Open Letters Reveal the Extent of Gender-Based Discrimination at Strathclyde

A protestor holds a sign during the Women's March in 2017. Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash.

By Rob McLaren

Strathclyde Students’ Union is set to release an open letter each day for sixteen days, detailing the extent of sexual discrimination at the university.

As part of an international campaign, 16 Days of Action against Gender-Based Violence, a number of female students, lecturers, members of staff and Strath Union officials will pen letters to the university detailing their experiences of discrimination while at Strathclyde.

The campaign, which has been running since 1991, runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on 25 November, to Human Rights Day on 10 December, which marks the 71st anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Strath Union campaign is the brainchild of the author of the first open letter, Vice President Inclusion, Rachel Cairns, who also released a video to kickstart the 16 Days campaign in which she calls on the university to urgently implement five demands:

Firstly, Cairns calls on the university to add “compassionate” to the list of its core values, adding: “We pride ourselves on being a bold, innovative, collaborative, ambitious, and people-oriented university, but I can’t help but feel like we sometimes forget to be compassionate.”

Secondly, Cairns urges the university to definitively close its gender pay gap – which currently stands at 20.8% – by 2025, noting that, “we cannot claim to be a socially progressive university until this gap is closed.”

The three other demands listed in the video include naming the new teaching and learning building after someone who is not male, which would be an historic first for a Strathclyde facility; training university staff at all levels on standardised issues of LGBT+, gender, disability and BAME comprehension; and the full implementation of the Equally Safe in Higher Education toolkit’s recommendations by 2021.

Speaking to the Strathclyde Telegraph, Cairns describes a “culture of discrimination” at Strathclyde in which female students and members of staff are treated differently to their male colleagues as a result of their gender.

Cairns added that she believes discrimination occurs at the student, academic, and professional levels. She describes meetings with senior university officials in which problems are not listened to unless repeated by a man, noting that her male colleagues, including Strath Union President Matt Crilly, have experienced fundamentally different attitudes.

Furthermore, Cairns describes the Student Parliament as being “predominantly made up of white men” and suggests that multiple women have come forward to her to say that they felt scared to attend the parliament again after being spoken over, visibly mocked, or even laughed at while speaking.

“If you are a woman in student politics, you are not going to be heard unless a man reiterates what you have to say,” Cairns adds.

“But that is just one element of the culture of discrimination at Strathclyde.”

Cairns describes her own experiences of discrimination at the university as “exhausting” and “frustrating” but adds, “this is not just a me problem, this is a Strathclyde problem.

“I don’t want to send my sister to a uni where she’s going to feel victimised.”

The campaign comes just months after a former Strathclyde academic, Kevin O’Gorman, was convicted on sixteen counts of committing acts of sexual assault on students, while a lecturer at Strathclyde and Heriot Watt universities between 2006 and 2014.

And Cairns believes that O’Gorman was able to continue to commit the criminal acts for so long without prosecution due to the culture of discrimination at Strathclyde.

The author of the second open letter, Vice President Community Kayla-Megan Burns, echoes many of Cairns’ sentiments. In the letter, Burns notes that a staggering 89% of the lowest-paid workers at the University of Strathclyde are women.

Speaking to the Strathclyde Telegraph, Burns explains: “I was the first in my family to go uni, and I was so excited to start that I became a class rep immediately.

“Yet from the word ‘go’, I experienced gender-based discrimination, such as lecturers not listening to my views simply because I am female.

“I have Crohn’s disease, and on one occasion I had to leave a class early due to my condition. Yet when I tried to return to the class, the lecturer wouldn’t let me in as I was more than ten minutes late. Nobody confronted him. Nobody challenged his power.

“These are the types of power plays which are so entrenched in our university, coming from lecturers but also senior members of staff. It all comes from the top. 

“This stuff is so entrenched that we feel they don’t want to change.”

Describing the impact of the campaign so far, Cairns suggested that the reaction had been “positive” amongst students and that the university was starting to listen to their demands.

Cairns added: “Given the amount of people who have said they appreciate the work we are doing, I think we will honestly see changes as a result of this.”

Yesterday’s first open letter coincided with the first day of the ongoing UCU industrial action, in which lecturers and staff at 60 British universities, including Strathclyde, participated in a strike over pay and pension disputes.

Yet Cairns does not believe the 16 Days of Action campaign is being overshadowed by the strikes, noting the cross-over of a number of each campaign’s demands, including on closing the gender pay gap.

Alongside the sixteen open letters set to be released, Strath Union is initiating a number of other campaigns centred around tackling gender-based discrimination at the university.

This coming Friday, 29 November, Strath Union will join Glasgow University and the University of the West of Scotland at a public demonstration in support of the survivors of sexual assault.

The event, Fight for the Night, will begin in Kelvingrove Park at 6pm, and will be followed by a march through Glasgow city centre, culminating in a rally in George Square later in the evening.

Furthermore, on 10 December, the final day of the 16 Days of Action campaign, Strath Union will host a ‘Reportathon’ on level 5 of the Union, in order to collect data on historic incidences of sexual discrimination at the university which could have been reported at the time but, for whatever reason, were not.

While Strathclyde does operate a bespoke system for students and staff to report harassment and discrimination, Cairns believes the service is under-resourced and not widely-known.

The data collected during the Reportathon will then be collated and presented to the University, in a bid to outline the true extent of discrimination at Strathclyde.

Anyone wishing to detail their own experiences of gender-based discrimination while at Strathclyde is encouraged to post to their own social media accounts using the hashtags #16DaysOfAction and #StrathLife.