Engaging in public discussion is a crucial aspect of academia. At the same time, female academics often encounter sexist abuse as a result of such engagement. Heather Savigny draws on interview data to argue that while women may seek to actively build impact and public engagement in to their research agendas, the site of interaction between media and academia is gendered and raced.

In 2014 I was interviewed for the Independent on Sunday about a paper I published on women’s experiences of sexism in academia. The interview, I was advised, would be another excellent dimension to my ‘impact case study’. Here was an example of ‘public engagement’ and the kind of thing that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) agenda is seeking to foster.

Shortly after that interview I received an email telling me that I had been awarded ‘whiny feminist of the month’. The man who had sent this email blind copied in some of my senior male colleagues. His email and publicly available blogpost were clearly designed to humiliate and potentially silence me. (Although I was reassured I was in excellent company: Harriet Harman, Laura Bates, Jo Swinson, Caroline Criado Perez have also been ‘recipients’).

Reflecting on this experience led to a discussion as to whether this constituted ‘impact’ in relation to the requirements of the REF. The institutional response was no. Which in turn got me thinking about what it is that counts as impact. Is it only something that leads to positive change? And what about the negative consequences of engaging in impact and public engagement strategies? Do these not ‘count’, especially knowing women are more likely to be subject to online abuse?

These questions led me to think about the extent to which the REF Impact policy itself is situated in a gendered context. We know that women are under-represented in the academy, with fewer than 25 of out of over 19,000 professors are BAME women. Women are more likely to be negatively evaluated by students; while at the same time be expected to provide greater levels of pastoral care. Women are more likely to have their work devalued; be under-represented at conferences; and less likely to be cited. A key component of feminist theorizing is drawing on the lived experiences of women to expose the ways in which power structures work. And so in my recent paper, I drew on academic women’s experiences to understand whether, and if so, how, public engagement and the impact agenda are gendered.

I ran a survey and a number of in-depth interviews with women academics – from Russell Group to post-1992 institutions, and from science, social science, and arts and humanities asking women what happened when they engaged in the Impact/Public Engagement agenda. What my interviews exposed was a problematic reinforcement of structural failings reinforced through cultural sexism. Cultural sexism is the part where structures fail; where sexism seeps through into our norms and values, to undermine the functions of structures. For example, despite Equal Opportunities legislation and the Equal Pay Act, women are still under-represented at senior level and paid less across academia. These structures are clearly not functioning as intended; undermined I suggest through a cultural context in which sexism (and racism) are reinforced through the lived experiences of isolation, abuse, harassment and silencing. This then translates into a legitimation of structural and symbolic violence towards women: that they are invisible or marginalised becomes ‘just the way things are’ and ‘to be expected’.

We know that women are more likely to be subject to threats of overt physical violence and abuse in the online world and this was reinforced through my respondents’ experiences of physical threats and abuse. Women also described how they had changed research trajectories as a result of abuse. They also talked of how they had taken a conscious decision not to engage with media for fear of abuse. This silencing becomes a form of symbolic violence; an expression of underlying relations of oppression and domination, which as Bourdieu suggests, becomes so normalized and routine that it occurs almost with the subordinate’s own complicity.

Women then are structurally positioned to be complicit in their own silencing. My interviewees were consciously aware of the importance of having a social media presence in developing their careers, for promoting their research, and in that ‘all important job market’. Yet, one of the things that surprised and then shocked me was the number of women who said they didn’t use social media at all as they had seen what happened to women who did, and felt it was worth the potential distress and damage to their health. These women were silenced before they had even spoken.

Of course this silencing has further potential consequences for women’s academic careers: low profile research activity when many are tweeting about their latest paper for citations and improving their ‘h-index’ score, and lack of connection with networks means that women are subject to a double bind of silencing and invisibility in the job market. Being absent in social media debate has the potential to women being absent in opportunities for recruitment.

Some women did speak however of feeling empowered through their experiences on social media, as a consequence of solidarity and connectivity. Senior figures in the field had offered support to junior scholars who had been subject to abuse. One of the interviewees told me about how she struggled – her whole raison d’etre as an academic was public engagement but the costs were not always easy to bear. Women repeatedly expressed their frustration with the extra, unrecognized emotional labour that was a feature of their working lives (although it should be noted, that this is not solely in relation to media engagement).

The emotional labour and costs to a diversity of female academics needs to be factored in to policy decisions both at the level of the REF and in universities and departments. When women are silenced and marginalised, and structural inequalities reinforced, this takes the form of symbolic violence which becomes routinised structurally. To challenge and dismantle this, universities need to take their responsibilities to protect and support their staff with adequate training, policies, and procedures. And it is important for all of us in academia to show solidarity with our female colleagues, to call out the behaviours that silence and marginalize a diversity of women – be that online or in the workplace.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the Political Studies Review.

About the Author

Heather Savigny is Professor of Gender, Media and Politics at De Montfort University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


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