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I had reservations about taking part in last Wednesday’s UN Women event, LSE Get Free, but I hoped it would be an opportunity to challenge the School on real issues.
Unfortunately HeForShe and LSE were more interested in cross promotion for its own sake rather than engaging with the concerns of students.
Craig Calhoun excused slow progress on inclusivity at LSE by pitting liberation groups against one another, describing them as ‘competing goods’. Aside from being disingenuous, this utterly ignores the experiences of those who see their multiple identities as interconnected and in need of being addressed as a whole.
The high point of the event came with contributions from students in the audience who challenged HeForShe on their poor record on recognising non-binary gender identities and raised serious concerns about safety on London transport.
It was a shame to see the panelists fail to engage fully with these questions, or attempt to mansplain women’s experiences to us.
Charles Stephens repeatedly spoke - from an entitled and privileged place -over the experiences of women on the panel. When Hillary Stauffer spoke of her personal experiences of sexism in the workplace, being asked to take notes and get coffee, Stephens questioned whether this really happened all of the time. Hillary responded that it happened ‘85% percent of the time’. ‘So,’ Charles condescended, ‘not all the time then’.
When I empathised with an audience member about our shared experiences of harassment on public transport, Charles took this as an opportunity to demand that we make our fear more accessible to him. ‘We can talk about being scared,’ he said, ‘But if I can’t even comprehend it… How do we make it real for the guys?’
This exemplifies the problems with the HeForShe movement. It allows men to turn the conversation back to themselves, and reinforces a patriarchal power dynamic, where they can demand that women expend more and more energy justifying the reality of our experiences instead of educating themselves. If hearing two people candidly discuss our fear of violence on public transport isn’t real enough for you, then how much do you distrust our accounts of our own experiences?
This event was deeply problematic, and it is laughable that HeForShe describes itself as challenging the status quo when it does so much to reinforce it.
HeForShe has repeatedly shown itself to be more interested in press and centering the voices of men than intersectional feminist issues.
I’m hugely thankful to the awesome LSE women who came to the event, who stood up afterwards and challenged the speakers on their problematic comments. You made an incredibly draining and unpleasant event more bearable - thank you.
Last week (7th October 2015) LSESU Women’s Officer Lena Schofield delivered a speech at the UN Women’s He For She event, ‘LSE Get Free’, about the need for developing a culture of acceptance across our universities.
The first thing that was said to us in my first year orientation at LSE reinforced an elitist culture rather than an inclusive one. We were told to be proud of being at such an “elite” university. What we didn’t hear about was student wellbeing, the intense pressures that we would be under, and what support was available to deal with them. Nor did we hear how to deal with sexual harassment on campus and in halls, or what support was available when things go wrong.
Building an inclusive campus culture is a complex issue, and it requires an ongoing dialogue between institutions and students.
Universities need to shift their priorities, they need to focus more on students and less on profits. Marginalised students cannot trust that their universities have their best interests at heart when profit margins matter more than student wellbeing.
NSS scores show that LSE student satisfaction has dropped two points in the last year, putting us five points below the national average. Yet LSE continues with measures that will impact the student experience and will disproportionately impact women students. For instance their recent discussions of shutting down the LSE nursery.
Students need to see a consistent and ongoing commitment to prioritising marginalised students, not only when it is beneficial to their university’s image.
NSS scores show disabled students have consistently lower satisfaction with their university experience. One in four university students will develop a mental health problem, and university age women are in the most at risk age group for sexual assault. So having adequate counselling and support for students is essential to an inclusive environment.
As is having grievance procedures that make students feel comfortable, listened to, and confident in a swift and just resolution. Many universities are not prepared to enforce real consequences for misogynistic behaviour. So students to do not feel it is worthwhile coming forward with complaints, and Lad Culture persists.
Higher education also has a problem. Women and BME people are underrepresented as professors and in top management. In order to have an environment where everyone can flourish, marginalised students need to be able to see role models that they feel represent them.
Women and BME thinkers are also underrepresented in the readings for university courses. In one of my courses this year women make up one half, of one week, of a twenty week course. Student led initiatives at LSE such as ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ highlight the demand for a more diverse curriculum that is less Eurocentric.
To give students the opportunity to feel inspired and represented universities should set and meet targets for more women and BME people in positions of power, and work on addressing biases in the curriculum.
I started at the LSE on a part-time masters course. I’d just come from Kings College London, where I’d studied my undergraduate degree and where I’d felt like I was truly at home: I loved my course, I loved the university and I loved the people. I made friends for life, as so many people do at university, and I knew the experience could never be replicated.
Last year, coming to LSE for the first time, I was pretty daunted. So much was different, I felt completely out of my depth. There were so many of new faces, so much admin to do that I didn’t know how to start, and a whole new course structure… It was overwhelming.
But here’s the thing. At LSE, you get out what you put in.
I made a choice during my first weeks: that I wouldn’t let it own me, that I would try to make friends even though it might not happen, and that I would speak about the issues I felt passionately about rather than falling silent so I could have an easier life.
It had an instant effect. I found people who cared about what I did, and those people became my friends - very quickly I felt safe, I had a support network, and I realised I was having an incredible time.
These experiences led me to run for the Sabb position of Community and Welfare Officer in the SU elections. I wanted others to have the same experience I did, I wanted to improve campus culture and I wanted to make sure silent student voices were heard. I can honestly say that running was one of the best experiences of my life, and now, being able to represent so many students, I feel empowered and inspired every day.
I would urge anyone thinking of running in the SU elections to do so. That’s because:
1. The campaigning experience will change your life.
Trust me on this one. Being surrounded by a group that cares about you and what you stand for is an incredible experience.
2. It’s unique.
Talking every day about the issues that matter to you, not just on campus but in the wider world too, is inspiring. In your journey you’ll meet others who genuinely care and you’ll be able to inspire others too - which is an absolutely amazing feeling. But seriously, in your future, when will you have a chance to do this again? When will you have such an open platform or such a chance for influence?
3. Your voice matters.
Being involved in the SU elections to any level impacts the LSE culture positively. Just by pointing out the things that should change brings them to the attention of hundreds of students - and the more people that do it, the more change happens.
4. You can represent those in need of a platform.
There are huge numbers of students who don’t have adequate representation at the SU. We know that, and we know it doesn’t have to be that way. If you can represent a group, in any capacity, they need you to do so.
If you need any more convincing come and talk to me, or the other Sabbatical Officers! Send us a Facebook message or an email, or drop in and see us.
Oh and in case you’re wondering - I’m having every bit as much fun here as I did at King’s.
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