Academic sisterhood: unless I ask the questions, how am I to know?

Criticism of academic sisterhood survey gets to the crux of the matter that the resulting article will explore, says Holly Else

January 15, 2018

It is almost 10am on one of those blissful days between Christmas and New Year. I’m sitting curled up on the sofa under a blanket with a freshly brewed coffee. I’d better just check in with work, I think, so I log into my emails. I instantly regret it as my stomach drops and the calm is shattered.

I’ve an email from my editor and another from one of our subeditors telling me that people have been complaining about my work. The questions in a survey I set up to get a better handle on whether a sisterhood exists in academia and the extent of its reach has prompted concerns.

“One even wrote a blog about it,” I read.

Panicked thoughts start swirling around my head. What did I write? Have I got this horribly wrong? Am I going to get a stern talking to, or worse, for bringing the magazine into disrepute?

Or was I asking the types of questions that journalists ask? Had I started a debate about the very issues that any academic sisterhood could have been created to counter?

The survey may look like it's pitting one gender against another, but isn’t that happening already in universities up and down the country? Women’s networks exist. Yes, they exist for a reason, and the article that I am researching will get to the heart of that.

But as one of the people I’ve spoken to for the piece points out, setting up activities that exclude people based on their gender is potentially dangerous territory.

It is clearly an emotive subject. It takes me a good 10 minutes to build up the courage to click on the blog link, and even longer to go back through the survey questions.

Back in the office in January and a related Twitter stream is even worse.

“WTF, how do you think any of these Q's are acceptable? I support women in all things, as discrimination still exists. Cut the 'sisterhood' crap. Stop trying to make us feel guilty about striving for equality. #everydaysexism,” tweeted one academic. “Oh, for the love of... enough with the faux-engineered gender competition!” tweeted another.

“Yes, it's like they engineered the survey questions to be able to publish a clickbait-y headline about the results. 'Women don't care that their sisterhood is unfair to men!' said a third."




Am I really doing this, me? I’m still mortified at the thought.

For the most part, the complaints on Twitter seem to revolve around one question in particular, which asks whether people think it is fair on men that an academic sisterhood may exist. I can see how the question is provocative but it asks what you think. I wouldn’t be a journalist if I assumed I knew your answers.

If you do think it is fair on men, answer yes. If you think it is not fair, answer no. In fact, people said yes in droves (last count more than 70 per cent of respondents). And, for the record, many people think this because they believe an old boys network exists that benefits men.

I wonder if it was a survey about male networks whether the reaction would have been the same when I asked: “Do you think it is fair on women that old boys’ clubs may exist?” And before your blood starts to boil, I’m not comparing the two. I know one is steeped in decades of male privilege and the other an antidote to it. But as a journalist, I want to explore these issues.

I think back to the research I did before writing the questions: the lengthy telephone calls I had with women who pioneered a feeling of sisterhood during the 1960s when there was only men around them. I think about the time I spent rewriting the language and sequence of the questions. And the fact that I slept overnight before pushing the final version live so that I could sense check it again for the umpteenth time with fresh eyes.

It seems this wasn’t enough. Perhaps the wording of the questions is a little clumsy. Perhaps the original survey only looks at the support women give to other women and not men (this is, though, the point of my piece). But surely prejudging what I’m going to do with the replies is a little harsh?

Rest assured that the piece that I am writing touches on all the issues that my critics have raised, and more. The survey results will form one small part of what I hope will be a nuanced and considered look at the debate. (Cue many more sleepless nights for me over whether I can get the tone right.)

If you want to give your thoughts on whether an academic sisterhood exists, you can complete the survey here.

Holly Else is a reporter for Times Higher Education

PS: The background on the survey link isn’t pink, it’s purple – and it is the same colour as the survey I ran on mistakes in research, which led to this feature. Yes, I have used a polling site called PollDaddy, but until PollMummy exists, my hands are tied.

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