can best support, advocate, and act. Remember, it is not about you. Ask women how you can amplify, not replace, and take over.
- Change your mind set about the role of men in equality and diversity spaces. If we continue to leave the heavy lifting to others, progress will continue at its current glacial pace. We need active, vocal, and strong allies.
- Step forward and step up. The easy part of being an ally is saying you will be better or respond. The hard part is in taking the action you have committed to. Hold yourself to your promises and commitments. If you see something, say something, and commit to action when you witness inequality, harassment or bullying in all its forms.
I have reflected a lot over the past fortnight on my role in these conversations, how I have been complicit, and how I need to change. I would encourage all men to do the same.