LGBTQ+ in Lockdown

We are once again showcasing our student LGBTQ+ History Month exhibition, LGBTQ+ in Lockdown. In addition to the artwork that can be seen in Keynes Atrium, we have also created some audio recordings of the poetry and writing that can be found in the artwork. Listen to the clips below, and make sure to visit the exhibition before the 12th August!

Here is a link to the folder of audio and video files in the exhibition.

With thanks to the vocal stylings of Leroy Cohoone, for reading the poems and prose beautifully.

You can also watch a video of the poem The Silent L performed by the artist, Hannah Ost, by clicking here.

To hear some of our students talk about their experiences in Lockdown, click here.


On being a man on International Men’s Day

A trans friend once asked me when I first knew I was cis.[1] (Some of their best friends are cis!). I’m not sure. Perhaps it was watching the 1995 Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on the BBC. I knew that I liked Lizzie Bennet, and wanted to spend time with her, but I wanted to be Mr Darcy. Besides the fact that my good opinion, once lost, is lost for ever, I bear very little resemblance to Mr Darcy. I thought I had a chance of being Mr Bennet when I hit middle age. I developed a terrible fear that I might end up most closely resembling the tedious bore Mr Collins.

I knew that there was this thing, manliness, that I wanted to have. It seemed to involve caring for the people around one, treating people with respect, cultivating one’s manners and understanding, and developing control over one’s emotions. Possibly, horses, fencing, or open air swimming were involved.

It struck me, on reflection, that there were lots of ways of being masculine. Cary Grant, David Attenborough, Sidney Poitier, Noel Coward, Brian Blessed, Sean Bean, Tom Baker, Hugh Grant and my father were all quite obviously masculine. But it’s difficult to put one’s finger one what all of these people might have in common. If the aim were to define manliness in terms of a set of features all and only men have, it would be less than straightforward. Descriptively, I am obviously masculine. I’m 6ft 5in, with a bushy beard and a big deep booming voice. People are very seldom confused about what pronouns to use when referring to me. But merely that I look like I stand up to wee doesn’t tell you all that much about my gender.

My beard gets shorn periodically when I want to eat soup unstrained, but my gender is important to me in a way that the presence or absence of facial hair is merely incidental.

In about 1997, I was visiting family in Scotland. My mother enters the room and says ‘Graeme, you’re a strapping young lad! Can you go and push the postman’s van out of the snow?’. I was not a strapping young lad. I was a rather slender 13 year-old. Feats of physical prowess were not something you would have associated with me. But out to push the postie’s van I went. That I went should not be a surprise; I was sent. But I remember reflecting on a really odd thing. Prefacing the request with ‘you’re a strapping young lad’ flattered me. I felt motivated to act the part of the strapping young lad. I wanted to be viewed as masculine.

This thought – that I was motivated by manliness – seems important. It seems to be part of who I am, in a way that makes me feel like the best version of myself. My beard gets shorn periodically when I want to eat soup unstrained, but my gender is important to me in a way that the presence or absence of facial hair is merely incidental. In the project of cultivating myself to be a person I like more, I can’t imagine cultivating my gender away. And my gender is tied up in lots of ways with a particular culture and a particular moment in time. It is not some ahistorical cosmopolitan sort of manliness I have, but one rooted in Scottishness, Englishness, and comprehensively educated aspirational middle-classness.

The Tension in Manliness

In the same way that I am proud of my nationality – I don’t think it superior to others, but feel a sense of belonging and attachment to it – I am proud of my gender. But as with my nationality, my gender carries baggage that it is hard to be proud of. The history of Britain is a morally mixed record at best. The sins of Empire leave a heavy reckoning. Similarly, the stifling of talent and opportunity of women, the physical intimidation, and the violence towards them represent a problem that men, if they are to be proud of being men, have to reckon with. And there are ways masculinity seems to create bad character traits; the tendency to turn everything into a competition, and to avoid ever admitting weakness. (I once tried to ‘walk off’ a collapsed lung. It didn’t work.)

I entirely understand why seeing a tall dark figure at night might lead someone to clutch their handbag, or put their keys between their fingers in preparation to defending themselves. But, of course, I’m not intending any of these things. I’m just having a conversation, or walking home.

I am naturally an enthusiastic conversationalist; sometimes this means that I dominate a conversation. I’m tall and I gesticulate when excited. This means that I can take up a lot of space (not to mention the effects of my big deep booming voice). I have an unfortunate tendency to loom. When I walk home at night, I can see women react fearfully to the tall stranger on the other side of the road. I can understand that many women are exhausted by having someone else dominate conversations, and simply take up too much space. I entirely understand why seeing a tall dark figure at night might lead someone to clutch their handbag, or put their keys between their fingers in preparation to defending themselves. But, of course, I’m not intending any of these things. I’m just having a conversation, or walking home.

There’s a tension between feeling proud of my masculinity and being aware of the ways in which men in general, and me in particular, impact on the people around me. It’s easy to get the impression that it is men who are the problem. Masculinity is often described as ‘toxic’ (though usually what’s meant is that there are some ways of being masculine that are toxic). Some feminist philosophers define masculinity in terms of the oppression of women. What it is to be a man, on such accounts, is to be a member of the group who benefit from the oppression of people who are perceived or imagined to have certain reproductive organs. How can one be proud of being a beneficiary of oppression?

One solution is to dismiss the concerns of feminism. But this is a poor solution. Even if one isn’t allied to the political movement or persuaded by the academic literature, most of us have enough women friends to find out, if we listen, that there are many ways in which women have things pretty hard. The masculine tendency to turn everything into a competition is frankly unhelpful here. There are problems women have that men simply don’t have, and ones where women systematically come off worse than men.

In fact, there’s a double-bind here. Men, if they feel this tension between liking their masculinity and acknowledging the ways in which women are harmed by men dominating public discourse, have to deal with a difficult thing. But, insofar as they recognise that men take up too much space (and insofar as they think manliness has to do with caring for one’s friends), asking for help resolving this tension is very difficult to do, and so is usually attempted alone. Add to that the unfortunate prohibition on admitting weakness.

After all, manliness involves caring for the people around one; we learnt that from Mr Darcy.

This double-bind has real consequences. According to UK Government Data, suicide was the leading cause of death for both men aged between 20 and 34 years in the UK, with men three times more likely to commit suicide than women. It’s not likely that the double-bind I have described is responsible for most of these deaths, but making it harder for men to feel like they can resolve the tension I describe risks adding to these statistics.

For me this hits close to home. In 1996, my father had a nervous breakdown. After that he suffered from clinical depression for 20 years, and never went back to work. I can remember my dad telling me about nights where he lay awake needing the toilet, but couldn’t get out of bed in case he killed himself. I used to ask him why he had let things get that bad that it had made him ill. He didn’t have a choice, he said. He couldn’t get out of the situation because he had a wife and kids to provide for. In this one case, at least, it was caring about other people that led to the breakdown. After all, manliness involves caring for the people around one; we learnt that from Mr Darcy.

It’s not simply a question of asking men to emote more. Men already emote plenty; singer-songwriters frequently record stories of men’s pain, misery, heartbreak, and loss. And not all spaces are safe ones in which to make oneself vulnerable. If everything is a competition, healthy, nurturing friendships are hard to make. Men taking up even more space complaining about their fears, and making yet more conversations about them doesn’t sound like progress. Double-binds are usually tricky to resolve.

This is, I think, what International Men’s Day is for. Allowing a space, a day a year, where it is permissible to think about the tension between liking being a man, and finding that one’s masculinity can be toxic, can be threatening, and can stifle people one wants to support.

[1] Trans (short for transgender) means having a different gender to the one assigned at birth. Cis (short for cisgender) means having the same gender as the one assigned at birth.


Blog written by Graeme A. Forbes, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Kent.

World Menopause Day

It may seem odd to have yet another world recognition day for something like the menopause. But the truth of the matter is that we don’t talk enough about menopause, so perhaps we actually need a day to afford this the recognition and attention that it deserves. World Menopause Day  gives us the opportunity to raise awareness about different women’s experiences of the menopause.

“…one way or another it is happening to half the population sooner or later and it is rather remarkable that we talk so little about it”

It remains a largely taboo and hidden subject and knowledge about who is affected and how is still poor amongst the general population. Yet in the workplace most people knowingly or unknowingly will be working with someone or managing someone who is going through the menopause who may be thriving or struggling. We all have a responsibility to be informed of the issues associated with menopause that may arise at work, and generally. It has been estimated that 2 million women over 50 in the UK experience some difficulties at work because of symptoms connected to the menopause and 1 in 20 women may experience an early menopause. So one way or another it is happening to half the population sooner or later and it is rather remarkable that we talk so little about it.

When I was going through the menopause some twenty years ago I had a pretty tough time: dreadful headaches and a poor sleeping pattern and sometimes had to drag myself into work feeling slightly unhinged. I had a group of 3 mature women students in a class I was teaching and one day after a seminar, they stayed behind and asked me if I was alright and I ‘confessed’ what was going on, they were very supportive and kind but I never spoke to anyone else about it, no colleagues and certainly not my head of department.  Looking back now this seems incredible as I am not shy of talking about my health or how I am feeling. I think it was the fact that it would shine a light on my gender, and probably not a favourable one, and at that time I fear I spent a lot of time just trying not to stand out at least not for being female.

“Not talking about the menopause adds to the invisibility of mid-life women – a state of affairs that should be resisted”

I hope this is not how my women colleagues feel today and that there is space to talk about it. The Athena Swan team ran a menopause café before the lockdown. Despite it being a grim, cold and rain-spattered afternoon lots of women came. We did not manage to encourage any men to attend.  We shared our experiences and laughed quite a bit, it was women of all ages from across campus, some in supportive teams others the only woman in their work setting. It really revealed the importance of having opportunities to share experiences. As one woman said afterwards:

“Just dropping you a line to thank you all again for organizing the menopause café. I think it is a fantastic idea for people to be able to share experiences and talk about a subject which affects not just women but also friends, partners and work colleagues. I found the session really helpful yesterday and I hope there will be more of these events in the future as there is so much to share and learn …. I think this kind of event gives a sense of community and reassurance to all of us.”

Not talking about the menopause adds to the invisibility of mid-life women – a state of affairs that should be resisted. Indeed for some it is the beginning of a new wild period of life, with new possibilities, as Kristin Scott-Thomas’ character in Fleabag said, menopause is the “most wonderful f…g thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f…g hot and no one cares. But then – you’re free! No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person, in business.” (read the whole article here) – I certainly never mourned the passing of menstruation!

“Menopause is shrouded in stigma and lack of knowledge. It has huge impacts in life, and half the population will go through it at some point”

So feel emboldened to talk about your own experiences or start a conversation with someone, get informed. A great source of information on symptoms and ideas for managing them can be found on the Menopause matters website. There is also a menopause matters forum where people can ask questions and respond to each other. You might prefer some more alternative solutions; there is no one approach that will suit everyone, perhaps menopause yoga would help.

Let us also remember that menopause doesn’t only impact on the women experiencing it; it also affects friends, family and colleagues. So if you are a line manager make sure you are briefed on issues that may arise for your female staff. ACAS has produced guidance for employers on how to manage the menopause.

Menopause is shrouded in stigma and lack of knowledge. It has huge impacts in life, and half the population will go through it at some point. We don’t talk about it enough. On World Menopause Day let’s start the conversation!


Blog written by Professor Sarah Vickerstaff.


Am I really a BAME ally?

This blog is our way of raising awareness. As White people, we are not claiming to be experts on this, but we have learned a lot through our work with Athena Swan and EDI at this University and we want to encourage discussion and keep learning. We would love to hear your suggestions in the comments section below.


What does it mean to be an ally? Can one declare oneself an ally, in the same way you might say “I’m a feminist”, but without really doing anything to assert this nominal title?

We might be firmly and passionately supportive of BAME colleagues, attend the #BLM marches and clearly assert our allegiance. We might be shocked by the news of racism across the world, and feel saddened by the injustices we see around us. At the end of a working day we may even go home and talk to our friends and family about the uncomfortable remark someone made in a meeting that day. But is that really enough?

In Higher Education and in many other workplaces, racism happens every day. It is mostly not the kind of racism that you can easily see or challenge. It is microagressions, structural inequalities, repressed feelings, silenced voices, lack of visibility and lack of support. It is hidden. And precisely because it is hidden, it is very dangerous. We get lulled into complacency: imagining that racism happens in other places, but at the University we are intelligent academics who work in a post-racist space. We have BAME colleagues whom we love and value (with a recognition that we wish there were more of them among us), who don’t often tell us if/when they experience any issues, and for this reason we may think that racism does not exist in Higher Education. We get the impression it is all fine, when it is not.

A member of staff at Kent explained that:

‘A core issue that is not addressed enough is the experience of microaggressions and just as important the absence of micro-affirmations. BAME staff are accustomed to experiencing “the odd slight”, disregard or disrespectful treatment by other staff, and sometimes more explicit “toxic hostility”. Equally important and perhaps even more common is not being afforded the positive recognition, the respect, the affirmations and opportunities to belong and to connect that white people give each other – That absence of affirmation is not spoken of so much but is pervasive, it is wearing and is hard to respond to effectively. That differential experience of affirmation is a key aspect of white privilege and conversely of racial exclusion and inequality’.


Just because we cannot always see racism in Higher Education, does not mean that we can sit back and not do anything.

At the University of Kent, 28.6% of our students are BME.[1] Only 11% of our staff are, and even less in senior positions (10.5% in managerial and professorial positions).

How does this affect students? We know that there is an attainment gap for BAME students, something that the Student Success Project works hard to minimise. BAME students have fewer role models, and post-graduate students are likely to have less senior academics from a BAME background to support them.

How does it affect BAME staff? We know that staff from BAME backgrounds are less likely to apply for promotion, and also less likely to achieve promotion after they have applied. From the institutional Athena Swan team’s research, we know that many BAME staff members feel that white staff members (in particular males) get more informal support, praise and encouragement to step up the career ladder.


So if we want to be more than a bystander, more than an active supporter, and help beat the current system; what should we do?

Speak Up

Talking about race and inequalities can be uncomfortable. We shy away from the topic for fear of saying the wrong thing, upsetting someone, coming across as racist or stepping on someone’s toes. But NOT talking about race has worse consequences. If someone says something inappropriate in a meeting (like making fun of a foreign-sounding name of a colleague for example), make sure to challenge it in a calm and reasonable way.

Challenge yourself and Learn More

Where to begin?

“There’s not time in the day to educate myself on all of this, there’s too much and I have no hours left in the day”… Yes, there is time. If you can’t fit in reading, then listen to a podcast while cooking, driving or hanging up the laundry. For example or

Change your usual Netflix series to something that will widen your understanding about race. Netflix in fact has a whole genre for Black Lives Matter that you can browse. Consider what the world would look like if racial privilege was reversed by watching (or reading) Noughts and Crosses on BBC iPlayer. Also consider watching this lecture on White Privilege in Universities.

Mentor Junior Staff

Take the time to support and encourage junior staff members, share advice and give nudges towards positive career choices; regardless of the person’s race or gender. PhD candidate Orielia Egambaram wrote about her experiences of race in our last blog. Keep in mind in your interactions with staff and students that what Orielia described are the kinds of experiences that are commonplace and persistent for BAME colleagues.

Challenge Your Unconscious Bias

Higher Education is a space of White privilege. Many recognise this, but often those who benefit the most from this privilege do not. Throughout our research, we have found that often those who are already aware of and recognise their own unconscious bias are the ones that take training and resources seriously around this. Those who actively believe that they do not have any unconscious bias appear to pay less attention to training and information. If you believe that you don’t have an unconscious bias: think again. Learn more about your White privilege, for example through this TED Talk by Peggy McIntosh and do the available training that the University provides, including unconscious bias training.

Get Actively Involved

Familiarise yourself with local action, such as the Decolonising the Curriculum Manifesto.

Be aware of important cultural events. If it is Ramadan, consider how fasting might impact on your students and colleagues, and be mindful that for example Christmas is not an event everyone celebrates. When it’s Black History Month, find out what events are taking place and attend and promote them. To help you with inclusiveness throughout the year, print an ‘inclusion calendar’ and keep on your desk.

The University of Kent has recently committed to signing up to the Race Equality Charter, which will mean a serious reconsideration of how we challenge our current norms and build a MUCH more inclusive workplace. Take interest in this process, make your school, your group, your division and your colleagues aware and accountable. Signing up to a charter is not the solution – it is a way of making sure that changes that need to happen, are implemented at every level.

REMEMBER if you are a White colleague and feel a bit uncomfortable thinking or doing anything about this your moment of discomfort is nothing compared to the impact of the daily drip of hostility and microaggressions that your BAME students and colleagues experience.


Blog written by Carin Tunaker and Sarah Vickerstaff.

[1] At the University of Kent, data is collected for BME staff and students, rather than BAME. This data is from the most recent University EDI Report.

Age and Ageism during Covid-19

We are all applauding Captain Tom Moore and his astonishing fund-raising effort, if that isn’t ‘active ageing’ made manifest what is? By demonstrating an energy, stamina and enthusiasm many would associate with those of a younger age he has attracted understandable praise. At the same time as a crisis can bring out the best in people it also sadly reveals all kinds of lazy and pernicious habits of thinking, which may translate into poor practice and behaviour. Ageism is one of the legally protected characteristics where there is little taboo about openly making prejudiced comments and remarks. Just skim through Moonpig’s birthday cards (other online card retailers are also available) to find scores of ’joke’ cards about getting older, almost none of them life affirming! It is also important to remember that ageing doesn’t just impact older people but is often used to undermine younger sections of the population as well.

The Covid-19 pandemic has spawned some unhelpful and profoundly worrying attitudes to age; the hashtag #boomerremover which trended on social media being amongst them. There has also been too ready a tendency to castigate irresponsible millennials for failing to socially isolate – a stereotype that is no fairer than any of the others to be mentioned here. The current situation of lock down and social distancing is testing everyone.  This includes those with children or others at home that need care, but also those who live alone, senior or not. It is also worth remembering that social isolation can be a common experience for the elderly or some disabled people at the best of times.

Stressing that the 70+ age group are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 has not only reinforced a deficit model of ageing – everyone over 70 is positioned as a poor frail old thing, possibly with not much to live for- but it hasn’t helped other groups either. It may have encouraged people under 30 to think they have nothing to worry about, which the appalling death toll shows is not the case –people of all ages have died or been extremely ill with Covid-19 and we do not understand the reasons why some, including 106 year old Connie Titchen, come through. What we can clearly see however, is that existing inequalities of health and their structural determinants such as race and class, put people at greater risk than age alone. Here as in all manifestations of inequality the intersections between different disadvantages makes some people especially vulnerable.

Covid-19 puts our attitudes to age and how they affect our ideas and actions centre stage.

The health service can be casually ageist in the best of times. Recently just before going through the flap for surgery I was asked one last time my name and date of birth, on hearing the latter the nurse smiled broadly and said ‘oh you don’t look your age’ to which I think I was supposed to say ‘oh thank you’ – I didn’t. A few years ago after a knee replacement a physiotherapist asked me what my post-operative aspirations were, helpfully suggesting whether ‘I want to be able to pop down to the shops’!  Covid-19 puts our attitudes to age and how they affect our ideas and actions centre stage.

The lack of preparedness for a pandemic in the already stretched NHS has brought to attention the potential need for rationing and public discussion of who is most deserving of ventilators if it comes to that. Texas official Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick told Fox News that ‘Older people would rather die than let Covid-19 harm US economy’ and that he thought many other ‘grandparents’ would agree with him. Suggesting perhaps that legions of seniors should fall on their swords and be prepared to die for the greater good. The potential inadequacy of resources in the NHS is a very real issue for those health professionals facing the rapid rise in Covid19 patients. Using some ‘clinical frailty scale’ whilst seeming a basis for deciding who is most likely to benefit from medical intervention risks scooping up all kinds of people not just the old, but also disabled adults and others with long term but stable health conditions. Frailty here just becomes a preference for able-bodiedness. Indeed one could argue that a lot of ageism towards older people is really disableism assuming that with age comes diminished physical and mental health and by inference less worth.

Everyone is at risk of Covid-19, and some existing inequalities are amplified by its progress. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on tired stereotypes about who is worthy and who is not and instead understand that more than ever we are in it together.

Further than this we have seen a shocking disregard for the population of care homes, in some countries literally abandoned to die. In the UK we have only just recently started to account publicly for the number of deaths due to Covid-19 of care home residents, as if these deaths mattered less. All of this reveals that we slip too easily into seeing the older population as less deserving and more expendable and risk putting pressure on older people themselves to self-identify as less important. Everyone is at risk of Covid-19, and some existing inequalities are amplified by its progress. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on tired stereotypes about who is worthy and who is not and instead understand that more than ever we are in it together.

The Government have put out a call for evidence of the impact of Covid-19 for all those with protected characteristics. Reply before the 30th April.


Working from home with children during COVID-19


It’s 9pm, the kids are asleep, there’s a tonne of work to be done, the kitchen has the remnants of three rushed meals on every surface, the lounge is cluttered with toys and cardboard designs and the smallest bits of shredded paper that only a hoover will pick up. Your back aches from sitting at the uncomfortable kitchen table on your laptop and you really should do some yoga to wind down and tidy up all the mess from the day. There are 7 missed calls from your mum and 45 unanswered WhatsApp messages from family and friends. You dive in between the dishes to make a G&T and fall asleep in front of the telly, feeling sad that you once again didn’t manage it all.

In the weeks since the pandemic made us all retreat to our homes, we have all had to make serious adjustments to our lives to find some sort of balance between managing our own and everyone else’s emotions and fears, while trying to work and perhaps also looking after small children and/or home-schooling. This includes altering your own expectations of yourself and your work, as well as considering your priorities and primary needs. For those of us that are parents of young children, life can seem completely unmanageable. Already with school or childcare life was busy and we had little time to fit in that extra piece of work that would further our careers, or manage our busy lives.

What happens to University staff when it suddenly becomes impossible to go the extra mile?

In academia, whether professional services or academic staff, many of us are motivated individuals who strive for careers and achievements. What happens to University staff when it suddenly becomes impossible to go the extra mile? Under our current circumstances, we have spoken to many parents who feel like they are suddenly failing in all parts of life; being a good parent, spending enough time home-schooling (and not giving in to Netflix), doing all the necessary things at work, keeping in touch with family and friends, being a supportive partner, volunteering time for vulnerable neighbours, getting enough exercise, making three meals per day for the family… and the list goes on. Why do we feel like we are not doing enough? What are the effects of stress on our emotional wellbeing? In order to cope with this huge adjustment, we also need to change our expectations of ourselves. It isn’t possible to be a perfect parent, employee, teacher, neighbour, partner and friend all at once, and during these times we cannot aim to achieve all of this.

To find balance, set yourself realistic targets. This is a good time to learn to say no to exciting opportunities, funding bids, and article submissions, and to come to terms with the fact that some days you might not achieve any work at all. Getting out of bed and managing to stay indoors with your partner/cat/dog/child(ren) or on your own all day is achievement enough. Press pause on your need to achieve and do well, and remember that everyone else is pressing pause too during these difficult circumstances. Prioritise what makes you and your family feel good.

Tips to stay sane:

  • If you live with someone or co-parent: share the burdens as much as you can
  • Don’t read the news more than once per day
  • Turn off your phone (if possible) if you get a moment to work and when you have breaks/playing with your children
  • Lower your expectations of what your children need to achieve during the day
  • Lower your expectations of what you can achieve in a day
  • Prioritise moving/physical exercise if possible
  • Listen to positive music (rather than the news or radio)
  • Tell family and friends that you will not be able to talk on the phone each time they call
  • Remember to breathe
  • Try and allocate an hour to yourself every day for only YOU

Managing emotions:

Support with wellbeing and mental health during the pandemic: 

Online support group for parents during the pandemic, run by a queer parent:

If you are struggling to explain to your children what is going on, here’s a new free online book by the creator of the Gruffalo:

For some inspiration and things to do together, here are some suggestions:


Please share your ideas and suggestions below in the comments!

What do staff at UoK think about gender equality in the workplace?

Results from the IWD and IMD surveys

The Athena SWAN team carried out surveys related to International Women’s Day (IWD) and International Men’s Day (IMD) that gave us some insights into how some of the staff team at Kent think about equality in the workplace. In total, 86 people answered the women’s day survey (March 2019) and 68 people the men’s survey (November 2018). Out of these 154 respondents, 7 identified as non-binary, preferred not to answer or preferred to use their own term.

Whilst the surveys targeted people within the binaries of ‘men’ and ‘women’, we are aware of and value the challenges faced by those not comfortable or adhering to these binaries. In many questions, the respondents answered similarly regardless of gender, however, in some cases there were discernible differences between male and female-identifying people’s responses.

The sample size of these surveys was too small to draw generalised conclusions about staff perceptions at the University of Kent, however the comments and responses do suggest to some dominant strands of thought that could be valuable to explore further.

IWD is fairly well-known, and across the UK many institutions place importance on this day and organise many events to raise awareness about inequalities that women face in the workplace. However, the male equivalent IMD is less known (only 15% of our respondents felt it was important). One thing that was evidently clear from the results of these surveys was that many women still feel treated unfairly at work, and that awareness of unfair or sexist treatment lies predominantly with those who experience them. Many also raised how gender inequality is only one of the intersectional inequalities that exist at the university, with race and class being prevalent as well.

“Senior management is overwhelmingly male, which does not reflect the overall demographic”

(male respondent)

Have you been troubled by gender-related things in the workplace?

A great majority of both men and women (approximately 70% each survey) stated that they ‘sometimes’ have felt troubled by the things they hear or see in the workplace relating to gender. From the IWD survey in particular, there were many written responses containing examples of sexist experiences that respondents had witnessed or experienced first-hand at Kent. For example, some mentioned an incident where a group of women talking were referred to by their male manager as a ‘mother’s meeting’, others talked about how they were often addressed as ‘girls’ in professional environments.

Some mentioned that male colleagues with less experience had been promoted over them or been paid more upon starting their positions.

A few comments raised issues with women in jobs graded 1-6 being treated as ‘secretaries’, met with condescending attitudes from more senior men, while one respondent stated “I see too many men in positions of power talking down to women”. From the IMD survey on this question, respondents stated that they feel there are inequalities due to women being ‘allowed’ more freedom in childcare than men.

“Culture of sexism – very subtle – but lots of assumptions and judgments made about women and their suitability (or not) for leadership roles that are underpinned by troubling sexism/misogyny”

(female respondent)

Do you think opportunities and benefits are equally available to men and women?

This question divided opinion. 62% of men answered yes, whereas women’s opinions were equally distributed between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. In the written comments, men highlighted that they have seen jobs advertised that promote women applying for positions, which they have found discouraging to apply for.


Both men and women mentioned that there are disproportionately more men in senior leadership roles at the university,
which is problematic, that childcare is a major inhibitor for career progression and that this mostly falls on women.  However, some men also highlighted that parental policies often appear to target women, and thereby discourage men from staying home with their children.

Causes and solutions to the gender pay gap

Opinions between men and women were similar in regards to this question. Most raised childcare, flexible working and part-time work as responsible for the gender pay gap. However, some men stated that The University is a meritocracy and that gender equality is not really an issue anymore. A minority of comments from men also raised a concern with the university being a “pro women culture” and that the gender pay gap is a myth, showing a misunderstanding between the gender pay gap and equal pay for equal work (For information about the gender pay gap, see 

Through the comments, an array of issues were raised that allow inequalities to perpetuate in the University culture. These are some examples:

  • Childcare falling on women more often than men
  • Part-time work preventing possibilities for senior positions and unconscious bias in recruitment and promotions
  • Lack of flexible working options for professional services staff
  • Lack of defined career path for PS staff (who are mostly women)
  • Women lacking confidence and being cautious in applying for promotions
  • Lack of female role models
  • Overrepresentation of male stereotypes in leadership positions
  • Women have less mentoring and support compared to the ‘old boy’ network

Some also mentioned that the issues prevalent all stem from a patriarchal society as well as historical inequalities in the education system and management in HE institutions.

Possible solutions to the gender pay gap that the survey respondents suggested included particularly empowering young women and showing suitable role models in leadership roles, assigning mentors and have more transparency in regards to salaries. It was also suggested that systematic attention to the achievements of male and female colleagues on comparable pay scales is needed. In regards to childcare as a barrier to career progression, it was suggested that more attention is needed on policies regarding childcare cover and the ability to work flexibly in order to manage childcare, school runs and nursery timings and also ensure that there are appropriate facilities and flexibility to manage breastfeeding.

Would you like to work more flexibly if allowed and would you be comfortable to ask for this?

Around half of respondents said that they would like to work more flexibly, and around a third stated that they already do. However a third of women and a quarter of men would not feel comfortable asking for flexible hours. Responses vary greatly between academic and professional services staff, and also between pay grades, which is highlighted in the comments.

PS staff have stated that their jobs tend to require 9-5 presence and that flexible working is mostly at the mercy of their line manager,

whereas academic staff feel they are at the mercy of the WAM and that even “part-time work” tends to require full-time hours, even if they have the possibility to work from home sometimes.

PS staff commented that the flexible working policy does not work and that requests are often denied. Many comments did also reflect that respondents were happy about their ability to have such flexibility in their work and commended Kent as an employer in this sense. 

Views on support available for carers at UoK

Men who answered this question tended to point out that support for men who have caring responsibilities in particular is very poor. Many have highlighted that support for parents appears to be aimed at women. Many who answered the question stated that they were not parents and so were not aware of what might be available. The short period of paternity leave available was mentioned, and also that many were unaware of what rights they might have as a father, and that such policies appear to be ‘invisible’.

Women who answered the same question also pointed out that there needs to be more visibility of fathers and to challenge the stereotype that women are the predominant carers/primary caregivers.

The issue of emergency childcare for when your child is sick was also mentioned frequently, as well as a pervasive view that support varies greatly between line managers. Additionally, some women raised that there might be support available for parents, but that less consideration is given to carers of elderly parents.

A few also mentioned the need for additional spaces for breastfeeding and milk pumping. A suggestion was to create a parent’s network. The ‘enhancement weeks’ were equally criticized by both men and women and many comments raised that this is an imposed change that was made without consideration for EDI implications.


How much do you know about Athena SWAN and how has it impacted on you?

Both men and women (around 43%) stated that they have ‘limited’ knowledge of the Athena SWAN gender equality charter, and approximately 25% stated that they had ‘good’ knowledge. 21% of female respondents answered that Athena SWAN had an impact on them, whereas for men this figure was 15%. Approximately half of all respondents did not feel that Athena SWAN had an impact on them, and many responded that they were not sure. Among the comments the predominant concern is that Athena SWAN is merely a tick box exercise that does not enable or create real culture change.

Some men stated that they did not feel it was relevant to them and that the charter appeared to be a mechanism for the positive discrimination for women, and some felt that Kent is a meritocracy and that therefore the issue is not relevant.

On the contrary some of the comments from women mentioned that they felt happy that feminism and Athena SWAN objectives are elevated as important issues and that events are organised and awareness is raised due to the charter.

Importantly, many comments in both surveys also mentioned that what needs to be high on the agenda for Athena SWAN and for the university is not just gender equality, but also intersectionality. In particular inequalities stemming from race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class and generally socio-economic backgrounds, which many perceived to be of more or equal importance to gender. Many were pleased to see a survey regarding Athena SWAN, but comments also revealed that there is great ambivalence in regards to whether real action and necessary cultural change will result from the work carried out in this area.

Is the University of Kent a Meritocracy?


Is the University of Kent a meritocracy?

As a university, we have the same gender (in-) equality issues as other UK Higher Education (HE) institutions. The overall UK workforce in HE consists of 54% women, but only 20% of Vice Chancellors are women[1]. At the University of Kent, we have a gender pay gap where women earn averagely 17.5% less than men do[2]. This is not because women are paid less for equivalent positions, but because women are not occupying many of the senior positions at the university. For example, only 13% of Heads of School and Deans at the University of Kent are women[3].

When we hire new staff, or consider promotion opportunities for existing staff, are we fair in the way that we allocate senior positions? I often hear people say, ‘we hire only on merit, we are a meritocracy, which means we choose only the very best people for the job.’ And of course, why should we believe anything different? Our peers, colleagues, mentors and superiors believe in our skills and abilities and want the most suitable person to do the job, regardless of their gender. Yet, somewhere along the line, we are still promoting fewer women into senior roles, and we know that it is not because there are less skilful women available. The problem itself could be a general belief that we are a meritocracy, which corresponds with the assumption that because most of us believe in equality and equal opportunities, there are no further issues to tackle in this area. If there is no problem to fix, then why put efforts into fixing it.

Figure 1: Data from UoK Gender Pay Gap report showing mean and median pay gap and sample size.


The gender pay gap is sometimes confused with equal pay. It is illegal to pay anyone less or more due to their gender (or any other protected characteristic such as for example race, sexuality or disability). The gender pay gap refers to where men earn more because they occupy more senior positions than women do, which is generally the case across most sectors. Many invisible barriers prevent women from progressing in HE, such as for example, the gendered construction of leadership and accumulated disadvantages throughout their careers. Universities are traditionally male-dominated cultures, and when we do recruitment this inherent culture may unconsciously influence decision-making[4].

Sexism and #MeToo happens in academia as much as anywhere else, but arguably in an intellectual environment it is more hidden and there is an expectation that it does not exist, which renders it invisible[5]. As an undergraduate student at Kent, my (male) lecturer commented on my clothes every time I walked through the door. He did not do this to any male students. I did not raise this as an issue, I carried on as usual, because I did not expect sexism at university and I brushed it off. Small acts of everyday sexism build up over time and create a culture where it becomes normalised, mundane, commonplace, and taken-for-granted.

How do we tackle something that is invisible and hidden? How can we ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity at a career at university? Even those of us who consider ourselves proponents of equal opportunities have an unconscious bias when we recruit or promote staff. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have any biases, I only care about people’s qualifications and who the best candidate is!’ you say? As people, we have a tendency to select applicants like ourselves that are familiar to us (referred to as ‘homo-sociability’). We have unconscious ideals about what a stereotypical leader should be and this means that we ‘clone’ and reproduce similar leaders, and often these are male[6]. One way of counteracting this is ‘positive action’, set out in the Equality Act (2010, sect 159) as a way of allowing employers to give preference to candidates from underrepresented groups if two candidates are as qualified as each other. Many argue that positive action is just another way of creating inequalities in favour of women instead of men, making it reverse discrimination.

At a university event organised by the Student Success Project, inspirational speaker and poet Lemn Sissay discussed positive discrimination, and posed the question of why some people are against the use of this in recruitment. He urged the audience to look at the paintings of professors at universities, proudly displayed in the corridors, all of them white men, and he said, “Positive discrimination has worked really well for one group of people”. So why does it appear that this group of people do not believe in positive discrimination, and why do they insist that we are a meritocracy, when they have benefitted the most from it historically? If meritocracy were anything other than a myth, would not our university be a site of diversity and equality? And with this in mind, how does one change institutional culture?

In the UK, we have a set of legislations that protect people from discrimination and generally, most people would proclaim that they believe in equality and fairness for all. Things have changed and progressed, but this does not mean that we can sit back, relax, and consider the problem ‘fixed’, or that Equality and Diversity activities are merely tick box exercises. If the University of Kent was truly a meritocracy, that would mean that women and people of colour would occupy many more of the senior roles at the university. If we recognise that inequalities exist and are a problem and we continue to discuss, problematise and examine them, we are already on our way to real change.

[1] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[2] University of Kent ‘Gender Pay Gap Report’ 2017

[3] Data collected by Athena SWAN team for Q4 of 2018

[4] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[5] Accessed 01/02/2019

[6] Shepherd, S. (2017) “Why are there so few female leaders in higher education: A case of structure or agency?” Management in Education 31 (2): 82-87