Remembering Emma Ritch: Executive Director of Engender

We are devastated to hear of Emma’s passing. On behalf of the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Research Group, we extend our condolences to Emma’s colleagues at Engender, her partner Kenny, and her family and friends.

Emma was a true force in the Scottish women’s movement – brilliant, incisive, determined, but always approaching her work with a glint of humour. Gender politics researchers at Edinburgh have worked with Engender since its inception – and it was always a delight to work with Emma on research projects, panels, and events. You knew if you saw your name next to hers that you were in good hands (and that you would have a good chat afterwards!). And she was unfailingly kind and generous with her time – giving advice, bringing people together, making connections – whether formally in policy spaces, or informally over a cuppa and cake (where she memorably let one of us – on maternity leave at the time – rant for an extended period about the reduction of buggy spaces on buses, then gave us reams of advice about how to get things done!). The big things that she did matter immensely, but it was also the little things – the note she’d send you, for example, in a private message during a formal Zoom meeting asking how your kids were.

It is hard to find the words to capture this loss – for those who loved her, and for the wider movement. Even speaking of Emma in the past tense seems an impossibility. Her legacy is immense – envisioning a different, and feminist, future for Scotland. The tributes that we have seen over the past several days reflect the far-reaching impact that she had on so many people, and their commitment to upholding her legacy and continuing to push for change.

We are grateful to have known her. Rest in power, Emma.

Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Claire Duncanson (on behalf of the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Research Group)

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Introducing the PeaceFem App

PeaceFem is a mobile phone app that illustrates women’s inclusion in peace processes around the world. PeaceFem provides information about strategies women’s rights advocates have used to influence peace agreements; information about the enabling and constraining factors that shaped the space for influence; and the gender provisions in the peace agreements that resulted and information as to how well they were implemented.

A contribution to the growing field of PeaceTech, which uses technology to support peacebuilding, including peace mediation, PeaceFem brings together data on women and peacemaking in one easy-to-use app in English and Arabic. Intended for use by women’s rights advocates, mediation and negotiation teams, as well as other actors working in peace and security, the app contains strategies for influencing peace processes, as well as the resulting gender-sensitive provisions in peace agreements and data on their implementation.

The app draws on PA-X peace agreement data from the University of Edinburgh, and 30 case studies developed by InclusivePeace and Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre.

To learn more about PeaceTech, check out this blog post from PSRP Graduate Fellow Fiona Knäussel. 

To learn more about the PeaceFem app (and. The Political Settlements Research Programme), see here.

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Weaving institutional change: feminist networking to achieve gender equality in academia

Dr María López Belloso recently finished a nominated fellowship with IASH and genderED. This is a cross-post with the GEARING Roles blog.

From its inception in the proposal-drafting phase, GEARING Roles partners bet on achieving institutional change through knowledge exchange and “learning by doing”. The European Commission has been funding institutional change projects since FP7, and therefore, there were so many actions and initiatives, toolkits and resources to learn from and get inspiration. Building on resources gathered in the GEAR tool, we designed the “pairing visits” precisely to enable knowledge exchange between GEP (gender equality plan) implementing partners and to engage leaders of the organizations in the change process with the help of our supporting partners. We are also privileged to share this path with so many “sister projects” that inspire our work and share with us the commitment and enthusiasm to achieve gender equality in HEIs (higher education institutions). 

However, it is also important to step outside of the daily inertia of EU-funded projects and look around to see how gender equality is tackled in other institutions and contexts. This summer I had the opportunity, as IASHgenderED nominated fellow, to exchange also with colleagues from the University of Edinburgh and learn from their expertise and experience. My fellowship, as academia in general, was impacted by COVID-19, but even under these circumstances, I have been able to learn and get so much inspiration. Particularly, I found especially stimulating genderED’s approach to gender mainstreaming in teaching and research, which is sometimes pushed into the background of GEPs, relying on the commitment of the researchers engaged.

genderED is a “virtual space to showcase excellence in teaching, research and Knowledge, Exchange, Impact (KEI) in gender and sexualities studies at University of Edinburgh, and to promote connectivity and interdisciplinarity”. Thus, genderED and GEARING Roles share goals and objectives, and there are many interesting initiatives in Edinburgh that each bring their own approaches and ideas on how to foster gender mainstreaming in HEIs. genderED builds on three main axes: teaching, research and connections.

GEARING Roles GEPs implementing partners identified in their Institutional Assessments that most of the time, the inclusion of gender and the revision of curricula under a gendered lens relies on the willingness of teaching staff, who sometimes find it difficult to learn how to improve their syllabus and fulfill all required criteria. The genderED directory of more than 80 courses across 10 schools provides a complete example of how different disciplines can mainstream gender and diversify the curriculum. I found especially relevant the course Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, which provides an “overview of the major issues at stake in the study of gender relations from a broadly social science perspective. It introduces students to gender studies as a theoretical field of investigation, examining key concepts and debates in the field”. What I found particularly attractive about this course is that it was co-created with students and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association as part of the University’s evolving Gender Initiative – and it is open to undergraduates from across the University. This could be a really interesting way of engaging students in our actions and processes, which is sometimes one of the most challenging parts of the GEP implementation. 

Another initiative is Teaching Matters. It is a website, blog and podcast repository for debate about learning and teaching, for sharing ideas and approaches to teaching, and for showcasing successes”. This resource has also brought attention to students´ perceptions of gender and diversityhow to make the curriculum more inclusive, and feminist teaching, showing that it is possible to engage students in the debate.

Another example of collaboration among staff and students is the EqualBITE book. The book is a “collection of recipes, photos, illustrations and articles” about the University’s work related to improving gender equality. It not only contains material related to including gender in teaching, but also on topics such as the gender pay gap, bias in the REF, career development and how to deal with the drip-drip-drip of everyday sexism in language.

The second pillar of genderED is research, with a repository of projects and publications and a searchable directory of gender and sexualities researchers. These tools enable researchers and students to explore the breadth and depth of the research being carried out in the area of gender and sexualities, showcasing the expertise of different schools and departments on the topic.

Finally, making connections is the third axis of genderED projects. Under this section, they highlight the interdisciplinary connections among researchers and schools and they share information on social networks. They also foster other initiatives, such as the Gender Politics Reading Group, led by Rebecca Hewer, which has allowed me to participate in engaging discussions and exchanges. 

The structure and functioning of genderED reminded me of the work we develop in University of Deusto’s Gender Interdisciplinary Platform, which is also a dynamic vehicle that teams up experts from different areas of knowledge with the dual purpose of fostering collaboration and integrating existing expertise to address society’s emerging challenges on gender issues. 

Making connections and building networks is essential to achieve this goal. Connecting the work and ideas that we are developing in different institutions and settings allows us to enlarge our set of tools and best practices; moreover, these connections weave a web of commitment and sorority that is essential to achieve institutional change, but also to care for change agents and avoid gender fatigue. I am really thankful to Prof. Fiona Mackay for her care and support during this fellowship, and to all IASH staff for their kindness and availability.

genderED and GEARING Roles have started their “collaboration web” that will be materialized in forthcoming shared events and hopefully future research collaboration. Stay tuned for more information!

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genderED: The Year in Focus

Director Fiona Mackay reflects on the highlights of 2019-20 for genderED – the University of Edinburgh’s interdisciplinary hub for showcasing gender and sexualities studies. genderED is hosted by IASH (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities) on behalf of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS), supported by Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA), and powered by the School of Social and Political Science (SPS).

Now approaching our third birthday, genderED has grown to around 160 researchers (from 85 at launch) and has more than 180 courses listed in our directory (from 80 at launch). This demonstrates the breadth and strength of work at Edinburgh in this widely dispersed and often overlooked interdisciplinary field. 

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted everyone’s lives – and genderED’s programme of activities was no exception. We were very disappointed to have to cancel or postpone several planned events in Spring 2020. These included a joint international seminar with the Scottish Government on Feminist Open Government, our annual Feminist Research Methods PhD workshop with Strathclyde University (as part of the Scottish Graduate Schools’ Spring into Methods), and collaborations with Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Edinburgh Women’s Aid. 

We have continued to be busy on social media and will be delivering events digitally in Academic Year 2020-21, including the annual showcase. Our website is currently being re-developed for launch in Autumn 2020.


It was a year of changes: we said a sad goodbye to our inaugural coordinator Christina Neuwirth and our PhD intern Tatiana Cary.  Thanks are due to Abrisham Ahmadzadeh (Summer intern 2019), Natasha Dyer, Elena Pollot, Iz Gius (Summer intern 2020) and the SPS Comms Team for their contributions in 2019-20, and to Becky Moody (SPS) who provides administrative support. 

Key highlights in 2019-20:

Highlighting research, teaching and campaigns: genderED’s annual showcase

Fascinating interdisciplinary stuff, great to see gender research across the university” (attendee, genderED showcase 2019).

We held a successful second anniversary showcase in October 2019. The interactive showcase of research, teaching and institutional initiatives and campaigns attracted more than 100 attendees to learn about gender and sexuality studies work across a wide range of disciplines. A total of 18 projects were presented, plus a wall of  ‘postcards’ and ‘mini posters’ of PhD projects. The showcase drew upon projects from all three Colleges, IS, Library, EUSA, and the student initiative UncoverED. 

Topics ranged from interactive maps of the Scottish witch trials to the gender dynamics of Japanese Kabuki; from Black masculinities to Dangerous Women; and from Women and Peace Agreements (PAX-Women database) to action-research to transform the institutional culture in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (STEM). We are planning to deliver our third anniversary showcase digitally in Autumn 2020.

International collaboration to address gender-based violence

Working with our partners at Ambedkar University Delhi and the Australian Human Rights Institute (University of New South Wales), genderED curated its third international blogathon to raise awareness of gender-based violence during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (November 25-December 10 2019). It opened with a post from the award-winning author and feminist activist Eve Ensler. A total of 26 posts over 16 days covered topics ranging from dowry abuse to on-campus campaigns addressing sexual harassment and violence; from textile testimonies on GBV to the ongoing impact of the failure of the Northern Ireland peace process to include  the voices of LGBT+ people. Contributors included academics and practitioners from UK and Europe, North America, Africa, South Asia, and Australia and Asia Pacific. In 2020 we plan to focus on arts-based approaches to addressing GBV and will be working closely with Edinburgh College of Art.

Putting knowledge to use

genderED (Prof Fiona Mackay and Dr Rosalind Cavaghan) and Edinburgh Research Office (International Development Research Hub) have worked together in 2019-20 to create a suite of resources to support academics to integrate gender equality considerations into Global Challenges Research Fund and Newton Fund research projects, including a new toolkit and Guidance. The work, funded through the Scottish Funding Council / Global Challenges Research Fund, continues in 2020-21.

Supporting the study of gender and sexualities

The cross-university pre-honours undergraduate course Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World (led by SPS) was successfully run for the third time in 2019-20 (Convenor Dr Meryl Kenny and Dr Sarah Liu); and Introduction to Queer Studies (led by ECA) ran for the second time (Convenor Dr Glyn Davis). Proposals for a new interdisciplinary undergraduate course on Gender and Visual Cultures (Dr Idil Akinci and Prof Nacim Pak-Shiraz, LLC) have been approved for delivery in 2021-22. A podcast by 2019 Summer Intern Abi Ahmadzadeh with staff and former students from Understanding Gender can be found here.  

Sponsoring innovation

We were pleased to co-sponsor (with the Principal’s Student Experience Grant) an exciting project by PhD students, Feminist Struggles in the Academy: in India and the UK’ webcomic. Kamya Choudhary and Cat Wayland (PhD students in SPS, supervised by genderED steering group member Radhika Govinda) worked with illustrators to create a webcomic based on roundtable discussions undertaken as part of a University of Edinburgh – Ambedkar University Delhi project on Teaching Feminisms and Transforming Lives.

To join our mailing list email Follow us on Twitter @UoE_genderED

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The Scottish Feminist Judgements Podcast – tackling the myth of neutrality

This is a guest post from Gabrielle Blackburn of the Scottish Feminist Judgements Podcast.

The first episode of the Scottish Feminist Judgments Podcast launched on Thursday 20th of August, and new episodes come out every other Thursday, available on all the usual podcast streaming platforms. 

The podcast is based on the legal research project of the same name and is directed at lay-people, as an accessible way to engage with law and think about its opportunities and limitations from a feminist perspective.

While the content of the podcast focuses on the Scottish legal system, the ideas and challenges discussed are widely applicable to all legal systems, as well as all endeavours that pertain to social justice and equity. 

At its core, the podcast is an exploration of how supposedly neutral and unbiased systems – like the Scottish legal system – can in fact be profoundly rooted in and perpetuating oppressive norms (in this case, patriarchal norms).

By exploring this system through a feminist lens, we unveil different ways in which we can shake this patriarchal standpoint and move towards a system that is more equitable and just. 

The injustices presented in these stories feels familiar. So does the frustration at the glaring unfairness that had to be explained and reasoned at great length before being heard. The poise and professionalism with which the feminist judges dismantle the notion of neutrality feels like a beautiful demonstration of what a feminist analysis is capable of. It illustrates an alternative – one where women’s lived experience is taken into account. 

The podcast delves into 3 of the feminist judgements from the book, to explore different facets of the issue: 

  • Episode 1 covers the impact of history and cultural legacies on our present-day legal system, through a case involving femicide
  • Episode 2 discusses the impact of silencing women’s stories and lived experiences in court. This is discussed through a case involving domestic abuse.
  • Episode 3 touches on how, even when law has the potential to be egalitarian, the way it is applied can hinder that potential. Here, we look at a financial provision on divorce case, and focus on the valuation of unpaid work.

Stay up to date 

Episode 1 launched on 20th August, Episode 2 launched on 3rd September, and Episode 3 will be released on Thursday 17th September. Find them here.

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the project. 

How the Feminist Judgements Projects work 

Feminist Judgements Projects originated in Canada, and iterations have been done around the world. The idea is to get legal practitioners and academics to re-write old legal judgements from a feminist perspective. 

The only rule is: in your re-writing, you can only use tools that would have been at your disposal at the time of the original judgement. This means you could only use laws, evidence, and social understandings of the world that could have been accessed by the original judge and jury. 

After that, all they had to do was to re-visit these cases through a feminist lens and see where this would take them. 

Sometimes, it led them to re-write the judgement’s reasoning and arguments. Sometimes, this also led them to a completely different verdict. Every time, though, it shone a light on how legal systems, far from being neutral, are deeply rooted in patriarchal norms. 

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Congratulations to Dr Harini Amarasuriya, appointed as Sri Lankan MP

Image by Urabenayaka on Wikimedia

genderED would like to offer a heartfelt congratulations to Dr Harini Amarasuriya – 2019 IASH Nominated Fellow and former PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology – who was appointed as a Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka this Wednesday. After obtaining her PhD at University of Edinburgh in 2010, Dr Amarasuriya returned to Sri Lanka and was a Senior Lecturer in Social Studies at the Open University of Sri Lanka, establishing herself as a respected public intellectual. She will be one of only twelve women in the 225-seat Parliament.

Dr Amarasuriya hopes to demonstrate that participation in politics is possible for women, and that women can do politics in a different way. She challenges a political culture in which women face harassment at many levels, especially cyber harassment, and thus prevents women from taking on public positions.

Dr Amarasuriya’s research interests are strongly influenced by women’s, feminist, and queer studies. Among other topics, she examines the ‘sociality of activism’ and the link between intimacy and dissent, looking at the often-overlooked role of women and everyday relationships in shaping politics. 

Read more about Dr Amarasuriya’s academic interests and political priorities here and here.

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Pornography and the Contrast Between Sexism and Misogyny

Dr. Aidan McGlynn is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

My aim in this post is to examine the bearing of sexist pornography on the distinction between sexism and misogyny drawn by Kate Manne in her recent and highly influential book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018). Manne’s overarching project is to convince us to abandon what she calls the naïve conception of misogyny, according to which it is a matter of a large number of men directing hatred or hostility towards women—all or most women—simply on the grounds that they are women. In its place, Manne offers a characterisation of misogyny that shifts our focus from the supposed hostility felt by men and onto the hostility experienced by many women in navigating various social spaces and situations (2018: 59). On Manne’s analysis, one central function of patriarchy is to position women as the givers rather than the takers of certain kinds of goods, including sympathy, attention, emotional, domestic and reproductive labour, and sexual attention. Misogyny is the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, ‘which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations’ (2018: 78). Women who don’t tow the line with respect to these norms and expectations can be subject to a number of ‘down girl moves’ which act to nudge them back into line, to punish them, and to serve as a warning to other women. Down girl moves vary across different cultures, but even within a particular culture they can take a variety of forms, ranging from the relatively subtle to the overtly violent.

One of the main considerations that Manne offers in favour of her account of misogyny over the naïve conception is that it allows us to draw a ‘clean, useful contrast’ between misogyny and sexism (2018: 78). Sexism ‘should be understood as the “justificatory” branch of a patriarchal order, which consists in ideology that has the overall function of rationalizing and justifying patriarchal social relations’ (2018: 79). Again, this ideology will be somewhat culturally specific, but longstanding and clear examples include the tropes that woman are nurturing, natural and instinctive parents, in need of protection, and less rational and intelligent (while men—especially white men—are naturally stronger, more dominant, logical, intelligent, rational, and natural leaders). An ideology built around such tropes rationalises and justifies a social order which positions women as givers of particular kinds of labour, care, and attention, and certain men as entitled to such labour and support in order to enable them to pursue supposedly grander endeavours.

Having explained how she understands sexism and misogyny, and the way that they conspire to uphold patriarchy, Manne draws a number of contrasts between them:

Overall, sexism and misogyny share a common purpose—to maintain or restore a patriarchal social order. But sexism purports to merely be being reasonable; misogyny gets nasty and tries to force the issue. Sexism is hence to bad science as misogyny is to moralism. Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts. (2018: 80).

Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel. (2018: 88)

Much mainstream heterosexual pornography looks like a problem for this way of thinking about the contrast between sexism and misogyny since it primarily seems to fall on the sexism side of the divide, but it’s not bookish, theoretical, or scientific. I don’t mean to suggest that pornography is never misogynist in character. So-called “revenge-porn” is clearly misogynist, involving devastating violations of personal privacy and autonomy, supposedly as an act of revenge (on an ex-partner, for example). As the leaks of private photographs and videos of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence show, there’s often not even a pretence of a motivation of revenge; rather, these are attempts to embarrass and expose successful women, to ‘take them down a peg’, and to affirm an entitlement to sexual access to them. Some mainstream pornography films may count as, or purport to be, ‘revenge porn’ in this sense; but, crucially, much doesn’t. The main problem with mainstream pornography, from a feminist perspective, is that it is sexist; it pushes a deeply inegalitarian ideology, according to which women are typically available for sex (even when occupying roles of relative power, such as being a boss or a school teacher), that women’s secret or repressed fantasies dovetail with men’s darkest and most violent fantasies, and so on.

Manne recognises that certain feminist conceptions of mainstream pornography pose a challenge to her views, but she conceives of this challenge more narrowly. As part of the shift away from thinking of misogyny in terms of the psychology of men, Manne argues against the idea that an essential or central component of misogyny is that men view women as mere objects or as dehumanised sub-persons. One feminist critique of mainstream pornography is precisely that it spreads such an objectified or dehumanised image of women, depicting them as lacking all agency and autonomy and as mere instruments for men’s sexual gratification, whose own pleasure is of little or no importance. Manne argues against this, taking as her main target Rae Langton’s (2009) suggestion that a central aspect of the oppression of women is that men’s attitudes amount to a kind of ‘sexual solipsism’, where men are the only fully human, fully minded creatures, and that this world-view is peddled by pornography:

What, now, of Langton’s views about the nature of pornography? In some sense, Langton is clearly right that there is a genre of hetereosexual pornography that depicts women as blank, staring, comparatively mindless creatures. (The female lead always wants what he has to give her, and breathy affirmations more or less exhaust her vocabulary.) But I think it is a mistake to suppose that pornography of this kind engenders or reflects this literal view of women. I find it more plausible to think that it is, rather, a marketable fantasy, in offering an escape from more painful and confronting realities. Women’s subjectivity and autonomous sexuality is increasingly difficult to deny, for anyone not utterly delusional and endowed with an Internet connection (ironically). For, women’s voices ring too clear in cyberspace. Hence, from the perspective of patriarchal values, women may be human—all too human, sometimes. Pornography may provide a welcome relief from realities that are difficult to bear in being apprehended. It may soothe by imaginatively defusing the psychic threat women’s humanity can pose, insomuch as she has the capacity to reduce men to shame or humiliate them sexually. This is as opposed to expressing or even shaping men’s literal view of women. (2018: 162-3)

Manne is surely right that mainstream pornography doesn’t try to convince its viewers that women are “blank, staring, comparatively mindless creatures”, and that most of the makers and the viewers of pornography are well aware that women have subjectivity and sexual agency and autonomy. However, it doesn’t follow that pornography is innocent of peddling a harmful sexual ideology, an ideology that expresses or shapes men’s ‘literal view of women’. Rather, as many feminist critiques of mainstream pornography have emphasised, this ideology recognises (or at least pretends to recognise) the subjectivity, autonomy, and agency of women. The ideology spread by mainstream pornography is that women choose and enjoy sexual encounters and acts which position them submissively, almost entirely prioritise male pleasure over female pleasure, and which are frequently humiliating and painful, involving verbal and physical abuse. Catharine MacKinnon captured this ideology as follows:

All the ways men love to take and violate women, women love to be taken and violated. The women who most love this are most men’s equals, the most liberated. (1987: 172)

Moreover, empirical studies of recent pornographic videos on the internet have provided support for such claims, showing, for example, that women are depicted reacting positively to being verbally abused, spat on, having their hair pulled, or being ‘choked’ (e.g. Klaassen and Peter 2015: as Manne reminds us, ‘choking’ in this context would be more accurately described as strangulation). Moreover, pornographic films often suggest that the behaviour of the women in them reveal what that what most other women would choose and enjoy, were they not constrained and inhibited by the usual social norms and niceties. Manne is right that pornography presents a fantasy world in which women’s humanity poses no threat, but contrary to the conclusion she wants to draw, this fantasy does seem to express and influence men’s view of women and (hetereo)sexual relations.

Let’s return to the distinction between misogyny and sexism. What I think reflection on mainstream pornography shows is that Manne has overstated the contrast between these. Sexism, as the ideological branch of patriarchy, need not be bookish or theoretical. There are few lab-coats to be seen, on or behind the camera, in contemporary pornography. Sexism can be violent and abusive. It too can wield a cudgel; it just depicts being cudgelled, not as punitive, but as something that some women—perhaps many women—choose and enjoy.

To say this much is not to suggest that we can’t or shouldn’t draw the distinction Manne draws between sexism and misogyny, and it doesn’t require us to turn away from Manne’s analysis of misogyny, back towards the naïve conception. Even if you accept what I’ve argued here about pornography, you can continue to think that separating out the ideological and law-enforcement branches of patriarchy is important, and that the terminology of sexism and misogyny offers a useful way to speak about this distinction; in fact, this is my own view. But we should be cautious not to draw the contrast in such a way that sexism comes off as relatively mild and gentle when compared to the horrors of misogyny, so well explored in Manne’s book; those engaged in trying to dismantle patriarchy should recognise that sexism can be nasty and combative too, in its own way.


Klaassen, Marleen and Jochen Peter. 2015. ‘Gender (In)equality in Internet Pornography: A Content Analysis of Popular Pornographic Internet Videos.’ The Journal of Sex Research 52 (7): 721-35.

Langton, Rae. 2009. Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine. 1987. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Manne, Kate. 2018. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Race, Intersectionality and COVID-19

This article originally appeared on Discover Society. Ashlee Cristoffersen is a PhD Candidate in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and an equality research consultant.

The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the UK (both within and outwith the medical professions) have sparked critical commentary, an evidence submission, and an official inquiry (headed by a ‘controversial’ figure largely discredited in antiracist, trade union and equality third sector circles).

While racial inequalities in England and Wales have been documented, the same for Scotland have yet to be revealed. Yet (with some exceptions, such as the evidence review), available analysis has often tended to homogenise ‘BME/BAME’ groups – either quantitatively or discursively. This homogenisation is, perhaps, an understandable response to a public health crisis which is exacerbating existing racial and ethnic inequalities, resulting in grossly disproportionate mortality rates.

However, aggregation obscures the complexities of racism and how it is mutually constituted by other structural inequalities. There is a thus a pressing need to disaggregate not only by specific ethnicity, but by intersections of other structural inequalities.

As intersectionality theory reveals, homogenising equality groups tends to privilege the advantaged within-groups: generalising across the category based on one particular position within it and effacing intersectional marginalisation in the process. Furthermore, the category BME/BAME can discursively de-gender women of colour. In the light of this, this article will reflect on the intersections of race and ethnicity with other inequalities, which we might bear in mind when discussing the racial and ethnic inequalities of COVID-19, and which suggest possible directions for future research. These intersections include disability, gender and gender identity, and sexual orientation, among other salient identities which won’t be mentioned in this article: class, nationality, migration status, and faith, for example.

I do this with reference to claims made by equality third sector actors – organisations which have emerged because of inequality related to markers of identity, including racial justice, feminist, disability rights, and LGBT rights organisations – in relation to other equality communities. These organisations play a key and at times overlooked role in policymaking, and an integral role in knowledge production. Some inequalities are more recently protected in equality legislation, and as such, data collection in relation to them is patchy or virtually non-existent (as is the case with trans people). Moreover, official statistics do not consistently examine all of these identities together. Therefore, we cannot gain a full understanding of the complexity of race, ethnicity and intersectional privilege and marginalisation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic with reference to official statistics or existing research alone.

The ways in which these other structural inequalities intersect with institutional racism are not made explicit in these actors’ claims, so they need to be further discerned – the equality third sector remains largely siloed into ‘equality strands’, a situation which my research on intersectionality’s conceptualisation and operationalisation responded to. Claims from other equality sectors may also understandably employ strategic essentialism; in any case, these claims need not necessarily be understood as competing, in the knowledge that no inequalities are mutually exclusive (though of course all such claims can and should be subject to intersectional critique).

According to research by the Glasgow Disability Alliance, the largest disabled people’s membership organisation in Europe, COVID-19 has ‘supercharged’ inequalities already faced by disabled people. Disabled people, with BAME disabled people among them, already faced persistent isolation, poverty and exclusion from services, while the pandemic has led to increases in these issues as well as experiences of food insecurity.

According to disabled people’s organisations participating in my research, these experiences are particularly acute for BAME and other intersectionally marginalised disabled people. This intersection of race, disability and socioeconomic status is particularly significant given the correlations observed between markers of socioeconomic status, particularly deprivation, and vulnerability to COVID-19 in terms of both incidence and outcomes.

My research has found that UK-wide, BAME disabled people’s organisations have been particularly hard hit by cuts associated with austerity, with many such organisations who specifically advocated by and for disabled BAME people now dissolved.

Early research into gender differences and COVID-19 shows that although proportionally more men die than women, women of most minority ethnic groups are more likely to die than white women, with Black women 4.3 times more likely. Research into other health indicators in the UK has found that BAME people are disproportionately diagnosed and treated at late stages, with particularly negative effects for women. One possible contributing factor to these differentials is ‘medical bias’, which has been named as a likely factor in racial inequalities in deaths from COVID-19 in the US.

Increasing incidence of domestic violence is a key gendered issue in relation to the pandemic. Commentary concerning this has largely been happening in parallel to, rather than with and through, commentary about racial and ethnic inequalities. This is a familiar siloing which serves to marginalise the experiences and perspectives of women of colour, and is what Kimberlé Crenshaw named political intersectionality (1991) in her still very relevant critiques of antiracist and feminist movements.

Specialised domestic violence services led by and for BAME women were already grossly underfunded compared with mainstream counterparts, and it is unclear how much, if any, of new funding committed for domestic violence services in the light of the pandemic will reach these services.

Sexual orientation and gender identity
The gendered implications of lockdown – greater proximity to abusive partners, with fewer options to leave – have been highlighted. Yet the framing of domestic violence as an issue exclusively manifested in (heterosexual) intimate partner relationships, or towards children in those contexts, has always served to mask hetero/cissexist domestic violence and abuse experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people from parents and family members. LGBT people may, of course, also be subject to domestic violence in intimate partner relationships.

This is an issue pertinent to all LGBT people, not just BAME LGBT people, but research indicates that the latter are underserved by LGBT-specific services, access to which is even more limited for everyone in the current circumstances, even as many LGBT organisations report increased demand. Many LGBT people, who may also be more likely to have ways of organising familial relationships which diverge from the (nuclear) ‘household’ which the lockdown policy is structured around, will have particularly challenging experiences of lockdown.

LGBT people experience health inequalities which may increase risk in relation to COVID-19. Furthermore, pre-existing health inequalities among LGBT people would suggest that vulnerability to COVID-19 may be particularly acute for BAME and other intersectionally-marginalised LGBT people.

I have highlighted just a few issues which emerge when the intersections of race and ethnicity with disability, gender and gender identity, and sexual orientation are considered in relation to inequalities of COVID-19. The groups of BAME disabled and LGBT people, and BAME women and men, all overlap, and experiences vary further by specific ethnicity. In a context where equality-claims-making remains largely siloed, and attention to intersectionality is fragmentary at best, it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will exacerbate the homogenising tendency of these claims, or whether future analysis might take care to highlight intersectional marginalisation among BAME people and within equality groups.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Colour.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–99.

Posted in feminism, genderED, intersectional feminism, intersectionality, LGBTI politics | Leave a comment

Social Media, Blockchain, Big Data & Co: How do we support women mediators in peace processes in a technology-driven world?

Cross-post from Political Settlements Research Programme.

Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) Graduate Fellow, Fiona Knäussel, reflects on the programme’s thinking on women and PeaceTech, the challenges for women peacebuilders in using tech tools and how to address them, and on whether tech solutions are themselves gender-proofed. The outlined considerations were important in informing PSRP’s work on PeaceFem, a mobile app focussed on women’s peacebuilding efforts, which officially launched on 30 June 2020. This blog post is part of a series that aims to explain and evaluate PSRP’s research around PeaceTech and the undertaken projects to date.

Since the introduction of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in 2000, women’s inclusion and active participation in peace processes have been promoted and promised on multiple occasions. Within the last 20 years, we have also learned and recognized that women’s involvement is important for achieving sustainable peace. Yet, the reality is that women are still excluded from many political efforts to end conflict, or have to risk their personal safety to secure a seat at the negotiating table. Enabling women mediators to participate in and lead peace talks remains an urgent goal in the 20thanniversary year of UNSCR 1325. How and when can technology help?

PeaceTech for Women

In recent days, women have been involved in online consultations and mediation in a number of conflicts around the world.  Online consultations – now fast-tracked with the COVID-19 pandemic, are one part of a multi-disciplinary development of technologies aimed at supporting peacebuilding activities, or in-short ‘PeaceTech’.  PeaceTech offers new opportunities to support inclusion in peace processes. While many industries in the world, including warfare, have heavily benefited from the rapid emergence of new technologies, peacebuilders have only recently begun to engage with this trend. However, as the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, the use of new technologies for peacebuilding has become an urgent necessity. The potential for PeaceTech is vast, and goes beyond the exchange of information on social media, and the use of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) such as smartphone apps.

The Challenges

However, PeaceTech is still an emerging practice with limited sources for funding. Therefore, its application on the ground is underdeveloped, and there are additional challenges involved for women to engage with nascent PeaceTech initiatives.

Lack of infrastructure: Conflict-affected and developing countries struggle with the lack of access to digital devices, including smartphones and PCs, and to continuous, stable internet coverage and broadband connection. According to a 2019 report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 53% of the global population use the internet, while only 19.1% of the people living in the least developing countries have internet access. This is despite the fact that 93% of all people live within the reach of mobile broadband. Additionally, even places with existing connections face connectivity issues, such as in Yemen, where connectivity is unstable due to tenuous fallback options for damaged undersea cables. Hence, days-long internet outages, most recently in January 2020, take place regularly.  Furthermore, the internet is now divided, with different ISPs for the government-controlled and Houthi-rebel-controlled internets. Another problem in many countries is lack of privacy (and therefore security) and the common occurrence of deliberate internet shutdowns and social media restrictions, as well as state-based censorship, particularly during times of unrest and crisis, which, for instance, has been the case in many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of this, women are prone to having insufficient or no access to a phone and the internet. On a global average, women are 26% less likely than men to have a smartphone and access to mobile internet. In the Global South, this percentage is even higher, with 34% in Africa and 70% in South Asia.

Lack of financial resources: The lack of funding for devices, access to the internet and further research into their use for peacebuilding purposes poses a great hurdle. Among conflict-affected people – in particular, women, as well as peacebuilding and women’s organisations – money for expensive technologies is scarce. For women, especially when they have been displaced, forced into dependency, or made the family’s only breadwinner, such an expense is unthinkable.

Digital illiteracy: Due to the lack of access to phone and internet, and prevailing structures of gender inequality, women are less likely to own and regularly use digital tools. This makes digital illiteracy among the population, but especially among women and girls who have less exposure to technology than their male peers, a significant problem. Despite this, in some contexts, established women peacebuilders have utilised the internet as an opportunity to expand their existing networks and promote their activities. Members of the Yemeni women’s coalition, Peace Track Initiative, for example, have continued with their peacebuilding efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by corresponding over digital platforms such as Whatsapp, and have even tracked ceasefire negotiations over Twitter. However, women without this existing link to a network or who lack confidence with basic online tasks may face difficulties with accessing initiatives, and risk being isolated from digital activities.

Becoming a target: For anyone in a conflict-affected setting, participating in peacebuilding may turn them into a target of displeased authorities. Authoritarian governments have long opted to using surveillance methods, such as trackers, to monitor and disrupt activists’ and peacebuilders’ online activity, which, in some instances, may lead to them being threatened, harassed, arbitrarily detained, tortured, vanished, or killed. In Vietnam, for example, a repressive new Cybersecurity law from 2019 has intensified the use of surveillance to target human rights activists operating online and increased the number of prisoners of conscience in the country’s detention facilities. In other contexts, women are specifically targeted if they stand up for their rights or are politically active, such as in Houthi governed regions in Yemen, where for some women, this has meant being captured, detained and sexually abused.

Online gender-based violence (GBV): Besides general challenges that women face, use of technology can carry gender-specific risks. These include the spread of online gender-based violence (GBV), which can manifest itself as bullying, hate speech, blackmailing, cyberstalking, sex trafficking and more. Twitter, for example, has been named the most toxic social media platform for women to interact on. Its open and public nature has created a space in which harassment of women is immediate and widespread; at the same time, it is one of the most important platforms for them to be vocal on. In May 2020, this was the case for Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, who became the target of a smear campaign led by Saudi Arabian media. The stress and anxiety women experience as a result of online GBV often has real-life implications, such as a fear for physical harm, and can cause them to self-censor, leave a platform, or become tech-averse altogether. Many female journalists, as a survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation has revealed, feel the need to withdraw news stories or avoid certain topics in their work as a consequence of encountering online attacks and harassment. Additionally, some forms of online GBV can also have severe implications for those targeted in real-life, notably when harmful threats are realised in person.

Too few women in tech: Within ‘Big Tech’—the five largest tech companies in the US (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft)—less than 25% of tech jobs are held by women. This figure is not an abnormality in other tech-savvy countries either. As a result, devices, applications and content are mostly created by men, and they are more likely to be tailored to men’s interests than aimed at benefitting everyone regardless of gender roles. For the above challenges to be addressed more effectively, gendered perspectives in technological development are needed, and ideally, women will be at the forefront leading them.

What does a PeaceTech solution need to do to be useful for women mediators?

Participating in peacebuilding activities can put individuals, and especially women, at risk. Increased online activity and the use of digital devices may reinforce this risk if insufficient protective measures are put in place. This, in turn, creates an adverse effect on women’s inclusion. To ask ourselves if a technological solution for women does more harm than good, we should consider if it tackles the challenges described above. This means thinking of what kind of technology women mediators on the ground find practicable and user-friendly, and how to utilise and adapt these technologies to provide adequate peacebuilding tools. The following are some important aspects to consider:

Does it inform? An aim of PeaceTech is often to provide better information:for example, to make sense of ‘Big Data’­—the abundance of information in the world—in a concise way to, then, better inform peacebuilding efforts. If done right, this can contribute towards equipping women with the necessary knowledge and skills to enter the peacebuilding arena, or to be offered greater support if they are already experienced.

Does it support? A PeaceTech solution can build on existing knowledge, motivations and goals, and support women with further tools. This can be done by creating platforms to build networks, by providing resource hubs that make it easier for mediators to access certain data, by facilitating decision-making through scientific methods and algorithms, by offering applications to collect data (e.g. survey apps), by enabling knowledge-exchange on dedicated dialogue platforms, and by simplifying the presentation of information (e.g. with data visualisation tools).

Does it enable? Women who previously were not able to effectively participate in peacebuilding should find themselves empowered and enabled through PeaceTech solutions, rather than further disempowered. If a tool provides the right skeleton, female users will be able to use it to acquire vital competences, for example, by: bridging important gaps in knowledge; providing data-supported arguments for negotiations; raising international awareness and support; founding and expanding networks; finding common ground and building coalitions; running own projects on their platform; or by learning about their rights and what tools might help to realize them.

Does it aim to mitigate the associated risks? Women face greater societal, mental and physical risks when accessing technologies. The design of safeguards and protective measures for existing and new tools is needed to guarantee that online spaces are safe for women to use and do not further replicate or reinforce offline gender inequalities and exclusion. Secondly, offline availability of PeaceTech tools can be a critical asset to its practicability. It tackles the issue of low or unstable network connectivity, as well as the fact that women are less likely to own their own devices.Thirdly, the easy navigation and straightforward use of an application can be beneficial in circumventing digital illiteracy. There are many innovative and promising applications out there that are too complicated to be used by the average user without a tech background, and even less so by people without the necessary infrastructure. If peacebuilders with limited access to technological infrastructure and digital literacy cannot apply PeaceTech solutions in practice, we are wasting important opportunities. Finally, a PeaceTech tool should be universally accessible and eliminate cultural and language barriers. In practice, this means that the application designs need to appeal to women from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and ensure availability in multiple languages, which raises key development requirements, such as user interfaces which function as well in Arabic as they do in English.

Challenges going forward

As informed and well-intentioned any new PeaceTech tool might be, its practicability and impact will only reveal themselves in the hands of its end-users. In the case of PeaceTech tools for women’s inclusion in peace procceses, women mediators’ user experiences will be critical to development. The focus should be what benefit the tool gives to a peacebuilder that they otherwise would not have, and if it does so in a safe matter. Technologies have only come this far because they are continuously scrutinised, adapted and improved, and women mediators and their supporters need to have the same honest conversation about what works and what does not, where problems and risks lie, and how we can address these most effectively. This might mean taking a closer look at the circumstances of end users, what options are needed to provide the necessary knowledge and infrastructure, and in the longer-term, to vehemently advocate for women’s education, digital literacy and access to technology. PeaceTech as a field is just as much about the exchanging of knowledge and sharing good (and bad) practice as it is about delivering a technological solution. And any PeaceTech solution is only useful if it effectively supports a peacebuilder on the ground.

One of the ways that PSRP has worked to develop a PeaceTech platform to support women mediators is through a new mobile app called ‘PeaceFem’. The result of a collaboration between UN Women and three leading research programmes on women’s mediation, PeaceFem is a mobile app that provides a full picture to selected peace processes by combining women’s strategies for mobilisation, the factors enabling and constraining their engagement, and the gender provisions incorporated in peace agreements as a result of those engagements. Fiona Knäussel was part of a women-led team developing PeaceFem.

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The Global Staffroom: exploring COVID-19, social reproduction, and changing relationships to work

In April 2020, the University of Edinburgh Art Collection created a series of three commissions, inviting artists to reflect upon their personal experiences of COVID-19 and to respond to broader themes associated with the period of enforced physical distancing. 

Manual Labours have used the commission funds to further enhance an existing project, The Global Staffroom, and to enable the production of the fifth manual in their ongoing series. The Global Staffroom is a live podcast hosted by Manual Labours (Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope), involving conversations with people about what it feels like to care, be cared for, or not be able to care at work. Manual #5 will bring together the research and ideas born from the podcast and surrounding discussions, producing a long-lasting resource and set of activities which can be used in teaching and research. All podcast episodes will join the University’s Contemporary Art Research Collection (CARC) holdings in August 2020.

The CARC was initiated in 2015 and is a strand of the University Art Collection which takes Globalisation as its central theme, setting a specific focus on women’s experience and the contribution of feminist thought. It encompasses work across a broad range of media; moving image, print, performance documentation, and sculpture. 

The Global Staffroom stems from research into in the disappearance of collective and communal spaces for workers within the workplace, such as the staffroom, common room or worker club. The Global Staffroom hopes to propose an itinerant staffroom space of collectivity for isolated and individualised workers. In light of the current global health crisis, and limited debate concerning the inequality of those who are most affected by this crisis, Manual Labours hope this regular radio show will provide space to think carefully, critically and collectively about the intersectional impact that COVID-19 is having on changing physical and emotional relationships to work. They explore issues such as the gendered and racialised experiences of lockdown, sick pay, emotional labour of care and health workers, and the architecture of home-work.

The Global Staffroom seeks to build a conceptual common staff room for workers of the world that places social reproduction at the heart of how, what and where we work. 

We are all workers. Paid, unpaid, in the home, at the workplace, on site, at the office, on the commute, on the sofa, on social media, on benefits.

Social reproduction is the care and maintenance of life and what every form of life is dependent on to survive to the next day. It is often invisible, unpaid, or poorly paid.

The staff room can represent the time and space in-between work, or whilst at work, to rest, eat, love, exercise, cook, clean, play, read, do the crossword, regroup, nap, plot, plan, gossip. This time and space is needed in order to keep on working. It is the site for social reproduction.

Not everyone has a staff room. Maybe your bedroom is where you eat your lunch, or the local library is where you rest during work.

For those that have a staffroom, it might be inaccessible; it might reproduce exclusions based on hierarchies of gender, race and class.

Not everyone has official work colleagues. Maybe you work online, on the road. Maybe you have colleagues that you never get chance to speak to. 

There are multiple official and unofficial sites where social reproduction takes place (e.g. bedroom office, cigarette break, WhatsApp group or staff toilets). 

Spaces of social reproduction become extended sites of struggle crucial to the reproduction, maintenance and care of the worker. 

Supporting social reproduction at work has been capitalised and instrumentalised throughout history, from the factories of Bournville to the current dogma of wellbeing at work programmes, such as yoga during lunch breaks and massages at your desk. 

Not everyone performs all aspects of their social reproductive work. Some – who have the resources – outsource their social reproduction work to others.

Experiences of where, when and how social reproduction take place vary massively. The maintenance and care of workers is often reliant upon a whole body of invisibilised, precarious, racialized and gendered workers who clean your workplace or home, prepare your lunch, take care of your relatives, or welcome you to your gym.

The Global Staffroom hopes to bring together a transnational, often fragmentary workforce, who are intimately connected across material and labour relations but who are prevented from meeting and connecting. 

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect atomized, complaining bodies to explore unofficial aspects of self and collective care at work and where these might lead. 

The Global Staffroom hopes to be a supportive space where solidarities between workers can form beyond physical work environments. 

The Global Staffroom explores the structures of work and productivity in terms of broader economic and social structures which maintain consumer capitalism. 

The Global Staffroom investigates alternative co-operative structures which are underpinned by care and maintenance.

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect workers at different stages of the capitalist production line, including invisible labours of maintenance and infrastructures of care.

The Global Staffroom discusses the future of work and co-dependency between global workers in the context of both global warming and advances in AI.

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect with existing labour unions to provide time and space for members to share experiences and concerns with their social reproduction at work – ultimately creating connections and threads between wellbeing and illbeing and exploring the possibilities of collective complaints.

The Global Staffroom starts from a place of difference and values and acknowledges all types of experience.

The Global Staffroom launched on Monday 20 April, 12noon BST via and has finished broadcasting for the summer. You can listen to all 14 episodes here.

Join the staffroom by clicking on the above links and listening in, or by emailing Learn more about Manual Labours on their website.

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