Some girls get education, some get shot


Malala Yousafzai

It is too easy to slip into the frame of mind that thinks the battle for educational access and equality of treatment for girls and women is won when in many countries women are more the 50% undergraduates.  They are 65% of students in Iranian universities, but this did not stop the Iranian Science and Education Ministry this August from banning women from studying a variety of disciplines, in particular those where it is considered inappropriate for women to be employed: mining agriculture and engineering being the most obvious, but business studies and hotel management being some of the others.  How much has been won if one gender is banned from access to a whole raft of education and the jobs it leads to.

 Worse has come more recently when on Tuesday Malala Yousafzai a fourteen year old school girl in Pakistan was shot because of her public campaigning for girls’ education – for herself and girls like herself.  In large areas of the world women’s education is such a threat to male dominated cultures that girls and their teachers are shot for going to school

 We should  be wary of thinking that these kinds of actions happen only in unstable religious fundamentalist states, and  remember the Montreal Massacre of 1989, when a male student at the École Polytechnique in Montreal deliberately targeted and killed 14 women, twelve of whom were engineering students, as well as injuring ten other women and four men. That is not so long ago or so far away

 It is hard to be positive with events like these in your head but Plan International has just sent me an email reminding me that tomorrow is  The First Ever International Day of the Girl- with a major focus on girls education. Online campaigns are not enough by themselves but they remind us that the world is a very hard and unjust place for many girls and women, and access to safe education is the first step towards gender justice and autonomy for most women everywhere.

Watch this video for something uplifting:  Because I am a girl

Posted in education policy, Not sure what this is about, techno-feminist perspectives | 3 Comments

Gender gaming – real and virtual

Last week I attended an excellent conference: Girls and Digital Culture at Kings College London. It ran in parallel with London Fashion week at the Courtauld Institute next door. The august pictures of Kings College famous alumni that front the Kings campus on the Strand provided a backdrop to a stream of fashionistas wearing impossible shoes.

The conference and Fashion week told the same story: gender divisions and extreme masculinity and femininity are happy and well in both the ‘real world’ as well as that produced by digital culture.

Lisa Nakamura from the University of Michigan made a keynote presentation that used evidence from online games sites to argue that digital culture was one of the main environments where young men learned to perform a particular kind of extreme misogynistic masculinity. She introduced us to the concept of ‘trash talk’ in online gaming. Lisa described how trash talk was the significant discourse in online gaming and the insults and taunts were directed at anyone who did not fit a white male stereotype of a games player. The insults were highly sexist, and, she argued, learned by boys as an appropriate form of masculine behaviour. Learning to do it well gave a player ‘rhetorical capital’. Women and others who join the games culture find it very hard to challenge the use of trash talk – even though they are the focus of insults,  because – they are told-  this is the indigenous culture of whatever game is being played and they have to learn to operate in this culture if they want to join the game.

Users deny that it is a discourse with meaning, they say it is simply procedural, and so deny that they are behaving in a racist or sexist manner.  This trash talk is not restricted to online gaming but permeates the whole web. For example while images of breast feeding mothers are censored by Face Book , the same site refuses to remove rape ‘jokes’  

Lisa recommended a blog posting by John Scalzi:  ‘Straight White Male the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is’   as a way of explaining structural gender discrimination in the ‘real world’ through the analogy with online gaming structures. It’s a very nice piece and I recommend it. It also reminds me that the flow of influence between the ‘real world’  and the ‘virtual world’ goes both ways.

In the real world we re-create hyper-femininity and wear those impossible shoes that we once only saw on Second Life avatars.

Posted in digital scholarship, techno-feminist perspectives, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment

Will the Finch Report kill off non-commercial open access journals?

I first wrote about open access publishing models last year in November. Because I work on two non-commercial open access journals that are produced almost completely by academic time, and a commercial journal that runs the usual subscription model I am looking for new business models for sustaining these journals.  That is why I have been very interested in the Finch Report and its implications for both these models of academic publishing.

Open access journals that currently have no financial support at all, struggle to produce quality issues and rely on the efforts of academics doing every job from copy editing to publicity. The two open access journals I work on have been innovatory and are respected in their different fields but both struggle against a tide which pressures authors to submit to ‘high impact’ journals and where academic time for non-REF and non teaching activity to give to producing this kind of journal is ever more tightly squeezed.

Both the open access journals have debated the ‘author pays’ model and are reluctant to adopt it, or attempt to adopt it. Few of the authors in either journal are writing up funded research projects and many have no easy access to institutional funds to pay for publication. The Finch Report has little to say to non-commercial open access journals. It offers no new business model that will solve our funding problem and instead appears to erect a new barrier to publishing by requiring authors to pay.

The Finch report suggests that UK university departments should fund their staff to publish, but this discriminates against papers coming from the global south in particular where funds are even more difficult to access. The impact on those of us who publish in the field of gender (or other critical interdisciplinary areas) is likely to be negative. Many of us would find it hard to get access to departmental funds to pay to have our papers published. If there are scarce resources in an institution our experience tells us that the challenging interdisciplinary fields do not usually get first call on those funds. They go first to traditional high status areas.

There are also the authors outside institutions. I was interested in a recent email by Jorgen Burchardt to science mailing list in which he says: ‘I have recently made a study of Danish academic journals that shows that 30 % of the authors are unemployed, retired, students or are working for not-research companies/institutions.’  That certainly resonates with what I see submitted to the journals I work with.

The Finch Report also suggests that for some years there will need to be ‘hybrid’ journals with some papers open access because authors have  paid and other papers only accessible for a fee, because authors have not. Some commercial journals already offer this option to their authors when papers are accepted. When we discussed this in the commercial journal I work on we were reluctant to operate what at first sight appears to be an unequal two tier system of papers.

The list of negative impacts in the areas in which I am involved with academic publishing seems so clear I have been trying hard to come up with some possible positive impacts.  Unfortunately I could come up with only two highly speculative scenarios that might benefit the non-commercial open access journals:

-  As more journals adopt the ‘gold’ author pays model, it may be that more authors who cannot access funds to pay for publication will choose to publish with non-commercial open access journals and counteract the ‘pull’ of commercial journals.

 -  If universities advise their staff to publish only in open access or hybrid models then non-commercial open access journals could become a preferred publication outlet for UK authors.

Unfortunately I cannot  come up with even one positive speculative scenario for the commercial journal I work on – yet I hope.

Posted in digital scholarship, education policy | 2 Comments

Universities are no place for libraries – especially it seems the Women’s Library

Libraries with physical books and archives where people go to research and study are becoming for, many universities, expensive non-core functions that are in the first line for financial cuts. The library in my own university – state of the art and built about 10 years ago – is now an echoing, people-free, book depositary.  But my university has some kind of excuse – we are an online and distance teaching university. However, any library that contains precious artefacts and irreplaceable documents but relies on a university to look after and provide access to these is in a very precarious position.  On Friday I attended a meeting  about saving one of the most unique university ‘owned’ libraries in Europe The Women’s Library in London.

The Women’s Library is the oldest and most extensive collection of women’s history in Europe. It was developed from the collections of suffrage organisations and became known as the Fawcett Library, looked after by the Fawcett Society until 1977, when it was taken over by a polytechnic that became the present London Metropolitan University. In 2002 it moved into (lottery funded) purpose-built premises with a reading room, exhibition hall, lecture theatre, office and activity spaces. London Met. Uni. in the present shake up of UK higher education funding does not feel that it can afford to support this internationally unique institution.

There is a good campaign website and the Guardian has been running stories about importance of the library and supporting the campaign to keep it. The way ahead for the Library remains in doubt. It will be struggle to maintain its identity, which includes both the collection and the dedicated building and specialist librarians. Some other universities have expressed an interest in taking the collection.  But given the present precarious state of most university funding might such a move be simply a temporary, and limited, breathing space on a route that ends with the dissipation of the library as an entity.

I have been an irregular user of the library myself, but valued the exhibitions I have seen there and the meeting place it provides for scholars of women’s lives. To lose the library would be a disaster. Who save’s libraries today?

A library someone once thought worth saving

Posted in blogademia, education policy, techno-feminist perspectives | 1 Comment

Its a girl thing- but is it a science thing?

I have been suprised at the almost universal condemnation of the short video produced by the European Commission as part of a campaign to attract more young women to ‘do science’.

You can see it on YouTube if you missed it first time round.

It has been called offensive, insulting ( Telegraph), and has produced a wave of  challenge and criticism  from women scientists in particular.  ( eg Meghan Gray) because  it ‘stereotypes’ young women.

Personally I liked the ad. but I think the furore about it highlights a lot of contradictions in our thinking about gender and science. 

 I’m not sure what the ad. will achieve – I am not sure what ads do achieve – but aren’t they about provoking desire?

 Will this ad provoke desire among young women to be scientists? Not directly -  but I don’t think that is what it is trying to do. I think it is trying to make the paraphernalia we associate with science: lab equipment, models of molecules etc look like the kind of environment girls can be feminine in – and I also think that in using the Charlie’s Angels imagery it is being ironic and playful.

Will it turn young women off doing science? I don’t think so.

Does it trivialise science and scientists? Probably yes- but then we have been arguing for years that girls don’t want to do science because they think it is difficult, hard, not sexy, not feminine and not fun. So if we think ads work then wouldn’t we want ads to present science as easy and fun (which could be construed as ‘trivialising’ it) sexy and feminine? Isn’t that a good thing?

 But when an ad does this we criticise it as stereotyping young women.  I think stereotyping theory is not serving us well . It has become self referential and a kind of black box theory which explains everything and nothing. Show pictures of conventionally attractive young women in flattering ways and such images are criticised as being stereotypes. Show unconventional attractive/unattractive women doing science in unflattering ['realistic' ways]and they are criticised as stereotyping women scientists as not being attractive/sexy and that girls won’t relate to them – desire to be like them. Show men doing science and ….well you know where I am going with this one.

 In the past we have tried the worthy ad. campaigns: Do science and make the world a better place; Do science because it is inherently exciting; Do science and get a Nobel prize like these female scientists from the past. We haven’t tried: ‘Do science and make more money than doing hairdressing’, maybe because the stereotype of scientists that scientists like is the one about love and passion for the work, and making original contributions to the field, and a lack of concern for mundane things like makeup and disposable income.  But haven’t we challenged this one? Most people working in science and science related occupations are NOT fulfilling this traditional ‘stereotype’ of a scientist. They are technical team workers contributing to commercial [including health care] industries for regular wages and pensions – just like the rest of us. But their lifetime earnings are much better than women in traditional female jobs.

 I don’t expect to see ads represent ‘real life’. Ads- so I understand – create lifestyle desires that influence our choices, they make us aspirational   They can also be nice to watch even when you aren’t sure what they are selling. I hope this ad gets young women to aspire to ‘strut their stuff’ in a lab.  I’d like it to work, we haven’t a great history of success in this area, it is time to try something new.

Heather Mendick also takes up this discussion in her blog on the Gender and Education Association Website

Posted in education policy, techno-feminist perspectives, the pleasures of technology, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment

Women deal better with being lost in Space

I was a science fiction reading young teenager in a small northern British town when the first Space programmes were launched. I remember pictures of a debonair Yuri Gagarin and a serious Valentina Tereshkova looking like innocent twins in their cosmonaut space helmets.


And sitting up later into the night to watch the first US astronauts land on the moon.  But by the time the US sent its first woman: Sally Ride into Space – looking like a Charlie’s angel in her publicity shots- it was 1983. By then Gagarin was dead and Tereshkova was a Soviet bureaucrat. I was tired of watching space launches and had stopped believing that we were en route to the next  frontier of human endeavor.  Instead ‘Space’ was a place in my imagination peopled by Mr. Spock and Uhura: who rarely wore a helmet but had a great line in ear rings.

Lui Yang

Then, on Saturday, with as much publicity as it could muster China sent Lui Yang on a space mission. She is the first Chinese female astronaut, and she sets off to do something still quite remarkable – but some how also mundane – nearly 50 years later than Tereshkova’s first trip.  The Guardian quotes the Chinese Space programme spokeswoman as saying: “Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness.”

Is that why have only 40 of the 460+ people who have gone into Space been women?

Posted in techno-feminist perspectives, the pleasures of technology, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment

What I saw in China 2: low tech ‘non-jobs’

Despite the high end high tech products and industries in the major cities of China – and in the hands of many Chinese people –we saw lots of incidences of over-manning: of people working in ‘non-jobs’. China is the only place where I have seen someone sweeping the hard shoulder of the motorway using a dustpan and brush. In Europe sweeping motorway at all is rare except for moving debris after an accident, but doing it laboriously with such simple tools would be uneconomic. 

As well as the motorway sweeper, there seemed no logic to the two women washing the marble staircase of a Shanghai museum at two in the afternoon, as visitors went up and down. The Chinese like shiny marble surfaces for public places like railway and  metro stations; all  kept very clean and highly polished, and potentially deadly.

The ticket booth for the metro had four women working in it: one issuing tickets, one supervising the one issuing tickets, one dusting the desks and one sweeping the floor.

The most pointless job I saw was that of the uniformed man whose job it was to keep people off the grass under a statue of Mao, by blowing his whistle whenever someone appeared to be heading in that direction[1]. Economically I think it would be cheaper to let people walk on the grass and pay a gardener to ‘fix’ it every few weeks, or pave it over.

These kinds of jobs are really a way of distributing social security payments – but despite China’s economic boom they still go to very large numbers of the population for whom there are still not enough ‘real’ jobs.


[1] There was a sign asking people not to walk on the grass but Chinese people don’t pay much attention to regulations if they think no one is looking. For example drivers only obey traffic lights at road junctions if they can’t see any other cars, and pedestrian crossing lights seem to be optional as far as both pedestrians and drivers are concerned. The signs in the camellia beds in the palace gardens said ‘keep off’ – in all sorts of different ways. Men with whistles spent lots of the May afternoon chasing people who were trying to have their photos taken sitting among the best camellia bushes in the centre of the beds. The information at the Yanghsuo hotel told us that the bamboo boats beside the hotel were unlicenced, illegal and unsafe and could be stopped by the police at any time. It then gave information about how to book a ride on them.

Posted in techno-feminist perspectives, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment

What I saw in China: 1. Noisy technologies

I have just come back from a three week holiday exploring parts of China. While I was there I was too overwhelmed to blog, but since I have been back I have been reflecting on some of what I experienced.

 An overwhelming experience of any Chinese city is the noise. Everything and everybody seems to want to make their presence felt by making noise. Every vehicle honks its horn to warn other traffic and pedestrians that it is about to manoeuvre. This is particularly disconcerting when the manoeuvring is behind you on the pavement, or you are in the taxi squeezing itself between a bus and contesting taxi. In Beijing we needed earplugs in our hotel because the building site beside the hotel was busiest over night. That was when the concrete lorries made their deliveries and the concrete was pumped and laid. The lorries get stuck in the Beijing traffic in daytime.

 You escape the street noise by travelling on very fast and clean trains and metros. There you are assailed by people noise. On short journeys everyone uses their mobile phones to shout at their friends and family, often with the speaker turned on so you listen to the other party shouting back. Or they play games on their phones and iPads.  A five hour journey 5 on the Shanghai – Beijing express with the people in the seats in front of playing arcade games with the sound turned on felt like a long slow ride despite the carriage indicator screen showing a constant speed of over 300 kph.

from phot by Wang Fuchun –

 In three weeks I spotted only one Chinese person reading a book while travelling on public transport and two reading newspapers. The only Kindle users were clearly western visitors: on planes.   I understand the Chinese government don’t – yet – allow Kindles to be sold in China- although iPad and iPad clones are sold.

Maybe people get home, draw their blinds, switch on their illegal Kindles and read in blissful silence each evening- but I doubt it.

Posted in digital scholarship, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment

Gender equity gets closer but not for everyone

This last week I have been participating in an online forum run by UNESCO and IIEP (the International Institute for Educational Planning) on gender equality in education. It is very easy to sign up for online conferences and then never be able to prioritise the time the engage- it embarrasses me to say that I have done that more than once. But I have managed to make to time to engage with this forum.  It is to easy to forget the state of education for most of the world’s population when you spend your time working with the relatively privileged in a highly developed region of the world. 

One of the targets of the  Millennium Development goals of 2000 was: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015. The UNESCO World Atlas of Equality in Education  using data for 2009, concludes that 56% of the world’s population of primary school children live in countries that have gender parity at primary level, only 29% at lower secondary level and only 15% at upper secondary level. These equity measures are in a global context where only about three quarters of the world’s population of primary school children live on countries with universal primary education. Once in education many children don’t stay of long. Only 87% of girls and 90% of boys completed their primary education. At secondary level girls’ enrolment has been catching up with boys; 67% and 69%, which is good news, but not news equally spread across all countries.

I woke in the middle of the night last night wondering if it was time to change my job and spend my money differently. But his morning I am afraid I turned back into in an academic and went back online.

Posted in digital scholarship, education policy, techno-feminist perspectives | Leave a comment

Can face-to- face universities offer consistent high quality online and distance learning?

For some years those of us working in distance learning institutions have been encouraged to see ourselves as simply part of a continuum of ‘blended learning’. Our older siblings: traditional or face-to- face institutions, declared that they could use e-learning technologies to offer distance education at least as good as dedicated distance learning institutions; perhaps even better since they could draw on a bigger reservoir of expert teachers and researchers.  The most recent issue of Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, is dedicated to examining distance learning in dual mode institutions. It questions whether many institutions whose primary student body is geographically present have been able to offer distance learning in a sustainable way. Such institutions often do not have the policies and processes – including appropriate quality assurance – the IT back office systems, the skilled support staff for students and academics, the work practices and culture, the values, or indeed the business skills to understand the cost structures of distance learning. Thus distance learning provision is the domain of a few departmental individuals (academic and administrative). Once these early adopters and enthusiasts move on – or burn out- the systems are not there to support others to continue the work as a normal part of their activities, and a normal part of the institution’s teaching.

The case studies and discussion papers included in this special issue are well worth reading, especially by distance learning enthusiasts in traditional universities, where there is still a policy enthusiasm for distance learners who seem to offer new markets and potential economies in teaching. The lesson seems to be that this enthusiasm needs a comparative level of financial investment and systems development.

Maybe these nice pictures we are so used to of the distance learner in splendid isolation in some national park are more real that we thought. Maybe there is just the poor student and his laptop, and a bit on Blackboard when his tutor remembers to update the readings.

[Image from]

Posted in education policy, elearning, the trouble with technology | Leave a comment