Monday, 15 August 2011

An everyday story...

Once upon a time there was a young female academic, Dr Ann Other (we’ll call her Dr A for short). She heard that an eminent senior male academic, Professor X, at another university might be working on an area relevant to her research, so she emailed him about it. He asked her to lunch, was friendly and encouraging and suggested a new collaborative project. Being a probationer, she was pleased by this suggestion, and reported it to her HoD (also female) Professor B without delay. Professor B’s reaction was a great surprise: she insisted that this collaboration was not a good idea, and that Dr A should on no account carry on with it. Dr A was confused but did as suggested, and was rather surprised never to hear about it again from Professor X. Some years later Dr A was surprised to learn from another senior male academic that Professor X was well known as a womaniser and seducer of younger colleagues. It all made sense now; Professor B had clearly warned him off, but Dr A wished she’d been told the truth at the time.

A few years later Dr A moved universities. She was invited to a reception after a workshop here she met another eminent senior academic, in a sligtly different field. Let’s call him Professor Z. Professor Z struck up a conversation with her, but quite quickly Dr A began to feel uncomfortable. Professor Z stood far too close, smiled in a not altogether professional way, looked at bits of her she was uncomfortable about having stared at and pursued her when she tried to move away. At any minute she felt she might be grabbed, even though this was a public place. Eventually she managed to escape, but she never took Professor Z up on the idea of discussing a teaching collaboration that he’d seemed so keen on. Some years later she was surprised to learn, from another senior male academic, that Professor Z was well known as a womaniser and seducer of colleagues. She was not greatly reassured to know that apparently he was less bad now than had once been the case.

Some years have passed and now she is Professor Ann Other. She wonders what to do when she hears her female PhD student complaining of being cornered at a party by Professor Y, an eminent male academic; when a probationary lecturer talks of being patronised and put down (by Professor V- guess what?) for being pretty, when the clear implication is that she cannot also be clever; when a 30-something Senior Lecturer talks about comments being addressed to her breasts not her face (and I won’t even spell out who did this). This story doesn’t have a happy ending- sorry.

There’s a reason for the name I’ve chosen. It seems to me that the identity of this female academic is not important. The point is that her story is typical of those I hear from other women in academia. In the end Dr A got off relatively lightly, we might feel: she didn’t actually get propositioned, let alone assaulted. But she lives in the knowledge that this kind of low-level sexual menace is always lurking in the background of her job and that she can’t do anything to protext her colleagues from it.

What really concerns me is the reaction of the senior males involed in this story, who were not the offenders. If it’s well known that there are some senior people out there who are sexually predatory or who don’t respect women as colleagues, why is nothing said and nothing done by those people they might listen to- their male colleagues? There seems to be an assumption that nobody is really hurt by all this; it’s just a bit of bad behaviour and does it really matter in such eminent men? The female HoD may have warned off Professor X, but it seems he didn’t do much to change his ways. I’d like to feel that if I knew someone who was treating junior collagues in such an inappropriate fashion, I’d take her aside and tell her in no uncertain terms that this was to stop. (It sounds a bit odd put that way, doesn't it. I wonder why.) Do men do that? If they do, why doesn’t it work? Why doesn’t this behaviour stop? Could it be that such things are excused if the culprit if sufficiently distinguished and the sufferer sufficiently junior?

I wonder if we ought to be more overt about discussing this as women. We don’t complain much, unless it’s really serious, and we don’t generally talk to anyone but other women. It's almost as if we feel guilty. I’m an HoD now, so should I tell my junior colleagues to expect this kind of thing as part of academic life? Should I reassure them it’s not their fault if such things happen? Would then even tell me, fearing that nothing can be done? It makes me furious every time I hear stories like the one I hear above, but I at a loss to know what we, as senior women, can do to stop this. Perhaps the first thing is to make it public, so that other Dr A’s out there won’t feel so isolated, but it seems a pretty inadequate response.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Social media and the London riots

I've just given an email interview to a journalist from the London Bureau of Xinhua News Agency, China's state media organisation. I ended up writing quite a lot, so I thought I might blog it as well in slighly edited and extended form. I've presented it in the interview format, including the questions that were put to me.

1. How do you describe the role of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, in the recent riots in London and other English cities?

CW: I think it's quite clear that social media have been used to communicate information concerning the riots in various ways. A colleague in UCL Political Science has written a very good blog post on this, so I won't repeat what she has discussed in detail.

It seems that rioters may have used such things as Blackberry messenger and Twitter to organise and plan activity. However, it's also important to stress that Twitter had a very important role in allowing average citizens, who were not taking part in the riots, to share information. They used it to find out what was happening in different areas and to communicate the kind of good news that the mainstream media are not usually interested in. For example a picture of people making tea for policemen, using a riot shield as a tray has been widely tweeted. The tea in time of crisis theme has inspired Operation Cup of Tea a social media-based site of anti-riot testimonies, which is also using tea sales to raise money for post-riot reconstruction. The Twitter hashtag #riotcleanup was used to organise thousands of volunteers, who met to clean up the damage on the day after the riots. It is vital, therefore, that we understand that social media has had an important effect on community cohesion and communication for the great majority of people using it, and that communication about lawlessness was very much a minority activity.

2. Those social media have also played an important role in the riots in Middle East and north Africa, such as in Egypt. So do you think it is becoming a global issue and a challenge to many governments in this age?

CW: I think the the use of social media during the London is a very different issue from that in other places that you mention. These were legitimate uses of the medium to protest about the activity of repressive, non-democratic governments. It was the only way to organise peaceful protest against oppressive regimes when other more official communication channels were closed or monitored by the state. The UK government is democratically elected and not repressive. Even if some of the rioters might not agree with government policies, these are not in essence political, pro-democracy protests. There does appear to be a correlation between the worst areas of rioting and social deprivation, as this map overlay mashup produced by UCL CASA demonstrates. But the London riots are much more like those sometimes experienced in the USA, such as the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992: a way of expressing anger about the conditions in which people find themselves, and an opportunity for looters to engage in straightforward criminal activity.

3. Then how do you think the new media should be regulated? How should we balance regulation and freedom on internet?

CW: I think it is very hard to regulate new media. The internet was, after all, designed to withstand a nuclear strike, and that decentralised structure tends to resist control by nation states. Even when the internet was effectively turned off in Egypt for a few days, people were still able to tweet from their mobile phones, as research undertaken at UCL CASA has shown. Thus I think repression of social media use is entirely inappropriate.

I think that proven acts of criminality co-ordinated on the internet or social media need to be pursued and prosecuted, just as they would if committed in real life. But it can be much harder to find people on social media and thus can be harder to make the connection between an individual in real life and a social media account holder. If really determined to evade detection, people might tweet psuedonymously from PAYG mobile phones, changing SIM cards and social media accounts or handles regularly, or perhaps use Cyber cafes instead of their own computer. We need to use the same high standards of proof of such activity as we would in the real world. How can we be sure, for example, that people who communicate over Twitter are intending to commit a violent, criminal act as opposed to exercising their democratic right to a peaceful meeting or orderly form of protest? Policing therefore has to be as thorough and sensitive online as it would be off-line.

I think calls to shut down social media in times of crisis are entirely misguided. If a suggestion were made that at such times all roads and rail links were closed, rendering thousands of people homeless and stranded, I imagine that most people would think it a dreadful idea. The vast majority of law abiding citizens use Twitter for lawful purposes in such circumstances, perhaps to make sure that loved ones are safe, and find out what is happening to friends or what the situation is in the area where they live, so shutting it would pose more of an inconvenience, and indeed possible risk to the safety, of most people as a result than leaving it open. Such suggestions indicate to me that politicans need urgently to develop a much more complex understanding of the culture of social media, and its possible positive as well as negative uses.