Queer Studies at Birkbeck

Dominic JanesDr Dominic Janes, Reader in History of Art, argues that there is a resurgence of interest in LGBT/Queer Studies in the UK in the context of recent political controversies over same-sex marriage and British values and that Birkbeck is playing a leading role in debate on these issues.

Birkbeck has a strong track-record in generating new ideas in the areas of culture and society, including in relation to understandings of gender and sexuality. My own work in queer visual culture is powerfully rooted in an awareness of changes in popular attitudes over the last several decades. It has taken the best part of fifty years to move from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 to the introduction of same-sex marriage. The politics of visibility was of enormous importance in gay and lesbian liberation because of the understanding of closet secrecy as a structure of oppression. Some of those involved in the ensuing cultural struggles embraced radical forms of queer identity that were based on the assumption of powerfully counter-cultural attitudes to issues such as relationships, commerce and personal presentation. Visibility was a key element of the demands of gay and lesbian rights activists and battles over self-expression on the part both of artists and members of the public in general played a crucial role of the culture wars of the later twentieth century in Britain, as in the United States and elsewhere. The AIDS crisis in particular rendered the question of visible recognition as being of vast importance not merely to people’s identities but to their lives. The fight for respectful representation in the media has lived on in ongoing contestation over memories and histories of these events.

Since the year 2000 a renewed level of academic interest in queer visibility has been accompanied by wider debates in society. Successive liberalisation of laws in the constituent parts of the UK as in many other western countries have led to claims that the rights struggle is now at an end and with it the need for a distinctive and separate queer culture. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the rise of a powerful movement for the assimilation of those who regard themselves as gay or lesbian into the core power-structures of society in Britain and in many other countries. Associated with this has been a widely acknowledged growth in consumerism over politics in the gay community. Whether all this has resulted in a queering of mainstream society or a post-queer erasure of activism and creativity is being hotly debated. David Halperin in his book How to be Gay (2012) has argued from the perspective of the United States that ‘as homosexuality has become increasingly public and dignified, the life of queer affect and feeling has become more and more demonized, more and more impossible to express openly, to explore, to celebrate. It has become an embarrassment….’

Dr Janes' book 'Picturing the Closet'

Dr Janes’ book ‘Picturing the Closet’

One thing that this view implies is that there was a golden age of gay culture which is now in eclipse. That stands somewhat at odds with other views that have seen much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as dominated by prejudice and closeted self-oppression. In two books that are being published this year I have revisited the worlds of the closeted homosexual in Britain in decades past and asked whether Halperin’s nostalgic tone is justified. In Visions of Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman (University of Chicago Press, 2015), I examine the development within the nineteenth-century Church of England of a subject position of closeted queer servitude to Christ which allowed a certain degree of scope for the development of aspects of same-sex desire. My next research project, for which I was awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, explored the ways in which the closet has functioned as a visual metaphor, and looked at the ways in which ‘homosexuals’ were depicted and visually presented themselves before and after the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. The key output from this project is Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2015). Together with my many colleagues at Birkbeck who also work in gender and sexuality studies I look forward to continuing the College’s contribution to public debate about the values of openness and tolerance in a pluralistic society.

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The Gender Agenda in the Business Agenda: of Women’s Empowerment Principles Events and gender equality in marketing

This post was contributed by Dr Wendy Hein, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

How to increase women’s leadership positions and empowerment was central to the recent UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) Event which I attended earlier this month. These principles are an initiative, mainly adopted by private sector organisations, to work towards equality based on seven fundamental guidelines. The conference brought a range of leading companies, policy-makers, non-profit organisations and business educators together. The WEP’s main message for equality is that it ‘means business’. Equality is, in fact, seen to drive growth and potential within organisations. There is a resulting importance in retaining talent and maintaining women within the value creation process, to enable them to reach ‘the top’. This certainly touches on some important issues of contemporary work life. In this particular event, the need to mobilise men to participate in the necessary changes was also heard loud and clear. If we are looking to change existing gender dynamics and structures, we should incorporate those who are occupying ‘top spots’, who tend to be men.

Measuring talent, value and work

Yet, more fundamental challenges of how we measure talent, what we perceive as ‘value’, what constitutes ‘work’, or of the cultures that some companies are built on remained implicit. The language in the above paragraph already reflects a culture of organisations that exist from the ‘top’; that are competitive and fast-paced. Rather than seeking to integrate women into organisations that often represent masculine values, and asking them to embrace these, is there not more that women can and should do? Also, when it comes to women’s working lives, all too often it is not just about ‘business’, but also about the ‘personal’. Men’s private lives can certainly play a role at work, but particularly when it comes to maternity and motherhood, women’s families and their commitment to a home life often enter the work arena. Considering the blurring of these lives, and a call for companies to support women and men at work, shouldn’t there also be further support of home life in a similarly equal way? Shouldn’t a mother, father or partner be as valued as the worker? Then we also come to think of those who do not have a job, either in any of these great companies, or those who do not work – what kind of support can they hope for? And if you were thinking of organisations in the UK, change the context into emerging and developing countries – what support do women and men have there for receiving an education, getting work and managing a ‘home’? It just shows how our society can be perceived to value and privilege those who are in ‘producing’ positions – but is being a mother or father not some type of ‘job’ or ‘production’?

The intersection of work culture and private lives

From my own perspective as a marketing and consumer researcher, I find the issues of work cultures and organisations meeting private lives all the more interesting. As we become involved in programmes and projects through our roles as business researchers and educators, we recognise that marketing is one area where the public blurs with the private, business with the personal, and production with consumption. Think about it: the marketing industry has its own cultures – whether we are looking at marketing departments within certain companies, marketing entrepreneurs or advertising agency culture. Marketing ‘produces’, and in very gendered ways. This becomes even clearer through initiatives such as those by Kat Gordon that seek to create a contrast to the well-documented male ‘locker room’ ad agency cultures. Kat is founder of the “3% Conference” (3% being the number of female creative directors in advertising agencies) and founder of the marketing agency ‘Maternal Instinct’, which specialises in marketing for mothers, by women. She has built her reputation on understanding female consumers (who some would argue form the majority of consumers), based on her experience that marketing for these consumers is often produced by men.

Marketing as an educational tool

Now, think about this: most ads that tell women how to be beautiful (‘you’re worth it’), successful, slim, attractive, or taking care of family, house and home, are made by men. On the other hand, these men also tell other men how to shave, how to ‘fool the missus’ into believing they are vacuuming the house (when really they are in the pub), and how a regular teenager can be chased by a herd of super-model women. Of course, I am exaggerating and these are not all the images that advertising and popular culture produces… but, there are quite a few of them. Considering the number of ads and messages that we are exposed to on a daily basis marketing is placed in quite a powerful position to educate mass audiences on gender. This then is another characteristic of marketing – it does not just address the workers of one company or organisation, but can spread much wider. Wouldn’t you think that gender equality plays a more central role here? Then again, what does gender equality mean in marketing?

We started this excursion from the marketing producer side, but clearly marketing also plays a role on the consumer side. Women and men struggle on a daily basis to live their lives through and around stereotypes often perpetuated by marketing discourse, popular culture, and social structures influenced by these. Marketing pervades our public and private lives. It tells us how to be good/bad mothers, good/bad partners, good/bad men and women, often through a creation of norms based on inclusion and exclusion. Doesn’t this clash with our understanding of equality?

Gender in management education

It is surprising to see then how some companies have focused their efforts on creating gender equality as part of internal structures or policies, when our surroundings and homes are often filled with images, discourses and practices that are frequently far from equal. What’s more, if we understand the centrality of gender in business and management (as advocated by UN principles), it is also surprising to see how often gender is (not) taught as part of management education. This however, we can change.

As part of a group of academics from across the globe who cover different business and management disciplines, I am involved in collating material, research, experiences and perspectives on gender education, in my case within the marketing discipline. To view the growing repository of teaching material that members of the PRME working group on gender equality have put together, please visit this site. This work is open to ideas, support and external contributions, so please feel free to share stories, practices (both from marketing producers and educators) or resources.

We hope this initiative leads to a re-thinking of business and management schools, and to placing gender in a more central place across all of its  these disciplines. We also hope to inspire both women and men to challenge existing structures they may encounter in their work AND home lives, and to create new images, discourses and practices that can be gender aware.

Let’s not let this gender agenda fade, for the sake of both women and men, home and work lives, in emerging and developed countries. Whether it’s business or personal, men’s or women’s day, this is too important for all of us to ignore.

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Beyond Citizenship? International Women’s Day: the gender agenda

This post was contributed by Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

International Women’s Day is the moment each year to reflect on the ongoing struggle against the inequalities and oppressions that mean that women continue to be less than fully equal citizens. It is an occasion to stand back and think about how far we’ve come, what remains to be achieved, and how we formulate our demands for the future.

Since the late 18th century, the prospect of full and equal citizenship has animated generations of feminists. Yet citizenship is a troubling proposition for feminism because whilst it promises inclusion it always also enacts exclusion. Citizenship simultaneously creates insiders and outsiders – citizens and aliens, as well as good citizens and bad citizens. And whilst feminists have fought for a say in the running of states – as voters, workers, politicians and activists – feminism has also always been a process of exposing the limitations, restrictions and violence enacted by states through their constructions of citizenship. This paradox has intensified in recent years, as the notion of citizenship has become a buzzword in politics and academia, particularly in a Europe increasingly concerned with questions of borders and membership.

On the one hand, feminists have expanded the concept of citizenship beyond the classical concern with political citizenship, to articulate demands for wider social, cultural and economic change. The notion of intimate citizenship, for instance, has been developed to refer to the goal of ensuring that every person should be free to develop her own identity and sense of self, and the close personal relationships that matter to her, with the respect, recognition and support of the state and society. And the idea of economic citizenship refers to the right to work in the occupation of one’s choice, in a non-discriminatory job market, to earn wages adequate to support self and family and to access adequate social benefits when work is not possible. Both these concepts enable us to think more clearly about the extent to which feminist claims for full and equal citizenship have been realised. They help us to see the many successes of 20th century feminism in remaking citizenship for women. So, as well as opening up access to formal politics, women’s movements have meant that social benefits and welfare provision for women were established, economic participation and financial independence became possible, and self-determination and freedom of choice in intimate and sexual life were radically extended.

But, on the other hand, feminists continue to draw attention to the lived realities of those who are still not caught in the warm embrace of a full and equal citizenship – those suffering gendered violence and sexual abuse, the disabled and the dependent, members of minoritised, racialised and sexually excluded groups, illegal aliens and the “sans papiers”, the poor and precariously positioned, gender non-conformists and many others. From this perspective, feminism needs to ask whether the incompleteness of the victories of second wave feminism actually marks the limits of what is possible under the auspices of “citizenship”?

Perhaps there are fundamental flaws in citizenship as a feminist objective, tied as it is to the liberal individual and to the nation-state? Can the inherent vulnerability of the human body, and our fundamental human interdependence, ever be truly recognised and supported when citizenship adheres to the individual? Can the differences between peoples, and the singularity of each individual, really thrive under the universalistic intentions of citizenship?

This paradoxical situation produces a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” relationship with the ideal of citizenship for feminism. And as with any attachment that seems to offer so much, that tantalises and teases, but that continues to fail to give us what we really want, we should ask ourselves whether we should hang on in there, trying to make the relationship work, or whether we should let go and move on? Is citizenship still an idea worth fighting for, or should we find a different language to express our yearnings for equality and our desire to belong?

Sasha Roseneil is editor of ‘Beyond Citizenship? Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging’, a new book exploring the current state and history of feminist politics (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, March 2013), and co-editor of “Remaking Citizenship in Multicultural Europe: women’s movements, gender and diversity” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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The tricky task of achieving life/work balance

On Monday 25 February Birkbeck held an Athena SWAN mentoring event, primarily aimed at women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences, shares her advice, gained over her 36-year career as an academic in Switzerland, Holland and the UK .

 

My experience with mentoring young scientists has been that most females focus on how to balance career with having children, and less often on how to advance their careers, yet of course they should do both. By contrast, males tend to focus mainly on career advancement, rarely raising the problem of balance with family life, yet they too should do both.

The two-body problem

Academics often have academic partners, although the problems are just as difficult when one partner’s career is outside academia.  One lesson I have learnt is that one must discuss everything beforehand.  Don’t wait until the problems arise and resentment creeps in.  Be objective, realising in advance that one of you may get a superb offer in a place where the other cannot find something suitable.  What will happen if that arises?  Whose career will have precedence (certainly not automatically the man’s!)?  How will you find compromises that meet both your needs to some extent, even if not to perfection?  Whose career is more transportable?  All these issues must be faced in advance, without which debates end up in resentment for one party and guilt for the other…. often resulting in a doomed relationship.  You have to ask yourself, which is more important: career or relationship, even if both are important.  The solution isn’t to pretend the issue won’t arise!

Integrating family and career

Many young academics desire a child.  It is often assumed that a busy career means a single child.  In a newspaper article many years ago, Katherine Whitehorn raised the question “one child or many?” and concluded that, if you are a busy professional, it may be better – albeit counterintuitive – to have several children!  She reasoned that a singleton waits desperately for mum (or dad) to come home, whereas several children just muck in together and barely notice their parent is away.  What about maternity leave?  Fortunately, since I was a mother, maternity (and paternity) leave has vastly improved, so you could devote yourself entirely to the new arrival. This is clearly your right, but is it such a good idea?  My advice is that, if you intend to pursue your career, then don’t cut off completely during the maternity leave.  Save a special time each day to check email, read the latest article, jot down notes for your next article or research project.  You are going to have to juggle both once you return to work, so start practising gently now.  Remember that the smaller the baby the more s/he sleeps, so take your baby to special lectures or a conference.  Feed the baby just before it starts and hopefully s/he’ll sleep right through.  Do sit on an aisle seat, though, in case s/he starts screaming!!   And, once you’re back fulltime at work, agree with your partner in advance on how you will both decide who will come home anytime the baby is sick – not automatically the mother!

Focus your research

When you had no home responsibilities, it may have been fine to dabble in numerous research projects, but once there are family responsibilities, it is essential to focus your research. Try to arrange to teach on courses that are related to your research so that your reading serves both.

Avoiding guilt

Remind yourself frequently that you cannot be superwoman!  Keep an eye on your health and remember that sleep isn’t only a time of rest, but that parts of the brain are more active during sleep than wakefulness and that sleep is critical for the consolidation of memory.  Avoid guilt, and learn to say “No” to requests to take on extra tasks.  Protect yourself at this time of your career; you can be an avid volunteer in the future.  Tell yourself that it’s OK to use day-care and, when you drop off your child, leave with a confident stride.  Babies pick up on their parents’ doubts.  Do ask for help when you need it.  You don’t have to prove you can do it all alone.

You never stop being a mum…

A personal ending:  I thought that when my daughters left the nest, had their own careers and families, I could simply get on with my career without a second thought… Alas no!  Now the potential guilt raises its head again:  how do I juggle expected grandmother duties (I have seven) with the pressures of my academic career?  Rest assured, I have no regrets… having children, grandchildren and a busy career have fulfilled my life.

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