Launching a project to recognise diverse role models in STEM for the International Day for Women and Girls in Science

Guest post by Dr Joy Singarayer (Associate Professor of Paleaoclimatology and Equality and Diversity School Champion in the School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences), marking the International Day for Women and Girls in Science (11 Feb 2018).

Link to the STEMsational Figures website (http://stemsational-figures.co.uk).

Visibility of role models is an important aspect of inspiring student achievement, sense of belonging, and career choices. Students may find aspiration from role models in a variety of places, for example in the teaching staff, other students, public figures, or key scientists featured in their courses. There is a diverse student population in SMPCS (School of Mathematical, Physical, and Computational Sciences) in terms of gender, ethnicity and other characteristics (see the figure) and ideally our curricula should also be designed to recognise the contributions made by a diverse range of scientists. There are national movements to introduce more inclusive and diverse curricula within higher education, following campaigns started at other universities, including ‘why is my curriculum White’ and ‘decolonise our Uni’. I believe this move for change is not just of benefit to underrepresented students but to raise awareness of diverse role models for everyone, as a life enhancing opportunity, and because we are educating future leaders and employers.

Our school successfully renewed its Athena SWAN silver award in 2017. We have made significant progress in gender parity in many areas of staff and student recruitment, inclusive work environment, and career progression. However, our recent data analysis and focus groups did also bring to light some previously unexamined issues, such as an intersectional gender-ethnicity attainment gap as well as concerns of gender differences in numbers going on to postgraduate studies. In response, among other actions in the SMPCS Athena SWAN Action Plan 2017, we have included an action to explore how we can raise attainment and career aspirations through the development of a web resource highlighting diverse role models within subjects studied by SMPCS students. This is especially relevant here as the staff currently delivering our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes are somewhat less diverse than our students (we are also working towards rectifying this within our action plan).

Our Head of School provided a budget for us to employ three undergraduate research experience students over summer 2017 for six weeks to initiate and develop a website for SMPCS to enable students and staff to explore the contributions of diverse scientists and mathematicians relevant to their programmes. The undergraduate research students who developed the webpage gained experience of independent research, web design, interview techniques, writing for public online media, and project management. The results of their hard work can be found at the STEMsational Figures webpage (http://stemsational-figures.co.uk), which we are launching to correspond with International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th 2018). The webpage currently features figures such as Maryam Mirzakhani – mathematician and first woman to win the Fields Medal, Grace Hopper – computer scientist and inventor of the compiler, and Susan Soloman – climate scientist who worked out the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.

Having completed the initial phase of webpage development, hopefully, this is only the beginning of this project. The question is how to maintain, publicise, and develop the webpages so they will be of on-going benefit to future students. Our plan is to explore the potential to incorporate further development within the graduate skills modules that undergraduate students in all of our departments undertake. We can use this framework to discuss unconscious bias and diversity, raise awareness of the broader history of their subjects, enhance their skills in writing for a public science audience and using social media in research, and at the same time develop the webpage content year by year. We hope to coordinate with module conveners to assess this opportunity in practical terms in time for the 2018-19 academic year. In the meantime we would welcome any feedback on the webpage or suggestions for more role models to Joy Singarayer (j.s.singarayer@reading.ac.uk) or Calvin Smith (calvin.smith@reading.ac.uk).

Remembering local LGBTQ+ history in LGBT History Month

Guest blog by Film & Theatre student Bradley Greening and LGBT Plus staff network Co-Chair Deb Heighes, to mark the start of LGBT History Month 2018

We are delighted to have a joint staff-student blog today to mark the beginning of LGBT History Month 2018. Bradley and Deb talk about their involvement in a Heritage-Lottery funded project, led by local LGBT+ support and resource organisation Support U in collaboration with Reading Museum and the University. This project, Wolfenden60: Living Wolfenden’s Legacy, kicked off last year, the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Wolfenden Report (chaired by our then Vice Chancellor Sir John Wolfenden).

To learn more see the events coming up at Reading Museum this month or our own UoR programme for LGBT History Month.

Bradley writes:

My university experience has been such an unexpected, hugely rewarding period of my life so far. It has opened up opportunities that I never anticipated, it is as if I have been transformed by the wonderful people I have had the pleasure of meeting whilst studying in Reading. Two of these people are truly incredible women who work for local LGBTQ+ charity Support U – Jessica Stevens-Taylor and Kath Tuthill. Jess and Kath have been working on a major project, aided by the financial support of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Wolfenden Report. Exploring the legacy left by the report through a 20 to 30-minute documentary, Jess writes: “We felt that showcasing real LGBT people’s life stories was the most appropriate way to do this. We wanted to capture the thoughts and feelings of people of varying ages who could share how they felt living as an LGBT person.”
The project not only involved the making of a documentary, but also several other aspects which I have been fortunate to be involved. This included a series of thoroughly interesting debates discussing representation of LGBTQ+ in the media, the state of unity within the community, and finally, one addressing the important question: who benefited from the Wolfenden Report?
The documentary, in particular, has been such a fun experience. As a student of Film & Theatre who specialises in Theatre practice, I don’t have many opportunities to engage with filmmaking anymore, so to be able to participate in the filmmaking side – setting up the equipment, recording the sound etc. – was very exciting for me. Additionally, I spent a lot of time liaising with Kath, Jess, and the other volunteers around the content of the script, adjusting and editing it to make it accessible and coherent. I am a little sad that the documentary is almost finished because it has been fun working on it with everyone, and meeting all the friendly faces who got in front of the camera.
That is not to say that the project hasn’t come with its challenges, especially with testimonies and finding people willing to share their stories on film. As Kath points out, “Many seemed unwilling to travel back emotionally to these difficult times,” but Jess notes that “We were still keen that we should share real life stories and experiences so we ultimately hit on the idea of asking for written submissions and have actors read these.” Even I read some of these testimonies for the camera, and though I had flicked through them previously, it wasn’t until I read them aloud, without any rehearsal, that the words really resonated with me on an emotional level.
There was also a lack of testimonies from school age people and, to remedy this, Kath and Jess created some questionnaires for the members of the Affinity Youth group, one of multiple groups run by Support U, to offer a safe space for those who may have questions about their sexuality, who may not feel 100% comfortable with their sexuality, or anyone who just wants to form new friendships with people who identify as LGBTQ+. In the making of the documentary, we have had many individuals help us in the process: veteran activists Andrew Lumsden and Netty Pollard, our wonderful narrator Dan from 1stNature, the talented Jess Tuthill who recorded some original music and covers to accompany the documentary, and finally, Vicky from Lesbian And Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA).
It has been great working with Support U on this project, and it doesn’t end with just the documentary and the debates. During LGBT History Month, Reading Museum will be hosting ‘tea time talks’ on Saturday afternoons, and Jess and Kath will be taking an education pack on the Wolfenden Report into local schools, and I expect interesting discussions will take place in both cases. To end on a few words from Kath: “We have been so lucky with our volunteers. They are truly amazing, each and every one. They are the true shape of the project!”

Deb adds:
I have also been able to be involved in the Wolfenden Project over recent months. Like Bradley, the experience has been transformative. To give some context, my ‘long’ working life included working as a school teacher at the time when Section 28 was put on the statute books and also when the infamous tombstone AIDS information campaign was on the TV and dropping through our letter boxes in the form of leaflets. These memories were revived when Caroline Crolla and I were working with Jess and Kath to develop educational resources about the ‘Legacy of Wolfenden’; we included a timeline of key historical LGBT+ landmarks alongside sessions on transgender identity that can be used in secondary schools. Other sessions draw on historical artefacts including Wolfenden’s interviews with Peter Wildeblood and a letter written by Jeremy Corbyn in the 80’s. These educational resources show how there is a real positive legacy of Wolfenden, one that is continuing to develop and progress. For me, it has led to reflection on how society has changed over the course of my working life and how that change is in small steps forward and sometimes small steps back. However, the fact that I am an LGBT+ workplace role-model and a Face of Reading is something that I would not have believed possible when, in 1988, guidance was received in school on the implications of Section 28 on our work with children.

Like Bradley, I became involved in the filming of testimonies for the documentary; it was lovely to work with students from FTT and see them work with confidence and expertise to get the best out of me – sat on the biggest pile of cushions I have ever seen! I read some testimonies of young people and it was striking that the pain and fear of coming out has not changed much; the individual journey can still be difficult despite society apparently being more accepting. There is still transphobia and homophobia and it is important not to assume that now we have gay marriage it is all OK. To tell your Mum and Dad, your grandparents and those you are at school or at work with is not an easy task. A voice in your head will be telling you that things will never be the same again and potentially will be ruined. This is why it is important we have strong and outspoken allies who are willing to speak out and not be bystanders particularly for the youngest and most vulnerable in our communities.

‘Debates and Doughnuts: Is Feminism Dead?’

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

Students in the Department of English Literature last week organised an event titled ‘Debates and Doughnuts’ designed to reignite conversations about gender equality on campus. One of their aims was to gather the necessary 54 signatures to re-form RUSU FemSoc which has been dormant for two years. The ‘Diversity and Inclusion Fund’ supported the event, and I helped the students to set it up.

Our students hoped that they would be able to attract enough students to the session to largely complete the RUSU Society ‘petition’ – on the day, well over sixty students and colleagues attended and the petition gathered more than enough signatures to revive FemSoc.

The debate asked the question, ‘Is Feminism Dead?’, as the decline of FemSoc suggested that it might be. The two-hour debate, full of strong, well-articulated opinions, clearly suggested that it was far from ‘dead’ and that it was, in fact, on the edge of an exciting new life.

Attending the debate were students drawn from all over the university, and colleagues from English Literature, History, SPIER and IoE. We were pleased to see such a high attendance from male students, and we appreciated their thoughtful contributions to the debate: in response to a question, ‘what can feminism do for men?’, a male student argued that feminism implicitly works to support men as well as women and that it does not need to concoct an artificial ‘masculinist’ agenda to announce what it already does.

I was particularly pleased by the way in which contributions that contested feminism as a body of ideas, and that advocated ‘International Men’s Day’ and other Men’s Rights activities as a ‘counter-balance’ to feminist action, were listened to with respect by other students. The ideas raised by attendees less sold on feminism than others were debated in a reflective and sensitive way. I was struck also by the range of issues that were raised, from concerns about ‘language’ and ‘lad culture’, to the ‘#Me Too’ movement, through to media constructions of sexual assault victims.

The debate was managed with admirable skill by the Part 3 English Literature students who organised the debate, Vicky Matthews and Jack Champion. Their manner was welcoming, inclusive, and confident, and the skill with which they drew in all voices and opinions was truly impressive. I am so often struck by the quality of our students when they manage events of this kind: their eloquence and their ability to negotiate complex arguments with tact and intellectual rigour is a tribute to them.

‘Debates and Doughnuts’ was the first in a series of three events grouped under the ‘Feminism 100’ banner which celebrates the centenary of the extension of the franchise to include (some) women. On February 8th, ‘Inspired by Vote 100: Celebrating Forgotten Women’, presents another student-led event involving an exhibition organised with MERL and Special Collections, and an evening of talks and contributions from staff and students. Imogen Snell, a Part 2 English Literature student on a work placement module, has organised the evening with a History student, Sophie Crossfield, and has drawn on the practical support and subject expertise of Dr Jacqui Turner from the Department of History, and myself; Professor David Stack, Dr Mary Morrissey, Dr Jacqui Turner, Dr Natalie Thomlinson and I are contributing to the event by delivering mini-lectures on forgotten women, and students are presenting talks on ‘why this forgotten woman matters to me’. Supported by the Diversity and Inclusion Fund, we are able to hold a full celebration of the franchise centenary, even offering lanyards in WSPU colours and badges with the images of the women we are discussing. Taking place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and foyer (Thursday 8th February, 6-9pm), the event will combine the voices of colleagues and students, working collaboratively as partners. We would be delighted to see as many staff as possible at the event, not least to express their support for our students’ commendable initiative.

The series of events will conclude on March 8th with our annual International Women’s Day Talk and Debate (Edith Morley, G25, 5-7pm) where Professor Roberta Gilchrist, Dr Carol Fuller, Dr Jacqui Turner and I will deliver presentations on issues continuing to affect women, and will debate the implications of them with our students. Again, we would be delighted to see our colleagues at the event: this has traditionally been a lively, affirming evening where issues are debated with warmth, mutual respect and good humour. This year, we are supported by the Vice Chancellor’s Endowment Fund so we can fully mark the annual IWD celebration in this important year.

 

Please contact Dr Madeleine Davies (m.k.davies@reading.ac.uk) or Dr Jacqui Turner (e.j.turner@reading.ac.uk) if you would like any further details or if you would like to contribute to either of the upcoming events. The series as a whole provides clear evidence that, at the University of Reading, feminism and issues of diversity, inclusion and equality are well and truly alive and kicking.

 

Cross-border recognition of same-sex marriages in the EU

Guest post by Dr Alina Tryfonidou, Associate Professor in EU Law, University of Reading

Since 2001, when the Netherlands opened marriage to same-sex couples, a number of other countries have taken the same step. At the moment of writing, marriage is open to same-sex couples in 24 countries around the world, with 15 of those being in Europe, and 13 in the European Union (EU).

Photo: Mr Adrian Coman (right) with his spouse, Mr Claibourn Robert Hamilton (left)

As more and more countries have opened marriage to same-sex couples, the number of same-sex couples who are married is increasing every year. What happens, however, when a married same-sex couple moves from a country that recognises same-sex marriages to a country that does not? Is the latter obliged to recognise a same-sex marriage contracted elsewhere? This question has been answered affirmatively in the US context: in 2015, in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, the US Supreme Court held that marriages lawfully performed in one US State must be fully recognised in all other US States.

Although the above question has been lingering in the EU context for almost two decades now, the EU’s highest court (the European Court of Justice ‘ECJ’) has only recently been called to adjudicate on this matter, in a case (C-673/16 Coman) where a same-sex couple that married in an EU Member State (Belgium) was faced with a refusal by the EU Member State to which they wished to move (Romania) to recognise their marriage. Mr Coman (a Romanian national and thus EU citizen, who had left Romania and was living abroad for a number of years) married his same-sex partner (a US national) in Belgium in 2010. The couple wished to move to Romania and when they contacted the Romanian authorities for this purpose, they were told that Mr Coman’s spouse could not join him in Romania, as same-sex marriages are not valid in that state. The couple brought an action before a Romanian court arguing that this refusal amounted to a breach of EU law. The Romanian court referred a number of questions for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ, asking it, in essence, whether EU law requires Romania to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who has exercised his EU free movement rights.

EU law provides nationals of EU Member States (i.e. EU citizens) with the right to move freely between EU Member States. In order to ensure that this right can be exercised without any restrictions, EU law requires the State to which an EU citizen moves to accept within its territory certain family members of the latter; these family members include ‘the spouse’ of the EU citizen. This is laid down in secondary EU legislation, namely Directive 2004/38.

Given that the word ‘spouse’ is sex- and sexual orientation-neutral, one of the main questions that the ECJ has been called to answer in Coman, is whether this term (as used in the above Directive) includes both the opposite-sex and the same-sex spouse of an EU citizen who has exercised his/her EU right to move freely between Member States.

As argued elsewhere, it is clear that this should be answered in the affirmative, and this is so for the following reasons.

  1. Directive 2004/38 provides (Recital 31) that it ‘respects the fundamental rights and freedoms and observes the principles recognised in particular by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union’. Accordingly, the provisions of the Directive, including the provision stating that the ‘spouse’ of an EU national must be allowed to join the latter in the host Member State, must be read in a way which does not violate fundamental human rights, including the right not to be discriminated against on the ground of sexual orientation, as this is laid down in Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This means that the term ‘spouse’ in this instrument, must be interpreted in a way which does not discriminate on the ground of sexual orientation and, thus, it should not exclude same-sex spouses from its scope.
  2. Directive 2004/38 requires Member States to implement it without any discrimination on, inter alia, the ground of sexual orientation (Recital 31). Therefore, national legislation which provides for the family reunification rights of EU citizens must include the ‘spouse’ of EU citizens within the category of family members that can automatically accompany them in its territory, and must make it clear that this includes both opposite-sex and same-sex spouses.
  3. The refusal of an EU Member State to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who wishes to move to its territory and the consequent refusal to accept within its territory the spouse of that national, can clearly discourage EU citizens from exercising their right to free movement and residence in any EU Member State, which is a right that is bestowed on them by the EU free movement provisions . Accordingly, such a refusal can constitute a breach of the EU free movement provisions.
  4. The failure of an EU Member State to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who moves to its territory may, also, amount to a breach of a number of fundamental human rights, as these are protected under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, namely, the right to family life (Article 7 of the Charter) and the right to human dignity (Article 1 of the Charter).

The hearing of the Coman case was scheduled for November 2017, and it is expected that the Opinion of the Advocate General and the Court’s judgment will be delivered in 2018. The case has attracted extensive media coverage and a number of LGBT NGOs have intervened. The judgment is, therefore, awaited with great interest as the question at issue involves a delicate matter with huge constitutional implications

An Inspiring Voice: Jess Phillips MP at the University of Reading (16th November 2017)

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

Meeting heroes is a dangerous enterprise but hosting Jess Phillips MP proved that this is by no means always the case. At her talk at the university on 16th November, organised by the Department of English Literature (Dr Madeleine Davies) and the Department of Politics and Internal Relations (Dr Mark Shanahan), the MP showed us all that she is not only a razor-sharp thinker but also a warm, generous and inspiring human being.

Jess Phillips’ talk included her childhood experiences as a campaigner with parents who were both committed to socialist causes: she remembered attending a day-care centre run by activists and helping to produce the banners that would be used on the drive-way to Greenham Common. She also discussed a brief period of political apathy when, in the early years of the Blair governments, many situations improved and the need for constant campaigning declined (she noted that she was more a fan of Blair’s ‘early work’ than of his later concepts). The election of David Cameron reignited her political activism and her years of experience with ‘Women’s Aid’, a refuge charity, finally galvanised her entry into Parliament. Her speech also included issues of class and privilege, questions of fairness and responsibility, and all her comment was laced with wit, humanity, and a deep-seated commitment to social justice.

In the speech and in the Q&A session that followed it, it was clear that Jess’s passion is for equality, not in the highly theorised sense of ‘academic’ feminism, but in the ‘lived’ sense of fairness, human rights and plain decency. The audience was largely comprised of students and I was extremely encouraged to see their interest in Jess’s comments about gender equality. I have taught women’s writing and literary feminisms for many, many years and it can be an uphill struggle to persuade students that, contrary to their beliefs, the battles have not yet been won. Jess noted that she would not see equal pay in her life-time, and she discussed ways in which women are silenced, abused, and devalued. A lively Twitter feed from the event demonstrates that the statements with which the students most connected were those that spoke to issues of gender equality: ‘women pay the price [of government cuts] while men reap the benefits’ was one re-tweeted comment. It was also encouraging to see how many people were following her talk: 185 attended the event, 3,465 viewed on the university’s Facebook stream, and one tweet alone was viewed by over 1,300 people (and ‘liked’ by 47).

Jess’s generosity in allowing us to live-stream the Q&A, in taking time and care to sign copies of her book Everywoman (posing for photographs whenever she was asked), and in taking such an interest in conversations with students and colleagues restores all faith in politicians. Jess Phillips is the warm, witty and intensely clever person that she seems to be in her book and in her media appearances. She also defines honesty and integrity – never has a reminder that these qualities can exist in politicians seemed so timely.

The effect of her visit was galvanising: the day after the talk, two students emailed me because they want to start a feminist society, and another student emailed to ask for help organising a ‘Vote 100’ event in February (working with Dr Jacqui Turner in History, and involving the Department of Literature as well). The event and the results of it remind me of the value of university education, of involving students in ‘public’ talks so that they can hear for themselves a range of ideas, and so that they have the opportunity to engage as citizens in debates of national and international significance.

In terms of the university and its work with Athena Swan, the talk reminds us all of what can be done to achieve the equality that this recognition indicates. The final question, from one of our excellent Student Ambassadors, asked the MP what three things could be done to campaign for gender equality: Jess’s answer suggested that making voices heard, never letting go of the struggle for women’s recognition, and being prepared to fight to make real difference is key for us all.

Jess Phillips MP is a hero who I am delighted to have met. I’m delighted also that the audience connected with her ideas so strongly and that so many students came along and engaged with the MP’s belief in equality and social justice. Many will, I’m sure, follow Jess Phillips’ invaluable advice in Everywoman: ‘Tell the world what you care about, because it makes them care too, and we need people like you to speak up.’

Athena SWAN Training: Thinking like a Charter Panellist

Thoughts from an attendee – Guest post by Eva Van Herel, Executive Administration Officer, Department of Humanities

 Having decided, before Summer, that our School is to put in an Athena SWAN Bronze submission, a small core group was formed to get things started and to make sure our application runs well through to the end. The Chair of our group attended some meetings, researched the application process and seemed quite at home in the material already, but for me, the whole process was mostly still a black box.

 To familiarise ourselves with the expected outcomes, our Chair recommended we all attend the ‘Thinking Like a Charter Panellist’ training. Nothing like a clear vision of the required outcome to focus the mind.

 And so we attended. Materials were provided by email beforehand. I browsed through them but was really quite unsure what I was supposed to be looking out for. There were exerpts from applications to serve as ‘mock panel examples’, a workbook with lots of charts and graphs, the panellist role description and the Athena SWAN Charter Awards Handbook. If that sounds like a lot, it looked like a lot too and I felt out of my depth going into the workshop.

About 20 people turned up and it was led by James Lush from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) which runs the panels, providing administrative support and the knowledge to ensure that panellists are using the criteria correctly. They also write up feedback for the applicants. He took us through the basics of what the applications are all about, how panels work and the mind-set you need to take on a panellist role. The way to learning is done by doing so we studied and discussed the workbook case in groups which resulted in a clear view of how important it is to structure and label the data in your reports so that it makes sense and contributes to your school’s story. So many ways to be unclear were identified it was almost as though it was our job to find mistakes in other people’s work. Come to think of it, lecturers do spend a lot of time marking…

 After a short break for lunch we continued with the practise panels: half the people form a panel and the other half observe. 20 minutes of panel discussion on the case studies and then feedback from the observers. Each panel had a Chair (with prior experience) and they structured the conversation. By now, we had picked up enough knowledge to have a lively discussion on points in the application considered strong or weak. Time flew by and being an observer proved useful too.

 2 things particularly stuck out for me from this session.

  •  The panellists go through one application an hour and this means they have little time to spend on each part of an application – it will be very important to ensure we catch their attention by creating an application that is easy to read and presents its information in a clear and coherent way. The best way to do this is to have a common thread of story running through the whole and binding it together, resulting in the action plan. Pictures and graphs or tables must be to the point and pertinent to the conversation, but can enliven the document and make it more user-friendly.
  • It also became clear that there is a risk of getting so involved with the project that it becomes impossible to see the end result in the same way panellists will look at it – I understand now why it is recommended that you get a ‘trusted friend’ to look at the material critically before finalising it. Perhaps someone who had just followed the ‘Thinking like a Panellist’ training for the first time?

 I left the session feeling my time had been well spent. With a better understanding of what the end result is supposed to be, and how it will be assessed, the end goal is clear. Now for the real work – sitting down and doing the work needed to get there.

 

 

A Personal Take on Asexuality and Asexual Awareness Week

Guest blog by Mark McClemont, Technical Services

For Asexual Awareness Week (22-28 October) I’ve been invited by Simon Chandler-Wilde, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, to write this piece to provide some information for those who might be interested or are, or think they might be, asexual.

What is asexuality? Quite simply: an asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.

Asexual (or “ace” for short) people are quite rare, the most common estimate I’ve seen is around 1% of the population. Based on this there could be 30-40 ace staff members at the University, more amongst the Student population. I’m definitely not the only one here as I met another UoR staff member who is asexual at Reading Pride this year. Another University staff member I met at the same event identifies as pansexual but has asexual friends.

There is an asexual flag:

(There are a growing number of flags in the LGBT+ community – click on “Identities” on My Umbrella’s site, link below.) Black signifies asexuality, grey: greysexuality, white: sexuality and purple (purple is my favourite colour: win!): community. Greysexuals are those who rarely experience sexual attraction and/or only do so in specific situations. For example demisexuals – a subset of the greysexual population – only experience sexual attraction after a strong emotional bond has been formed.

The asexual community itself makes up a spectrum ranging from those who don’t experience any notable attraction for other people, through those who experience one or more non-sexual attractions for others, to greysexuals; these latter could be described as sitting in the boundary area of the asexual community with the wider sexuality spectrum. Non-sexual attractions include aesthetic: attraction to a person’s appearance without it being romantic; romantic: a desire to be romantic with someone, and sensual: a yearning for non-sexual physical contact. I’ve met quite a few asexual people of many types from across the spectrum from aromantic asexuals to greysexuals and, only a few weeks ago, someone who had lost their sex drive and wished to meet and chat to asexual people and another who had looked at the AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network, see link below) site and wanted confirmation that asexuality is actually “a thing”- I was happy to confirm that it is, indeed.

Isn’t asexuality like celibacy? No: a celibate is someone who chooses not to act upon their sexual desires whereas an asexual person doesn’t have those desires in the first place – celibacy is a choice, asexuality is an inherent orientation.

Is asexuality some kind of medical condition that can be cured? Interesting question – in some cases, yes. There are a number of physiological and psychological factors – e.g. trauma, abuse, medications/drugs, hormonal imbalance, hyposexuality (very low sex drive) etc. – that can affect libido and so can render a person, by simple definition, asexual. Asexuality is also a naturally occurring, inherent orientation which people are born with. I was born this way.

Can asexual people fall in love and have relationships? Yes, in fact two of my ace friends, who both identify as homoromantic asexual, got married earlier this year and in a recent media interview revealed that they do everything most people would expect couples to do apart from have sex.

My story? I identify as homoromantic asexual: I find some people of my gender to be aesthetically, romantically and sensually attractive. I would enjoy doing romantic “couple stuff” with someone I fancied but have no desire, at all, to interfere with their reproductive impedimenta (yeugh!) or have my bits and pieces played around with in turn. I can experience arousal but in a separate context such that it doesn’t translate into an ability to be sexual with another person and, yes, I have tried.

I knew I was “different” from quite early, lack of sexual attraction at puberty made me consider that there was something wrong with me. Finding members of my own gender to be attractive was an additional problem at a time – mid ‘70s – when casual homophobia was socially acceptable and being “different” in school was an open invitation to be picked on: I kept my head down. Thinking that I might be gay I socialised on the gay scene for most of the ‘90s reasoning that, perhaps, in the right situation and context something would “click” and it would all make sense. It didn’t: people lost interest, fast, when they realised that there was no sex in the offing – merely confirmed what I already knew inherently. It was about this time that I started to use the term ”asexual” to describe myself and theorised that there must be other people like me out there and just got on with life. On the 14th October 2004 I experienced an epiphany: there, on the front of The Guardian, was an article about asexual people – I spent the rest of the day punching the air chanting “I was right” and a weight was lifted from my shoulders, gone! That and other articles in national newspapers that day were likely inspired by an article about asexuality in that month’s New Scientist featuring an interview with a Californian, David Jay, who founded, with others, AVEN.

I became a member of AVEN in November 2004 and in January 2005 knowingly met other asexual people for the first time – another high point. Knowing what it was like to find out about others like me I became active with visibility and media projects, for a time I was AVEN’s UK media contact and have been on television (daytime telly…), national and local radio (including BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live) newspapers and magazines. I also took part in the Asexuality Conference which took place the day after World Pride in London 2012.

I consider that visibility is particularly important for asexual people – there will be plenty still thinking that there’s something “wrong” with them in our fairly heavily sexualised society and media. Recently, I was accepted to be a part of this University’s Faces of Reading project (link below) which I saw as a great opportunity for some visibility for University staff and students and that led to, well, this blog: I hope some people find this helpful.

P.S. Sticklers for punishment may wish to know that I’m due to be interviewed for BBC Local Radio covering Coventry and Warwickshire on November 2nd

Useful links:

AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network – resources, information, FAQs and forums): https://www.asexuality.org/

My Umbrella (a Reading-based, volunteer-led support group for the lesser known LGBT+ identities): https://www.myumbrella.org.uk/

Support U (a Thames Valley-based resource service for those needing help with LGBT+ issues – they are ace-friendly and participated in Asexual Awareness Week here at the University in January 2016): http://www.supportu.org.uk/

Faces of Reading (a project highlighting the diversity of staff and roles at the University of Reading): http://www.reading.ac.uk/about/faces-of-reading.aspx

What is cultural competency?

The University of Reading is a global university, with a global engagement strategy. Increasingly, understanding and appreciating different cultures is necessary at work in the University and in our broader lives. In some HE institutions, health care and prison services, there is a recognised “thing” called “cultural competency”. The Cultural Diversity Group (open to anyone at the University interested in how race or ethnicity might affect staff or student experiences at Reading) on 6th September was an animated discussion on what “cultural competency” actually means, whether it is relevant to us as individuals, the University of Reading as an organisation or to our students as global citizens.

A quick wander around the internet suggests that cultural competency is variously defined as…

  • The ability to appreciate and interpret accurately other cultures.
  • The ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than their own.
  • The ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients (much of the cultural competency framework has its origin in healthcare).

Other terms are sometimes used, including cultural awareness or intercultural awareness. Employers and commercial organisations often use the term to refer to very practical matters such as how to greet people of other cultures, understanding the laws when working in other countries. Many Universities interpret cultural competency as applying only to international students coming to study here – who undoubtedly do need support in getting the maximum benefit from their time here, but this seems rather narrow!

I will now attempt to summarise our discussions.

Theme 1: Meaning, relevance and terminology

“Culturally Competent” vs “Culturally Aware”

There was quite a lot of resistance to the term “culturally competent”, at least initially, because:

  • Felt to be challenging for people to admit they weren’t competent.
  • Implies it is something that can easily be measured?

However, it is a term recognised by employers who want “employees who can demonstrate that they can adapt and work with people from other countries, ethnicities and religions

“Culturally aware” felt like a “softer” term which more people might sign up to, but actually on discussion we realised that you can be aware of something but not engage with or d  anything about it. Is this term therefore too passive?

Does “Competence” equate to skills, whilst “awareness” equates to knowledge?

 

CONCLUSION 1: We prefer the term “Intercultural” as opposed to “Cultural” because what we would like to improve is communication between, understanding of and learning across cultures. We felt that “Cultural” could be interpreted as knowing about only one culture.

CONCLUSION 2: Intercultural skills (or whatever the term that is used) is entirely consistent with the University’s espoused position as being a university with global reach and a “thriving community”. From a student point of view, Employers definition of cultural competency is a strong driver, particularly for students associated with Business and professional degree programmes.

CONCLUSION 3: We can imagine that there is a spectrum of positive engagement with intercultural issues beginning with “Awareness” at the lowest end. We thought therefore that a framework whereby individuals and the organisation moved from “Awareness” to “Competent” to “Confident” might be a more useful way of thinking. We recognised that there are other levels of engagement described as “Unaware”, “Ignorant”, “Uninterested” and “Opposed”.

CONCLUSION 4: Intercultural awareness is NOT just for international students and staff. It is something that is relevant to, and reflection on would be beneficial to ALL students and staff.

Theme 2: Current situation

Discussion here was wide-ranging. As with many Diversity and Inclusion issues, we recognised that there are already lots of good practice examples in many parts of the University, but that finding out about them and adopting them is difficult. For example, we already have employers who visit through the careers service to give presentations on Cultural Competency – these tend to be attended mostly by HBS students although they are open to everyone. IoE have had discussions with student groups about cultural diversity in order to prepare their trainee teachers for posts in Schools. Resources from RISC on cultural diversity were recommended.

We also recognised:

  • The tendency for cultural segregation amongst students and the challenges of persuading students to work in culturally mixed groups (associated with students dislike of group work in general)
  • The lack of confidence felt by some members of staff in terms of interacting with culturally diverse students and colleagues. In the latter case, people were particularly worried about “saying something wrong / offensive”.
  • The difficulty in involving home / English as a first language students in working with international students, particularly in terms of language development and support.
  • The multiple demands on staff and students.

Theme 3 Moving forward

Assuming that we can convince the rest of the University (or even if we can’t!) that there is a need (driven by competition for students, increasing numbers of students on campus for part of their degrees and changing expectations of students and employers), to move staff, students and the organisation from a state of (partial) awareness towards competency and confidence, we came up with some suggestions as to how to move forward in the short term.

  1. Complete a more systematic audit of existing initiatives and good practice across the University.
  2. Look to maximise benefits of opportunities that already exist – e.g. encouraging / incentivising involvement of home / native English speakers in language conversation sessions run in ISLI (developing skills to work with those from other ethnicities and countries etc as well as providing much needed conversation practice for non-English speakers); advertising Employers interest and talks more widely?

In the longer term, it was strongly felt that development of Intercultural Awareness and confidence should be mostly embedded within existing modules and development programmes (e.g. through Curriculum development and review and via careers and RED award?). However this approach relies on confident, competent and motivated teachers and staff – how would we get to this point? Many people thought that the best way to do this would be to bring different groups of people together more, and that ways of doing that could be the topic of discussion at a future meeting. Ideas and views should also be solicited from the wider staff body (through the Race Equality Survey or the subsequent action plan?)

It was acknowledged that there may be a place for specific staff training to be available but this might be more relevant for specific practical situations (e.g. staff heading overseas etc). Some colleagues had trialled using a team development day for this type of training, using free resources from culturewise.ltd to select exercises and make them relevant to their three main overseas groups. Georgia Riches-Jago shared with the wider group how useful they had found the exercises and the opportunity to reflect on the practical side of intercultural awareness in their own context.

What next? 

  • This blog!
  • Solicit wider views via staff portal article linking to blog, Race Equality survey and other methods during Autumn 2017.
  • Incorporation of proposed actions into draft Race Equality Charter Mark action plan, and discussion at UEB in November 2017.
  • Discussion of “bringing together” events at a future CDG meeting

Black History Month

Guest blog by Doyin Ogunmilua (RUSU Part-Time BME Students’ Officer)

[Please join us (and hear more from Doyin Ogunmilua) for a Black History Month Moment of Silence, Monday 2nd October at 1pm, by the flagpole between Whiteknights House and the Library. For other events planned during October see www.reading.ac.uk/diversity/diversity-events-news.aspx]

[Update added 2 October 2017. Please see the end of this blog for the text of the poem Free at Last, a Slavery Remembrance Day poem, which was written and read by Doyin Ogunmilua at today’s Black History Month Moment of Silence ceremony, at 1pm at the University flagpole.]

Introduction: Black History Month in a Summary

Black History Month is a month dedicated to those of black, Caribbean and Asian descent. During the month there is typically a uniting from those of minority backgrounds to celebrate shared histories, differences, traditions and to raise awareness of pressing racial issues. Black History Month is a specific period where people of similar backgrounds can hold events which highlight their talents and achievements while simultaneously pushing political, social and academic agendas. This is often done through a variety of different mediums such as art, film, dance, theatre, radio and social media.

Black History Month is vital in the further learning and education of a new generation of ethnic minorities in Britain. This education acts as a beacon of light on the past, present and future struggles of minorities in the fight for equality and justice.

The History of Black History Month

The event was created in the United States by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 in the hopes of acknowledging black achievements, which is still a priority to this day. It was initially a weekly campaign; “Negro History Week.” While Black History Month is celebrated in the US in February to acknowledge historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, the UK typically marks the event in October in correspondence to the start of a new academic year.

Inevitable questions in the run-up
As Black History Month approaches there are inevitable questions that will be raised such as why it is only celebrated in a month and not a year and why there is no white history month. I have been asked this question in the past and it still intrigues me as to why this is such an issue for some. In response I say, why should there be a celebration of a race and a culture which has been so overly idolised and praised for as long as I can remember? In my mind, there has been a white-washing when it comes to African history, grounded in a deception which runs deep and spans centuries. Black History Month was created specifically for the minority and not for the past-times of those who have never been and so cannot begin to relate.

The relevance
So, as UK Black History Month celebrates 30 years in existence, the question some may ask is if it is still relevant and if it should continue. Black History Walks in an organisation directed by Tony Walker. It provides monthly films and educational walking tours on London’s 2000-year African history. Walker explains that Black History Month was created to “correct the deliberate destruction done to African memories by European misrepresentation.” It is an important month as it prioritises re-informing and re-focusing minds on the true story of minority peoples. It teaches, in particular young people, that we must at times step away from what we are taught on a daily basis and start to question and challenge a status quo which aims to oppress and divide the marginalised.
Amid the increased racial attacks in the wake of Brexit and the ever-present figure of white supremacy in politics, academia and beyond, it is very much a justified campaign of strength and unity which must continue if we are to see further progress.

Conclusion
In conclusion, Black History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate each other as well as acknowledging what divides us. This year’s Black History Month, as well as the ones to come, should not falter in promoting equality and justice and the fight against the deprivation and appropriation of an identity which is rightfully ours.

Postscript: a Slavery Remembrance Day Poem

As read by Doyin at 1pm, today, 2/10/2017, at the Black History Month Moment of Silence event at the University flagpole.

Free at last
by Doyin Ogunmilua

Hands and feet once bound by heavy chains
Black bodies once a white man’s claim
Now-a-days it’s minds in shackles
No rest for the wicked in this superiority game

My enslaved ancestors long dead and gone
Yet their cries still go on
Wringing in my ears, I see their tears
How can I play a game that’s already been won?

I sense their expectation
To fulfil a dream they could not touch
To see a promise come to pass
I admit the weight of expectation is much

And so, the victimisation of minds and bodies prevail
When will they stop killing our young black males?
Herded up like sheep and shot
When once herded up on a ship to rot

Haunted by the blood and tears of my ancestors
They stain the back pages of history
A dirty secret in which they are ashamed
Ashamed of my erased family tree

We were supposed to be strong and free
According to that particular act in 1833
Yet bound and gagged we still stand
Appropriated bodies in high demand

Untold stories hidden in the depths of a cotton field
In the depths of the soul of a young man killed
When will I see that promise come to pass?
So I can finally say I am free at last.

Seeing the B in LGBT

Guest blog by Dr Allán LavilleSchool of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences

Bi invisibility

In 1998, Michael Page designed the Bi Pride Flag to increase the visibility of bisexuals within the LGBT community and within society as a whole. In a BiFlag.com blog, Page discusses the symbolism of the components of this flag:

The pink color represents sexual attraction to the same sex only (gay and lesbian), The blue represents sexual attraction to the opposite sex only (straight) and the resultant overlap color purple represents sexual attraction to both sexes (bi).

The key to understanding the symbolism in the Bi Pride Flag is to know that the purple pixels of color blend unnoticeably into both the pink and blue, just as in the ‘real world’ where most bi people blend unnoticeably into both the gay/lesbian and straight communities.”

In the above quote, Page discusses how bi individuals are often invisible within various communities and this has been termed ‘bi invisibility’. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that bi individuals are visible and supported within our society.

Bi visibility

In relation to bi visibility, from 1999, Bi Visibility Day has been celebrated annually on the 23rd of September. There are various events held across the UK (as well as internationally) to encourage and promote bi visibility. This day also highlights biphobia which is the fear or dislike of someone who identifies as bi.

When considering biphobia, Stonewall, the largest LGBT charity in Europe, state that bi individuals suffer from dual prejudice. This is from within the LGBT community and outside of it. This prejudice can lead to mental health problems and risk taking behaviours. Therefore, the aim of Bi Visibility Day is a reminder that we need to address biphobia whenever and wherever we see it.

 

Bi visibility in the workplace

Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers Report 2017 found that only 18% of bi men and 14% of bi women are comfortable being out to all colleagues, managers, and customers or service users. Furthermore, the same report identified that only 23% of bi people could identify a bi role model in their workplace. In summary, this report highlights the need for bi individuals to feel more comfortable with bringing their authentic selves to work as well as having identifiable bi role models in the workplace.

I was fortunate to be funded by Diversity and Inclusion to attend Stonewall’s Bi Workplace Role Models Programme on the 13th of September.

The Stonewall Bi Workplace Role Models Programme promoted a safe space for individuals, including myself, who identify under the ‘Bi umbrella’. The day was very experiential and provided a lot of time to discuss ideas with others who identified as Bi.

Throughout the day we were encouraged to think about our own role models and what it means to be a role model in the workplace. We completed a range of activities that provided us with the opportunity to consider what we can do within our own organisations as a Bi Role Model. We explored barriers to being a Bi Role Model within an organisation as well as potential solutions to this.

One key learning point for myself was that it is very important to be visible as a Bi Role Model at the University. I have taken steps towards being more visible such as being profiled for the Faces of Reading project. As a bi person who has experienced biphobia outside of work, I hope that my level of understanding may be of benefit to others who have/are experiencing the same.