The political Studies Association’s Women and Politics Specialist Group (WPSG) meeting was perhaps the most thought-provoking event that I attended during my brief passage to Brighton for the PSA’s 2016 annual conference earlier this week.
The meeting, attended by high-profile senior scholars as well as early/mid career academics, was heartening – given the collective resolve to fight against persistent gender-related inequalities in the profession. The convenors noted how some efforts to track the gender gap, by examining statistics on female conference delegates at past PSA conferences, for example, were less than favourably received by the PSA’s high command, on the grounds that such steps risked making ‘men uncomfortable’. Participants also discussed how the 2015 PSA annual conference, held in Sheffield, happened to be extremely gender-biased, with a low level of priority accorded to gender balance and equality. One delegate even recalled how she felt as if she were attending a male-dominated event at the previous year’s conference.
The fact that this specialist group meeting took place in a small room (albeit one with a breath-taking view of the sea), while all other PSA specialist groups were meeting in different conference rooms in the Hilton and Grand hotels, was indeed a pity. It would only have benefitted each and every conference delegate to have attended the Women and Politics specialist group meeting, as the issues discussed were of crucial relevance to the profession at large. Irrespective of one’s gender, one could only have benefitted from this meeting, if not a larger event in the biggest available conference room, which put issues of gender equality in the spotlight.
The discussion revealed the bitter reality of the extent to which a learned society, composed of specialists in nearly every branch of the study of political science and related overlapping disciplinary areas, still tends to have major issues with gender equality. Considerable achievements may certainly have been, and will indeed be, realised, but the struggle for gender equality within this erudite club is a continuous one, that needs to be fought vigorously.
Nearly all of the issues discussed involved promoting gender equality in the profession. Apart from a senior academic, this writer happened to be the only other non-white person to be in the room. Issues of intersectionality were briefly evoked, but require increased attention. When working towards ensuring a place of equality for ‘women’ in the profession, does that include transwomen? What about women, cis and trans, of colour? As a transwoman of colour attending the PSA conference, it was certainly clear to me, unsurprisingly, that I was entering a very cis and largely cis male academic context, where trans identities such as mine may not have much of a presence, let alone be welcome.The issue of trans-inclusivity is deeply connected to struggles for gender equality within the association, which are both suggestive of wider challenges of inclusivity in the academic sphere, in universities, degree programmes and academic openings.
The scenario may be different in other academic contexts, such as the field of Queer Studies and the fast-developing interdisciplinary area of Transgender Studies. However, this should not mean that an academic who happens to be trans (or indeed of any other non-heteronormative gender identity, or sexual orientation, for that matter) should only specialise themselves in trans/queer studies. I am trans, I write about trans issues, engage in advocacy at my own pace, but this does not mean that I am not in a position to specialise myself in the politics of deeply divided societies. Over the years, I have come to know people who, despite their tremendous potential to emerge as leading scholars in international politics, simply moved on to academic spheres that involved research on gender and sexuality, where they felt more ‘welcome’ and appreciated. While many such decisions were justified as personal choice, they were also motivated by the ‘lack’ of a choice as such, as they would feel considerably (if not extremely) unwelcome in academic disciplines outside trans/queer studies. Hence the importance, in a specialist group such as WPSG to focus more on intersectional inclusivity. If a group of this nature does not do it, no one else in the PSA will.
The intersectional complexities of such issues – if a sincere commitment to equality and diversity is on the table – require further dialogue. A discussion of women in the profession also ought to pay more attention to women from minority backgrounds, international scholars, PhD candidates and postdoc fellows from minority backgrounds (and those from the global South who are faced with Draconian Home Office immigration regulations with formalities that cost a fortune). When the issue of equality is focused exclusively on [white] women struggling to secure a more equitable, just and correct level of professionalism from structures dominated by [white] men, a large number of people get fallen off the deck. When approaching its central focus of gender equality and women in the profession, an increased focus on gender and ethnic diversity will enable the WPSG to put vital issues that concern people who are too often summarily ignored at centre-stage.
The conference as a whole was, once again unsurprisingly very caucasian, with exceptions of senior academics who are indeed in a position to afford the substantive costs, from a high conference payment to other expenses. This is to be expected, and is reflective of the profession of teaching and research politics, and academia at large. On one side, there is an emphasis on diversity, and on the other, rigid structures are in place which keep people who do not correspond to the ‘status quo’ at bay, due to their gender, personal circumstances, ethnicity, non-Western nationality or any other marker of ‘otherness’.
One of the most important points discussed during the WPSG meeting was a suggestion that a ‘day fee’ should be introduced to people who wish to attend the conference for one day, and not for its entire three-day duration. This, if anything, was proof of the sense of bonne volonté of the WPSG convenors and participants, to work collectively towards enhancing equality and inclusivity in the profession.