UCU Strike & 16 Days of Activism Against Violence against Women – Twin Struggles?

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As I joined the strike called by my union’s UCU’s members for Monday morning 25 Nov 2019, I couldn’t help see the connections with the other reason we traditionally mark this date in the calendar.  On the 25 November every year, I join millions of other women worldwide to call for 16 Days of Activism to end male violence against women. The links between the two won’t be lost on other feminists who work in universities across the country who study the extent and impact of the male violence women across the globe.  Universities have not always been at the centre of research into women’s lives and the violence they face but a growing tide of feminists, women activists and academics have, since the 1970s, been storming the academy for the right to be there and to study women’s oppression and inequality.  Being there on equal terms with no gender pay gap continues to be a challenge and that’s one important reason why I’m on strike.

Women’s inequality, the gender pay gap and violence against women on university campuses are closely linked. A wee history lesson: one of the reasons we mark the 25 November to 6 December as a period of 16 Days of Activism against VAW is to remember the Montreal Massacre of 6 December 1989.  That day, 25 year old Marc Lepine entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal armed with a shotgun and a hunting knife.  He shot and killed 14 women, injured 10 women and 4 men.  Lepine was furious at being rejected for a place at the Ecole which specialised in courses traditionally undertaken by men.  Before opening fire, the gunman was heard to shout, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!”. The murdered women were studying what we would now describe as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), subjects leading to professions which have traditionally been male-dominated.   Efforts to redress this imbalance continue today.

I find it hard to separate my professional work in a university from violence against women as a real and present reality in women’s lives.   It’s been my research area and professional field for over twenty five years. Nowadays, I am focussed on preventing violence against women on university campuses which has recently been highlighted in all its grim reality.  It has always been there, from Professor Creepy et al and their scandalous free-wheeling moral turpitude in the 1970s to the solid research carried out nowadays showing its probably under-reported but nevertheless still shocking extent.

More generally, reported cases of all forms of violence against women are high and rising across Scotland. Reported sexual crimes here have increased by 8% from 12,487 to 13,547 in 2018-2019. The recording of these crimes is at the highest level seen since 1971. The clear majority of victims of other sexual crimes – mainly cyber-enabled – were female and the vast majority of perpetrators were male. Police Scotland recorded 59,541 incidents of domestic abuse in 2017-18 and the new Scottish Domestic Abuse legislation criminalises coercive control for the first time.  A pattern of behaviour largely experienced by women at the hands of male partners, coercive control enforces a regime over women in all areas of their lives and limits their freedom to live, work and be heard, in private, digital and social spaces and at work.

Campuses are not immune to the violence going on around them.  Universities have been highlighted as ‘sites of violence against women’, with particular emphasis on sexual violence and harassment; gender and age are two key determinants which increase the risk of such violence. One UK study found that one in seven female students had experienced serious physical or sexual assault; 84% knew their attacker and 25% had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour.  The Power in the Academy study found that 4 out of 10 students had experienced sexualised behaviour from a member of staff; more women than men and more post-graduate students than undergraduate students experienced sexual misconduct from a member of staff.  Overall, 60% of the staff responsible for the sexualised behaviour and misconduct were male and 13.5% female. UCU’s own research among women members found that just over half reported experiences of sexual harassment at work, two thirds reported having been sexually harassed by a colleague and over a quarter by a student. Violence against women on campus can be lethal, as the tragic case of Aberdeen student Emily Drouet has revealed.  Furious reaction to this and to the way Birmingham University handled reports of rape case and to the Warwick University groupchat case show the power of student survivors’ activism in speaking truth to power.  Research and personal experiences show that power and gender imbalances interact to facilitate sexual harassment and misconduct on our campuses.


This is not being taken lightly by feminists and campaigners who mark the 16 Days.  There is now a great deal of work going on in campuses in Scotland with Emily’s Mum Fiona Drouet #EmilyTest Campaign in the vanguard. As a UCU member and campaigner against violence against women it is wonderful to see the campus trade and student union movements in solidarity with the struggle to make sure our campuses are safe spaces as they strike to end the gender pay gap and the campus conditions which perpetuate it.  We should remember whose shoulders we stand on and to keep up the fight for a better, safer and more equal future for generations to come.









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