Update: Why blood pressure should matter more to employers than menstrual cycles

By Kelly Coate

Very recently I wrote a blog on this site reporting the landmark gender discrimination case at the National Univerity of Ireland, Galway. The news went from bad to worse for NUIG last week as it was widely reported that the medical check-up required for new employees was replaced a few years ago with a self-completed health questionnaire. The questionnaire rather unfortunately contained a question about menstrual cycles. University management defended the survey as following ‘best practice’ but suspended its use while they undertake a review.

There were some very humourous responses to this fiasco on social media, particularly the brilliant cartoons in this blog post. Laughter really does help, especially given that many academic women at the university have spent years feeling demoralized and frustrated.

When I started my job at NUIG, I was given a very basic form to take to my GP and she managed to fill it in without asking any intrusive questions that I remember. That was the only time I’ve needed to undergo a health check before starting a job. I can imagine that if it is done almost as a personal benefit to the new employee it could be useful: at least you can find out whether your health is at risk and take action.

However, a survey is a totally different kettle of fish with creepy undertones of monitoring and surveillance. I am not a GP, but I am going to guess that the main health concerns of women at NUIG are not detectable through a survey – such as high blood pressure and depression. Plus, it is of no personal benefit to tell your future employer that you are pregnant through a faceless, non-responsive survey (unless of course you are ready to do so, but even then you might like to talk to someone about it).

What would have been useful for my health as a female academic at NUIG, and I’m guessing for other staff, would have been regular blood pressure checks. It is a high-pressure environment (in the ‘I can feel my blood pressure rising now’ type of way), and I’d like to share just two high-pressure moments that I experienced:

  • One was when I was on a committee that had been tasked with appointing an interview panel for the applicants of an internal, rotating leadership role. We were instructed to ensure the interview panel was gender-balanced, which prompted a male professor to mutter about how ‘restricting’ this requirement was. We were, ironically, looking at a list with more women on it than men. It was when I recounted this story later to sympathetic colleagues that I usually finished by saying quite loudly ‘And now I can feel my blood pressure rising’!


  • Another time (oh, so many!) was when senior management of NUIG sought legal advice as to whether they could pursue ‘affirmative action’ in the 2013/14 promotions round. Their version of ‘affirmative action’ was essentially to ask whether they could promote twice as many men as women. It turns out that ‘setting aside’ an insultingly low, fixed number of promotions for women applicants enables panels to keep the gender equity bar pretty low. They denied at least 5 women promotion who had been shortlisted more than once. This is far from an action that feels affirming (blood pressure!).

If I had known, when I was offered the job at NUIG, that at that time there were only 10 female Professors and about 21 female Senior Lecturers out of approx 600 academic staff (the situation is only marginally better now), well, it would have been a deal breaker. Which makes me sad, because it was in lots of ways a brilliant place to work, largely because of the many wonderful people there.

Towards the end of my time there the senior management were trying rather half-heartedly to respond to the recommendations in the gender inequality report they had recently commissioned.  A number of training programmes were offered to women academics, even though the report advised against an approach that concentrated solely on ‘fixing’ the women. I went to as many of these as I could as it meant spending the day in a room with amazing and inspiring women. They deserved and still deserve recognition and reward, not remedial school [BLOOD PRESSURE!].  And sadly, the way things are going at the moment in NUIG, not much will change.  I hope the staff and students keep their sense humour, as any other response is frankly a risk to health.

Please note: I am writing here purely in a personal capacity, to show some solidarity with the men and women at NUIG who are trying to bring about positive change.


About the author:

Kelly Coate is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Kings College London and Director of the Kings Learning Institute. She was previously a Lecturer in Higher Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She sits on the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Education Policy, Teaching in Higher Education, and Higher Education Research and Development.

Kelly has written about gender and academic labour, including a new article in BJSE: Coate, K. and Kandikow Howson (2014) Indicators of Esteem: Gender and Prestige in Academic Work. British Journal of Sociology of Education.  DOI:10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

Landmark Gender Discrimination Case at the National University of Ireland, Galway

by Kelly Coate


The granddaughter of a famous Irish suffragette has won a landmark gender discrimination case against the National University of Ireland, Galway. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington took the case against NUIG after 4 unsuccessful attempts to be promoted to Senior Lecturer over a period of 20 years. NUIG unfortunately has one of the worst records amongst European universities for promoting women, and Micheline’s victory is a very significant step towards paving the way for change. In the 2009 promotions round which prompted her to take action, only 1 female applicant was promoted amongst the group of 17 academics who achieved Senior Lectureship status. The latest figures show that only 13 percent of professors in NUIG are female, and only 30 percent of Senior Lecturers are women. Clearly, there is quite a bit of room for improvement.

Micheline’s victory alone is a hugely encouraging sign, but her subsequent actions have shown that feminist activism can still be a positive force within academia. She is donating her award of 70,000 euros to the legal challenges of 5 female colleagues who were similarly denied promotions through the promotions  process that the Tribunal found to be discriminatory and ‘ramshackle’. Micheline also refused to join the University President’s proposed ‘task force’ on gender inequality unless he meets certain demands (see michelinesthreeconditions.wordpress.com), one of which is promoting the 5 women instead of facing them in court. In response, the President apparently withdrew the invitation for her to sit on the task force.  Given that NUIG has already had at least two working groups on gender inequality in previous years, it is very heartening that women staff and students are now demanding less talk amongst senior managers and more concrete action.


The senior management team of NUIG face an interesting choice. They can continue the legal battles, which are significant. Micheline’s case was not the only successful legal challenge by a female academic who claimed discrimination in the 2009 promotions round, but the university management have decided to appeal against the other decision, which will continue to drag through the courts. They now face legal challenges from the 5 women who Micheline is supporting, and who were not only shortlisted and unsuccessful in the 2009 promotions round, but (rather insultingly) were once again shortlisted and unsuccessful in the most recent 2014 round of promotions. In addition, all of those applicants who were shortlisted but unsuccessful in the 2014 round appealed the decision.

Rather than face these protracted and painfully demoralising battles, the senior management team could respond positively to the significant pressure for change coming from staff and students. They could proudly make gender equality a priority that runs all the way through university decision-making processes and they could champion gender equality within all aspects of their activities. After all, MIT embraced a similar initiative and has received much positive international recognition as a result (as well as successfully increasing the numbers of women in senior positions). It would not be an easy road but a proactive, positive response seems much more preferable then the endless dissection in the courts and the media of the many ways in which the promotions process discriminates against women in NUIG.

As a former member of academic staff in NUIG, there are several aspects to these developments that have given me moments of complete pride at the fact that I worked with Micheline and her colleagues. While at NUIG, I gained some knowledge of what it feels like to hit your head – hard – on a glass ceiling. The dawning realisation that your chances of promotion are slim to non-existent simply on the basis of your gender is an awful experience, yet it is unfortunately a common experience for women in academia and one that we need to fight. I also feel proud of the students who are speaking out, signing petitions and organising events in support of these women. They realise that they too lose out from discriminatory practices, both in the current environment and in their future careers. It is simply indefensible that in a university with 15,000 students, most of them will never see or meet a female professor.

Finally, I am rather in awe of Micheline, who has resurrected the spirit of her suffragette grandmother by taking on – at a significant personal cost – a daunting legal challenge. Not only did she do everything she could to fight and win, she is now giving everything she can to support the fight of others. She is turning her individual fight into a collective call for action. I think for all of us who hope that being a feminist academic is not a contradiction in terms, Micheline is showing us what can happen when we take a stand. Please visit her website and sign her petition.



About the author:

Kelly Coate is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Kings College London and Director of the Kings Learning Institute. She was previously a Lecturer in Higher Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She sits on the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Education Policy, Teaching in Higher Education, and Higher Education Research and Development.

Kelly has written about gender and academic labour, including a new article in BJSE: Coate, K. and Kandikow Howson (2014) Indicators of Esteem: Gender and Prestige in Academic Work. British Journal of Sociology of Education.  DOI:10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

Event and CFP: Achieving Gender Equality in the Academy: Intersections, Interrogations and Practices

Call for Papers (via BSA Religion study group)

Achieving Gender Equality in the Academy: Intersections, Interrogations and Practices

Abstracts of 150 words are invited by 1 August 2014 to:

Dr Abby Day (A.F.Day@kent.ac.uk) and

Dr Sonya Sharma (sonya.sharma@kingston.ac.uk)


The symposium is organised by Socrel, the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group. Last year’s symposium was over-subscribed and therefore early submissions are encouraged.

Venue: BSA Meeting Room, Imperial Wharf, London

Date:  Saturday 4 October 2014

10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Keynote speakers:  Professor Heidi Safia Mirza, Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London; Professor Helen Beebee, Philosophy, University of Manchester

In response to a recent report on issues of gender and women’s career progression within the disciplines of Theology and Religious Studies (www.trs.ac.uk), this symposium aims to not only explore issues of gender particular to these disciplines, but also those that were raised in the report that affect women across disciplines within the academy.

Achieving gender equality is a continuing concern in both society and academia. Many women are attracted to a career in higher education because of its autonomy, collaboration and intellectual rewards. In light of the much welcomed and recent efforts by academics and administrators, universities have been slow to institutionalise gender equality. In recent studies that address issues of gender in the academy, particularly within the humanities and STEM subjects, women scholars, at varying stages of their careers continue to encounter an environment where they are in the minority among men, confront the difficulties of balancing caring responsibilities with the demands of academia, and where they experience bullying and challenges to promotion. Importantly, religion, race and class have also impacted on women’s experiences in the academy, resulting in multiple forms of inclusion and exclusion.

As such, women’s experiences of higher education have demonstrated both the rewards and costs of pursuing a career in academia. The aim of the symposium is to discuss and interrogate how these issues are being addressed, experienced and resisted in academic spaces. Some of the questions we hope to explore on the day are: how do religion, race and class interact with gender to affect women’s experiences of the academy? How is gender inequality resisted in everyday academic life? How is gender equality being taught? What are students’ experiences of gender inequality amongst the student body and/or with staff? What equality and diversity initiatives are being instituted to shift academic cultures? We welcome women at all stages of their career. We welcome papers that provide intersectional analyses of gender, along with working and outline papers based not only on research but also reflexive accounts based on personal experience.

Topics can include, but are not limited to:

-Religion and gender in the academy

-Gender in the curriculum

-Women’s experiences of gender in/equality

-Lived experiences

-Intersectional analyses and approaches

-Career progression

-Power, resistance and change in institutional contexts

-Feminism in the academy

-Researching gender in/equality

-Racialised and classed experiences of gender in the academy

The day will be highly participative and engaged. The symposium will be organised as a single stream so that the day is as much about discussion as it is about presentation. We invite individual papers that are 10 minutes in length and roundtable formats that consist of short papers, all with the aim to encourage interaction and sharing of knowledges and accounts.

Papers are invited from students, educators, and researchers in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, geography, theology, history, philosophy, psychology, political science and religious studies. We hope to attract presentations of sufficient quality to lead to an edited publication.

Costs: £36.00 for BSA members; £41 for Socrel members; £46.00 for non-members; £15 for BSA Postgraduate members; £20.00 for Socrel Postgraduate members; £25.00 for Postgraduate non-members.


Battling with Boy Theory at the Big Conference – by Sara De Benedictis

My first encounter of the dominance of boy theory and theorists at supposedly feminist informed and ‘friendly’ conferences was a shock to the system. When I was in my first year of my postgraduate degree I had the opportunity to go to a very large established Cultural Studies conference. The specificity of the conference, location and people are irrelevant. I am certain that this story will be familiar to many and could easily stand in for experiences that others have had. These stories tend to be silenced publically. You will not usually find the reporting of academic sexism at conferences on the (now obligatory) twitter hashtag. Rather these stories are told in hushed, angry tones between feminist friends and colleagues unable to compute the hypocrisy of the situation that they have witnessed; gender inequality playing out so palpably in sites that they should not.

I was fortunate that my experiences of conferences when I attended this one had thus far been of small feminist arranged ones, which were by no means perfect but overall had a strong feminist drive with an awareness of the importance of practicing feminist politics. Practices such as conscious decision making about panel speakers, and others that #womantheory have helpfully pointed out. I (naively) came to this large Cultural Studies conference with around 300 attendees assuming that these types of practices were infiltrated into the very core of Cultural Studies, and as such this would be fundamental to the organisation of the conference. Women theorists had been so vital to the discipline of Cultural Studies, how could they not be?

Unfortunately, I was wrong. From the start, I had some gripes with the theme of the conference in itself. It was a conference professing a ‘new’ turn, which always makes me dubious. I soon realised that what was being cast aside and undermined in the ‘newness’ professed in this conference was the importance of feminist politics on inequality and power relations and how essential this is to Cultural Studies. As Sara Ahmed notes:

I would say that in the landscape of contemporary critical theory there is a sense – sometimes spoken, sometimes not – that we need to “get beyond” categories like gender and race: as if the categories themselves have restricted our understanding; as if the categories themselves are the blockage points. […] The hope invested in new terms (movement, becoming, assemblages, capacities) can thus be considered a way of “overing” as if these terms are how we “get over” the categories themselves. (Ahmed, 2013)

The majority of the actual conference was not necessarily my main issue, although papers with gender perspectives were largely labelled as such in the programme, whereas all other panels were labelled through their seemingly ‘apolitical’ content even if they were informed through these perspectives. A move that I felt marked the former types of panels as ‘other’ to the invisibility of the white, male perspectives that were not named as such.

It was not until the closing plenary, however, that the reality of the silencing of feminist theorists really hit home. As I sat with the other attendees, a fairly diverse audience from multiple countries, waiting to hear the closing panel I was taken aback to see a majority white, male panel shuffle on to the stage before me. These well-known academics sitting in front of me were meant to reflect and discuss where Cultural Studies was now. As the closing plenary began I was enraged as slowly, one by one, in some sort of bizarre display of male back patting and camaraderie, the six men began to discuss how fantastic Cultural Studies was citing the ‘leaders’ in the field – all men from Anglophone countries – and just how far the discipline had come. I looked around engulfed by rage and rolled my eyes at my feminist colleagues who sat beside me. Surely, I was not the only one who found this display unbelievable? If the actual presence of a male dominated panel in a supposedly feminist aware conference was bad enough, the content of what these men were saying was even worse. I did not hear the word ‘politics’ spoken once in any meaningful way, let alone any reference to feminist politics or female theorists.

I felt disappointed, saddened and angry. Perhaps these feelings were more acute as this was my first experience of this type of sexist display in academia, which felt all the more pernicious due to the fact that this was at a Cultural Studies conference. But as the second of two women spoke, I will never forget the wave of appreciation I felt for her as she took on the position of feminist killjoy. This woman began to speak with such directness and measured anger about the politics of Cultural Studies, the inequality still felt by many and how this focus on the ‘new’ can overshadow said structural inequality around gender, race, class “etc”. She gestured to the room that we were in where the grand pictures of solely white, aristocratic men that adorned the walls of the room only served to antagonise and remind us of how long the history of white male supremacy is, and how this would be seeming to repeat itself in front of our very eyes. Amongst other points, she was clearly making subtle reference to the display before us.

I do not know what it must feel like to be a feminist killjoy on a male dominated panel in a room full of around 300 people questioning the very heart of the theme of a conference. I imagine it is quite terrifying. This academic was (and still is) established in her field so perhaps she has become more used to taking up this position, or perhaps every time she is forced to appropriate this position she has to push herself to override her fears and exhaustion to be the subject that speaks up against inequality. Regardless, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for a number of reasons. Firstly, she showed me how important it is to not be complacent in the assumption that issues of power no less affect these types of sites that are supposedly more aware. Secondly, that she had the courage to speak up to disrupt and fracture the dominance of boy theory in that moment, which cemented how important it is to do – in the little and big ways – as a form of collective action. I am sure that I was not alone in feeling this as she cracked the mirror that supposedly reflected ‘where Cultural Studies is now’.

Written for Womantheory by Sara De Benedictis, King’s College London

Event: ‘DARING TO BE BAD’? An interdisciplinary workshop on rage, frustration and destructiveness in feminist theory and activism

The Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University ofWarwick:

‘DARING TO BE BAD’? An interdisciplinary workshop on rage, frustration and destructiveness in feminist theory and activism





In her Bitch Manifesto from 1970, the feminist journalist and activist Joreen claimed that women should be “militant” and “dangerous”. She and other radical feminists made no secret of their frustration about and anger against patriarchal institutions and the prevailing gender norms, but radical feminism has attracted much criticism since. What role have negative emotions played in feminism in the past, and how shall we relate to them today? Is rage an affect that we have to overcome? Or can it help us to fight against sexism, racism and other forms of oppression?

When: Thursday 12 June 2014, 4.00 – 6.30 pm

Where: The Wolfson Research Exchange, 3rd Floor, Library, University of Warwick

To register, please send an email to R. Yunus@warwick.ac.uk or Katharina.Karcher@yahoo.com

Your simple guide to supporting #womantheory

You don’t have to be a woman, or a feminist, to ‘do’ or to ‘support’ WomanTheory.

Supporting WomanTheory is about a commitment to recognising the contribution of women to the academy and to intellectual and public life. And acting on this.

Here are a few things you can do to show your support for WomanTheory:

1. Refuse to be part of a panel at an academic event where there are no women speakers.

2. When organising events, consider the gender composition of your keynotes and panelists. And facilitate the inclusion of younger/ early career academics.

3. Discard reading lists and teaching material that include only books and articles by men.

4. Change your citation practice: don’t just cite more ‘boy theory’

5. Refuse to be a member of editorial boards that don’t include or are seriously low on women

6. Complain to your institution – or conference organiser – if they fail to provide adequate creche and childcare  facilities for staff and delegates

7. Encourage and support junior colleagues

8. Don’t leave all the student care and academic ‘housekeeping’ (including picking up used coffee cups) to your female colleagues.

It’s pretty simple really. So come on, get involved! Join the Revolution.

*You can download this guide as a poster to put up in your institution.

Sexism, peer review and research funding

In case you missed this, there was a brilliant – though depressing – article in the Guardian earlier this month about the massive gender disparities in academic research funding.

Written by an ‘anonymous academic’, the piece discusses the impact of gender bias in the peer review process of grant applications on the career paths of female academics.  As the writer states, evidence from Sweden suggests that female applicants are judged considerably more harshly in the peer review process than their male counterparts. These problems exceed the grant awarding process – they are also present in academic publishing:

‘The heart of the problem seems to be the perceived competence of men, and the fact that women often have to work much harder to be seen as competent. This is also evident in peer review for journal publications. We know that when double-blind peer reviewing was introduced for academic journals, there was a significant increase in female-first-authored papers – a difference of 7.9% of female-first-authored papers, and a 33% increase in the representation of female authors more broadly.’

Furthermore, the Guardian article refers to the ‘friendship bonus’ and forms of nepotism at play within the peer review process.  This echoes excellent research by Kelly Coate which explored the gendered hierarchies of ‘esteem indicators’ operating within academia.  Kelly’s research with academics shows how male academics rate their work of  higher quality than women. Furthermore, data from their project shows how male and female staff are differentially positioned and read in relation to the position of the ‘star academic’ or ‘leading scholar’. As one participant in their study stated:

‘There is a prevailing attitude that women are the worker bees and men are the shining academic stars. The work than women do in this university needs to be recognised‘.

The gendered dualisms between mind/ body that inform who can occupy such positions, and the invisibility of women’s labour in the academy – the doing of pastoral and administrative work that is deemed outside of and less than scholarly activities – need to be challenged.

Returning to the issue of peer review and research funding, with applications for academic promotion judged on academic publications and research funding, these inequities have massive implications for female academics’ chances of promotion and career development. No doubt these processes contribute to the huge disparities in the number of male and female professors in higher education where only a dismal 22% of professors in the UK are women.