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Leadership only goes as far as allyship

08 Mar 2022 | Debbie McVitty Marking International Women’s Day 2022, Wonkhe editor Debbie McVitty examines her own complicated relationship to feminism and the related debates that are shaping higher education.

I learned my feminism in the nineties and noughties, especially at university. I recall feeling like a pioneer in my Masters in women’s studies, as my group of swashbuckling all-female friends swapped in-jokes about feminist writers and ganged up on The Patriarchy in all its forms.

While it wasn’t, in many ways, a great time to be a woman - it was the era of the “ladette” after all - it was certainly easier for us to feel like we had the moral high ground and the light of truth and justice on our side than I suspect your average white middle class feminist does today.

Seeing better days

This generation of students - supported by some true pioneers in academia and civil society - is courageously confronting some awkward truths about the many axes of inequality, and as a higher education sector we are always grappling with the appropriate response to these realities.

Being editor of Wonkhe grants me the enormously privileged position of observing and commenting on how challenges of personal identity, injustice, and marginalisation emerge as “policy issues” for the sector, how they are addressed in public debate and in policy development, and how universities adapt and update their thinking and practice in response.

At the organisational level I believe Team Wonkhe has a moral responsibility to engage meaningfully with efforts to surface the lived experiences of marginalised groups, to amplify their voices, and share our platform. I hope that being a woman with some of that lived experience in my backstory makes a difference to my ability to see, connect with, and advocate for those concerns.

But on a personal level, like many who care about these issues, and want to make a difference, I struggle with my own complicated experiences of both marginalisation and privilege. The reality is that I do not always “see” - and can’t always make intuitive sense of - the experiences of those whose identity I do not share. And as a consequence, I personally and professionally, constantly fall short of my own ideals of allyship.

Sometimes my brain hurts

Part of this is the complexity of the field. For example, we’re currently in the middle of a major project exploring belonging and inclusion among students, with our partners Pearson. I’d become accustomed to making broad-based assumptions about the interaction of personal identity and marginalisation.

Yet the findings of our first survey of more than 5,000 students suggest that while there are some patterns to be identified that relate to students’ identity, there is much closer alignment between students’ sense of belonging and their reported levels of mental health, than with their identity.

We think this doesn’t mean that identity doesn’t matter to a sense of belonging, as much as that it interacts with other factors - course, institution culture, friendships, academic confidence - in complicated ways. And the implications for developing pragmatic and actionable policies for understanding and responding to students’ struggles with belonging and inclusion are therefore not straightforward either.

Part of it is - let’s be absolutely honest - the politics of identity. Strong feelings are a significant part of the HE sector, especially when it comes to allocation of scarce resource - witness the anger and hurt expressed by those taking part in industrial action. But the dominant culture is one of rational discussion and pragmatism.

I certainly don’t think feelings should take the ascendancy in making decisions about the future, but when it comes to considering diversity and inclusion, acknowledging the emotional consequences of marginalisation must be part of the ways through which we make our way to more inclusive terrain.

Yet in policy debate how do we accommodate anger, hurt, and passion, and what to those of us schooled in the more moderate, clinical analysis of issues looks like overstatement of the facts? Or the articulation of demands and expectations that go far beyond the settled view of what is feasible, or reasonable? Or the espousal of political views and positions that appear extreme and exclusive in themselves - especially at a time when fierce “rational” public debate about the principles of freedom of speech is masking an awful lot of political self-interest and emotional instability?

And part of it is - and this is very much a gendered point - is being the parent of a young child, expecting another in the next few months, doing the best I can in a demanding job that daily triggers every one of my vulnerabilities and anxieties, and as a consequence being so very, very, tired much of the time. I mostly feel like I’m stumbling through the day trying not to do anything too egregious, rather than “making a difference.” And sometimes, reaching for the easy or simple solution is all that I have time or energy to do.

Stumbling towards something better

But perhaps we could stumble together? I don’t have a lot of patience with the current incarnation of the ethos of “self-care” that suggests that a bubble bath and a scented candle can act as a salve for a culture of overwork or a lack of decently funded childcare options - but I acknowledge the political and activist roots of the idea and the absolute necessity for those whose emotional and physical labour is too frequently drawn on by others to find outlets for joy, creativity, and rest.

I think, also, that we could talk more about how we can best care for each other, and act to band together to find those outlets and create those spaces for others in our professional lives. Certainly some of our most widely-read articles focus on HE culture, and the ways that individuals, teams, and institutions might challenge some of the less savoury aspects of life in universities (the competition, the workloads, the bureaucracy, the fear of loss of face) and further develop the best bits (super-smart colleagues, interesting conversations, and the constant stream of fresh perspective and challenge brought by each new cohort of students).

I’m agnostic about whether current discourses of kindness, compassion, and empathy can move the dial on the kind of structural challenges the HE sector is currently grappling with. But I can see that in the policy debate there is space for a bit more giving the benefit of the doubt, trying to walk in each other’s shoes a bit more, and generally offering kindness and (authentic) curiosity before defensiveness and judgement.

Because while there’s lots to worry about what divides us, let’s be cheered by the thought that one thing that definitely unites us is that none of us have had enough sleep, we’re all plagued with self-doubt, and we’re all liable to put our foot in it most of the time.


Debbie McVitty is Editor of Wonkhe. Debbie is a former chief of staff at Universities UK, director of policy at the University of Bedfordshire, and head of policy at the National Union of Students, and is a founding member of Wonkhe’s editorial group.

Diversity Interventions 2022 conference

Taking place on 7-8 April in person and online, Diversity Interventions 2022 is an international conference hosted and co-convened by the University of Oxford, Advance HE, and Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Limited.

Diversity Interventions 2022 will bring together gender equity, EDI professionals, researchers, and advocates from across the world to share best practice, discuss emerging innovations, and exchange personal experiences in designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions and action plans. We’ll tackle some of the biggest challenges on the way to developing a science and profession of diversity interventions. Find out more


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