Gender Equality and Diversity: “there is so much more we could be doing”

By Julia Atherley

J Smith is the President of the Durham Intersectional Feminist Society. The group aims to promote gender equality in Durham and help underrepresented minorities. I spoke to J about the role of Feminist societies at universities and the issues of inequality faced by students at Durham.  

As leader of the Durham Intersectional Feminist Society, what role do you think Feminist Societies play in the fight for gender equality nowadays? 

I think Feminist societies play an extremely important role in engaging students who are interested in issues around tackling inequality and social justice. They provide a platform to bring together students from different underrepresented groups in discussing issues that intersect gender identity, sexual orientation, race, faith, class, nationality (to name a few).

This includes working to ensure we are focusing on how we can represent issues including ongoing challenges for students accessing sanitary products at Durham, microaggressions towards underrepresented groups, but also recognising and raising awareness of gender diversity. The need to understand gender equality should not erase or invalidate anyone who falls outside of gender binary. We aim to engage students who self-define as men in the movement in providing a space to discuss issues around toxic masculinity, rigid gender norms including in addressing issues around mental health.

What challenges do you face specifically as a student in Durham? Is Durham doing enough to promote gender equality?

I think there have definitely been positive strides around promoting gender equality including the creation of a Women’s and Trans Associations within our SU, as well as the work that has been done by SU officers and students. The university has helped with the development of a new Trans policy, which alongside the new Trans and Intersex Sports policy will help ensure trans and non-binary students are better supported including in following their passion within sports. However, if you look at the ratings from the Athena Swan award, there is more that can be done around promoting gender equality.

There is also a huge attainment gap for working-class students, with the university only recently including ‘BME’ students into their university access agreement over the last year.

Both of these reflect when we discuss gender equality we need to recognise how this is impacted on different underrepresented groups, including but not limited to working-class students and people of colour. 

Alongside Oxford University, Durham has some of the highest figures for reported sexual assault in UK universities. Is there something about Durham that enables these figures or is it something else?

The figures for Durham are absolutely disgusting and probably do not reflect the actual numbers of survivors at Durham University. There is so much more we could be doing in working to tackle this, as well as ensuring survivors are able to access support.

This includes extending active bystander training to all students to ensure they are better equipped in supporting others and moving to move towards compulsory consent sessions.

The work that is being done by the University, College Welfare officers on issues like consent, as well as the SU is fantastic, but there needs to be more coordination in linking together student leaders and the university. The It’s NOT Ok campaign is currently collecting feedback from students how they feel these issues could be tackled.

You self-identify as ‘they’ and use neutral pronouns. Is Feminism now less about women and more about everybody? Do you feel able to represent women’s issues as president of a Feminist Society? 

Intersectional Feminism recognises when we discuss women issues that this needs to recognise and address issues impacting trans women, non-binary women of colour, women with disabilities, neurodivergent women, LBTQ+ women, women of faith, working-class women to name a few. As a society, we have organised a wide range of events from our joint Ace 101 to Gendered Islamophobia workshops, working closely with our Liberation Associations, as well as external organisations like NUS’s Liberation Campaigns and the UK Intersex Association.

As President, it’s important to always listen, be open when mistakes are made, and to continuously ask what more can we be doing to ensure our Feminism society is inclusive and accessible. I’ve tried to do this with the support of our wonderful exec and liberation officers have helped ensure we are constantly working to address how we can better represent women’s issues, but also issues impacting other underrepresented and marginalised groups.

My pronouns are she and they and so from experience, I understand we need to do to provide a platform and support the most marginalised women’s voices within our society.

This year the society changed its name to include the word ‘intersectional’. What prompted this change and what has happened in terms of conduct as a result of the shift? 

The main reason behind the change was to remove ‘university’ from our society’s name to ensure we no longer had to adhere to the universities PREVENT policy directly. PREVENT is fundamentally flawed in consistently targeting Muslim students and people of colour, which does more to cause further divisions within our society. We voted through a survey to give members the chance to decide whether to maintain or amend our name from 8 different options.

Society wise, it was a positive reflection of what we were striving to promote, but also raised the bar in ensuring we were continuously being held to account in ensuring we weren’t simply turning intersectionality into a buzz word.

As a society, we do not represent students in the same way as associations do and because of the demographics of Durham, it is important that when we are discussing issues around gender equality we recognise intersections and barriers for people from underrepresented and marginalised groups. This includes tackling microaggressions, being willing to listen, and challenging how inclusive our own Feminist values are in order to learn and grow as individuals and activists.

Photograph: J Smith

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