Power and history: Selina Todd at A Woman’s Place is at the lectern

Selina Todd is Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. Her research focuses on women, feminism and working-class life in modern Britain. She is the author of the bestseller The People. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 and the authorised biography of playwright Shelagh Delaney, Tastes of Honey.

This is the text of a speech she gave at A Woman’s Place is at the lectern in Oxford on Friday 25th October 2019.

Over the past year I’ve read and heard a lot about how privileged we gender critical feminist academics are. I’ve watched as fellow historians have liked or retweeted sneers about how we complain we’re silenced yet have our stories covered in major broadsheets. I’ve heard from colleagues about younger, less experienced male academics getting in touch to mansplain to them why ‘good’ feminists should shut up about women’s rights. I’ve observed colleagues claim that we are transphobic because we disagree with self-identification as the most robust means of defining gender, and object to the denial that sex is different from gender and is a worthy subject for scholarly study. None of these critics has bothered to discuss this with me, of course. Swipes on social media are acceptable; intellectual engagement is not on the agenda.

So I thought I’d talk about just how privileged we women in universities are.

Let’s start with students. We know women earn less than men, so guess who’s going to be accruing most interest on their astronomical student debts and having that millstone follow them into midlife and beyond? Then there are the mature students. We’re constantly told that tuition fees haven’t led to a decline in student numbers. That’s true of 18 year olds, but the number of mature students has nosedived since 2012, when the Tories and Lib Dems raised tuition fees threefold. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of part-time students fell by more than 50%. Women have long composed the majority of mature and part-time students. Now that second chance to learn has been taken away from women.

Let’s turn to academic staff. The sex pay gap in universities is almost five percentage points higher than the national average. In some universities men are paid, on average, 45% more than women. This is partly because women are disproportionately found in the lowest ranks of academia, the staff who rely on hourly pay, or temporary contracts of just a few months – usually with a huge teaching load. These staff are euphemistically called ‘early career researchers’ –a euphemism because many of them are over thirty and have a PhD, and often years of research and teaching behind them. This label disguises that their casual employment is not a guaranteed stepping stone to a permanent academic post. Their working conditions make it impossible for them to focus on research, which is what gets you a permanent academic job. The assumption is that they’ll complete their all-important first monograph or suite of scholarly articles in their own, unpaid, time. But if you have caring responsibilities – and many of these women have young children – then that’s not going to happen. Without this army of women, higher education would collapse. But they’re underpaid and overlooked.

The most senior rank a university academic can attain is professor. In UK universities, women compose just one quarter of professors. Countless studies show that in occupations where there’s a gap this large between the sexes, women are having to outperform men on every front to get promotion. I think most women – not only in universities – know that this is the case.

It isn’t possible to know exactly what the sex pay gap is within the professoriate, because in most universities professors negotiate their salaries individually. And more and more institutions, including my own, operate merit pay awards as well. We do know that at some universities the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay is far less than a quarter. This is lower than the proportion of women who hold senior posts. In other words, it isn’t just that women aren’t getting into senior ranks in high numbers. Those women who do break through are not paid on a comparable level with men – in other words, we don’t just have a sex pay gap to contend with – it’s also the case that equal pay does not yet exist.

Women are less likely to be well paid in Russell Group universities with medical schools and business schools and highly paid vice chancellors – regardless of how many women those universities have in senior positions. These are the wealthiest universities which offer the greatest job security, research support and global prestige. But men disproportionately benefit from those advantages. Even when women get jobs in these institutions, they are likely to be on the lowest rung of the career hierarchy. Those highly privileged women who get to the professoriat in these elite universities – women like me – are likely to be hugely outnumbered by men and paid less than them. And we’re the most privileged women in the sector.

There are liberal feminists who argue women have to be more assertive in asking for pay and better conditions. But women who get to be professors in British universities tend to be confident and articulate. Academic life involves a lot of critical scrutiny, from students, peers and senior scholars. On top of this, women have to battle everyday sexism. Unlike liberal feminists, I don’t accept that the responsibility for eradicating inequality lies with women – I place it firmly at the door of those institutions that have perpetrated injustice. But even if we were to accept that women should be assertive in asking for better pay and promotion, it isn’t the case that university women have been shrinking violets. It is the case that we face institutional sexism at every turn.

What are universities doing about this? Nationally, ATHENA Swan is the programme meant to ensure that universities are committed to achieving “gender equality”. ATHENA Swan began in the early 2000s to improve the position of women in science. But over the years, ATHENA Swan has become far more concerned with ‘gender’ equality than sex equality. Now, it is compulsory for university departments hoping to gain ATHENA Swan accreditation to show how they intend to help transgender people achieve equality. Nothing wrong with that – everyone should enjoy equality in higher education, including transgender people. But Athena Swan is an initiative that was established to improve women’s position in academia.

There is no basis for believing that discrimination against someone on the basis of their chosen gender ‘identity’ can be solved by the same measures required to solve sexism. After all, women were denied the right to a university education for centuries on the basis of our sex. Women were given the right to take a degree at Oxford in 1920 – less than one hundred years ago, and several hundred years after the university was founded! Being formally, legally excluded on the basis of our sex has shaped women’s educational and employment opportunities for generations.

We know from research into the experience of people of colour that the consequences of formal, legal exclusion from education and employment don’t vanish once legal equality is achieved. It takes decades, possibly centuries, for that legacy to be overcome. And yet the programme designed to improve women’s equality in UK universities has now, less than 20 years after its foundation, decided that ‘gender equality’ is more important than tackling sex discrimination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent study found that ATHENA Swan membership has zero impact on the sex pay gap within universities.[1]

Worryingly, given that intellectual debate is meant to be a core activity of higher education, there is little space for a discussion of the assaults to our person, our scholarship and our rights that women face on account of our sex. Over the past three decades, we’ve been told that women’s studies and women’s history is old hat or biologically deterministic – or that it is patronising to women to have courses that focus solely on us. Really? Does this mean that for the several hundred years that Oxford excluded women it was ‘patronising’ men? Was the vote given to women because men found it really patronising to keep political power to themselves? Hard to believe, since women had to fight tooth and nail to get enfranchised and educated.

Alternatively, we’re told that studies of women focus on the wrong questions. The right questions are apparently all about gender identity – who represents it, and how people perform it. That neatly takes all discussion of structural oppression against women, because of our actual and potential roles as mothers, off the table. In a profession that is so sexist, I think we can see who wins from that particular intellectual sleight of hand.

I am, frankly, amazed at the academics who revile us gender critical feminists. Historians have declared me to be immensely privileged for appearing in the Telegraph as the victim of a bullying campaign, or in the Sunday Times suggesting that calls for my sacking may be a sign that academic freedom is under threat. Last time I checked, historians relied heavily on newspapers as a source, not simply to glean insights into the privileged, but because we recognise that many groups seeking justice, or experiencing distress, have sought and continue to seek expression in the media. What makes those groups we study different from those lecturers who expressed fear and distress about their lack of academic freedom in a recent piece in the Telegraph, fronted by the courageous Kathleen Stock? The difference is that these are feminists, asserting women’s rights. And the sex pay gap, the acceptance of sexual harassment and the casual employment of thousands of women works very well for plenty of male academics – including those who say they’d prefer not to get involved in the debate. In a profession this unequal, non-involvement is a political statement.

It is the case that many, though far from all, of the university academics who are speaking up about women’s rights are in senior positions. That is partly because there’s a generational difference in outlook over gender critical feminism. But that doesn’t fully explain why we’re in the frontline. I think of the young gender critical feminist scholars who’ve approached me at book festivals or after lectures, and whispered their thanks and solidarity. Whispered. In the 21st century, women still feel unable to stand up for their rights.

The sad fact is that women at the bottom of this precarious career ladder often feel they can’t speak up for their rights. It’s to Rosario Sanchez’s credit that she’s shown they can! But bravery like hers shows why it is incumbent on those of us in senior positions to speak out. It is precisely because we have a modicum of power and privilege that we should speak up – not only for ourselves, but for all those other women in less secure positions.

Those who sneer at us women academics as privileged – as if, like titled aristocrats, we haven’t earned our role – might like to consider how we got here. For me at least, the reason is feminism. I struck lucky as a graduate student at the University of Sussex, which back in the 1990s employed a number of leading feminist scholars. They unashamedly taught and researched women’s and feminist history, and fought brave battles against sexism within the academy. Thankfully, when I was in my twenties, there was no sense that feminism was generationally specific and that we could learn nothing from older women– in fact there was an awareness that, having lived through the women’s liberation movement, they might have quite a lot to teach us. I’m so glad, because thanks to their encouragement and solidarity I found myself part of a feminist network of academics as I progressed through my studies and then my career. These women helped me to do that by writing references, recommending me and by opening up spaces within higher education where scholars could do the kind of work I do. And when, inevitably, I was propositioned or talked down to as a graduate student, it was these women who kept me going. When I was praised for my ‘manly’ presentation at conferences, it was these women who rolled their eyes while encouraging me to believe I could be both female and assertive. When in successive jobs I have been mistaken for other female colleagues who look nothing like me, it is with these women in mind that I have called out such male stupidity and bigotry. When I read the work of men who have appropriated the insights of feminists I’ve learned from and even my own, it is these women’s refusal to put up with sexist bullshit that emboldens me to call out such plagiarism. In other words, when I go about the business of being a female academic, it is these women’s solidarity that keeps me going. Their battles for equal rights were never fully won, but they carved out routes through university life that have enabled women like me to follow them.

Women’s legal rights to a university education and a professional career were won only very recently. In historical terms, we’ve only just got here. That is not a position of great strength and power – as the nosedive in mature student numbers, and the use of females as casual labour in universities both show.

We’ve had to fight every step of the way. We got none of this from male benevolence. It’s thanks to feminists that we won the right to take a degree and to work in universities. Feminists ensured I’m entitled to equal pay and treatment at work, though god knows the fight for both goes on. Thanks to feminists, I am able to research women’s lives and sex inequality. But when an Oxford graduate declares in the Guardian that we’re on the ‘wrong side of history’, he just confirms that men still think they’re entitled to define what ‘history’ is and whose voices matter. Our victories are still fragile. Now it is our turn to fight. I reject the spurious claim that women’s presence here is a privilege for which we should be grateful or ashamed. It is a right, one that should be further extended.

It’s because of feminism that women in universities and beyond have a language to talk about the sexism we face. It’s because of feminism we have weapons to tackle that sexism. One is solidarity. Another is a public voice. It isn’t easy to speak out but as Audre Lorde said, ‘Your silence will not protect you’ – or anyone else. And if women with a modicum of power don’t speak, then who will? When I speak, I am not doing so to deny anyone else their rights. I speak in solidarity with all those who experience sex discrimination and harassment in this profession and beyond. I speak in solidarity with those millions of women, past and present, denied an education or a career because of their sex.

When those who sneer at us start campaigning for women’s rights and against sex discrimination, then I’ll be willing to believe they’re really committed to ending unearned privilege. But they aren’t – they just want to shame us into believing we should not be here, and shut us up. Well, they’ve already lost. Look around at the power and history in this room. It took courage and endurance for women to break their way in here. It took fortitude to withstand the fury they faced. They did it. We got here. And we are here to stay.


[1] https://www.psa.ac.uk/psa/news/why-do-uk-universities-have-such-large-gender-pay-gaps

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