I’ve been struggling with how my feminist politics bump up against my academic ambitions, the realities of funding, and where I ought to draw my lines. I’m still working my way through these uncomfortable spaces, questioning myself, and attempting to hold myself accountable. These aren’t decisions (not every single one, anyway) that have any impact beyond myself and my ambitions and interests, but I still think it’s important to hold myself to what I believe in; even if (especially when?) it may work to my disadvantage*.
The other day, I was working on PhD applications and after looking at yet-another form that has only two options (male or female) under ‘gender’, I tweeted:
Hey, Gender departments at Universities everywhere: If the Uni’s application form only allows male/female as an option.. you’re failing.
— Rishita Nandagiri (@rishie_) February 12, 2014
My research interests are particularly related to the issues that most Gender departments work on/are interested in. Seeing such a binary understanding of gender reflected in the application forms makes me question what sort of inclusivity these universities are on about, makes me question if this is a safe space at all, and it makes me feel that academia is continuing in its bubble of exclusivity and continuing to uphold institutions and systems of oppression**.
It also makes me question the strength of and the work of the Gender departments*** in the first place. How can you produce progressive and critical research on gender, if the application forms are stuck in a binary understanding? Does that mean that research stays research with no implications on the real world? I feel as though it creates a space where cis folk continue to opine upon everyone elses’ identities and continue to ‘other’ people for their own gains and academic points, it feels like it then shuts out voices and peoples whose lived experiences these are; whose realities are being ‘researched’; and it reduces them to ‘subjects’ only.
I don’t think I want to work with a Gender department that doesn’t recognise (and implicitly, at the very least, excludes) peoples’ identities and requires them to work within a binary. I don’t think that this is a space for me and for my research. I decided against applying to these universities. And this is a difficult decision to take when they do produce great work on my specific interests, or have funding for it*.
Some universities give you the option of ‘Other’, which is still deeply problematic. Even in supposed ‘inclusivity’, it (literally!) others anyone that doesn’t identify with constructions of ‘male’ or ‘female’. I suppose I should give them some credit for effort, but I really feel as though they ought to know better than this; they ought to be better than this, and they really ought to have worked on creating safer, inclusive spaces.
That tweet sparked a small discussion and the Women Coding Collective linked me to this excellent piece on handling gender in forms and websites. It’s a really good read and it raises some truly excellent points, and offers a way forward that I think universities ought to look into to address some of the considerations they may have and still work towards a more inclusive space.
Yesterday, Facebook added more than 50 custom gender options for users and allows you to assign the appropriate/preferred pronoun for yourself. It may seem silly because it’s facebook, but it’s a huge company and it’s a social platform and it ensures that people can express themselves authentically. It recognises you and you’re able to proclaim that to your family and friends and colleagues and professors, if that’s what you want to do (and allows you to filter that so you have control over your privacy). And I think that’s so important, because one’s authenticity is about love, it’s about affirmation, it’s about identity and these are important; important things.
And, if Facebook can begin to do this and is learning and trying and growing; then why can’t academia? Why can’t universities attempt to create such spaces? I realise that the Facebook gender options list is still new and we’re still waiting to see how it works and what needs to shift and change and what isn’t working… but this is a step towards embracing and celebrating and loving the diversity of our worlds, of our identities, of our lives. This can only be a good thing, I think.
*I don’t want to come off sounding as though this is some sort of sacrifice on my part. It really isn’t. I’ve just been thinking about it and how refusing to apply to a place has an impact on my academic ambitions; but my ambitions aren’t all that important if it comes at the price of my own beliefs. I also want to emphasise that, as a cis-gendered, (usually)stupidly privileged person I’m aware of how I actually have the luxury of choice and of these options that many people do not. I’m just attempting to reflect on the privileged spaces I occupy and have access to, and how I navigate that. I’m still learning and unpacking things, so discussion and commentary and criticism is welcome.
** And while this post is limited to academia, I think it’s also relevant to development/aid spaces. That’s a rather huge discussion on its own and deserving of its own post, so I’ll sit on that one for now.
*** In my, admittedly biased, opinion; gender departments are usually the ones with the least amount of funds; where a lot of progressive thought and action takes places; where issues that challenge and the subvert the patriarchy and kyriarchy are tackled (see: gender identity, sexual orientation, feminist theories, abortion rights…). So, I find it especially disappointing (perhaps naïvely) when it doesn’t live up to my expectations.