Gender Critical academics, discrimination and trade unions

Professor Jo Phoenix, Chair in Criminology at The Open University has been a jobbing academic for nearly 24 years. She researches violence against women, prostitution, child sexual exploitation, sex, gender and justice and youth justice. She also writes on ethics, politics and professionalism in academia.

Professor Jo Phoenix

Where are trade unions when gender critical academics are under attack? Instead of supporting members, the unions form part of the problem. Just weeks after University of Essex Vice-Chancellor apologised to me and Rosa Freedman for its unlawful behaviour (the University and Colleges Union being notably quiet about that event), the UCU’s Open University branch joined the clamour of calls asking for the University to discriminate against the members of the newly formed Open University Gender Critical Network.

Historically, unions have been at the forefront of social change for women – from the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888 to the striking women at the Ford plant in Dagenham who paved the way for the Equal Pay Act 1970. Yet, sadly, in 2021 and in the context of universities, this progress recently seems to have stalled if not gone into reverse.

Unions in academia

Today, in academia workplace bullying and harassment of individuals who hold gender critical views is real. Oxford University has had to provide Professor Selina Todd with personal security following threats of violence. Professor Rosa Freedman has faced threats made against her by staff and students. In my own case, staff and students, through threats of protest and threatening posters, bullied and harassed their own university to a point that my human rights were infringed.

The UCU represents academics. It recognises that academic freedom is not a fanciful idea. It cuts to the heart of our working conditions and the UCU statement on academic freedom is very clear on the matter – tying academic freedom (freedom in teaching and discussion, in carrying out research without commercial or political interference; to disseminate and publish one’s research findings; from institutional censorship and to particular in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions) to the very practice and health of a functioning democracy. Without academic freedom, that which we are paid to do (produce knowledge and teach) cannot be done.

But, its statement (‘reaffirming UCUs commitment trans inclusion’) reduces the conflicts on university campuses to an overly drawn simple question of the union supporting self-identification (of any minoritized category including being black, disabled, LGBT+ or women) and supporting women’s rights against sexual harassment, domestic violence, unequal pay and maternity pay and leave. It seems to have missed protecting (mostly women) researchers against being harassed and bullied for espousing a gender critical perspective.

In an ideal world, a trade union representing academics might see threats and intimidation from staff and students as the creation of a hostile working environment. It might frame the allegations that that gender critical researchers are transphobic as vexatious (especially as we now know that Stonewall provided my university with erroneous advice which overreached the law). But at the elected national and branch level, the UCU response has been to legitimise discrimination against academics researching or fighting for sex-based rights.

The Open University Gender Critical Network

Take what happened at The Open University in the week commencing 14th June. Colleagues and I launched The Open University Gender Critical Network. It was a low-key launch. We made a Twitter announcement and linked it to an online podcast. Within hours, we were simultaneously applauded for our initiative and reviled for supposedly being ‘anti-trans’. We were careful to define gender critical research as exploring how, why, and where sexed bodies matter. This means starting from the point of view that ‘sex’ has a material reality and is an important category in research.

As the week unfurled, there were a series of open letters circulating calling on the university to withdraw its public support from us and not endorse our research.  These letters were circulating within The Open University and shared widely on social media. They were coming from OU staff and students as well as from outside institutions (such as the Gender Studies department at LSE) and academic journals (such as the Journal of Gender, Work and Organisation). In the end, they even came from our own union branch.

Leaving aside the defamatory and untrue accusations in the open letters, the UCU email started by noting the “distress caused by the launch and apparent endorsement by the university of the gender critical research network” before providing links to UCU’s statement on trans inclusion, a link to our webpage (with a content warning), a link to the open letter circulated by students that contained the link to the open letters circulated by staff and a link to the (now taken down defamatory) open statement posted to the LSE Gender Studies Departmental website. The email was signed by the branch Equality Officer and Equality Lead. The intention was clear. The email was asking union members to discriminate against the members of our research network.

Let’s unpack this

Asking the university to withdraw its supposed ‘endorsement’, ‘public support’ or to disaffiliate from us can only mean to have us fired or immiserate our working conditions. At the risk of over-simplifying things, as academics we are paid knowledge workers who are contractually obliged to create and disseminate research and to engage with our stakeholders and other research users to maximize the impact of our knowledge. We are credentialed paid professionals who have undertaken the requisite training to equip us to do our job and, for the most part, we belong to unions which should protect our working conditions and protect us from discrimination. Research networks are the standard tool by which we grow research capacity and exchange knowledge.

Universities do not ‘endorse’ research. They do support it by paying our salaries and, if the research is in alignment with the university’s strategic aim, they may fund it. To ask for the OU to end its endorsement means to stop paying our salaries or to treat us differently (i.e., to discriminate against us) based on us being ‘gender critical’. As the Forstater ruling made clear this is unlawful discrimination.

Writing personally and not on behalf of the network, my local trade union (of which I have been a member since August 1997) is asking my university managers to discriminate against me and a group of researchers I work with, with the express purpose of either shutting us down or making our working conditions worse.

Jo Phoenix


Further reading

Time for a left wing defence of academic freedom by Shereen Benjamin (2021)

Report from debate on academic freedom from UCU Congress 2019

University Challenge WPUK comment on the publication of guidance on freedom of expression in Higher Education (2019)

Trade Unions WPUK guide to becoming actively involved in the trade union movement (2019)

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.