WHEN annual conference 2019: ''Who am I supposed to be?''

2019 conference labels networking Aug 12, 2019
WHEN annual conference 2019 blog
By Madiha Sajid with contributions from Dr Susi Poli

On 20 June 2019, WHEN held its second annual conference around the theme of exploring intersectional identities through our labels. This year, we welcomed over 100 women from over 20 different universities around the UK, who set about embarking on journeys of self-exploration as we all attempted to demystify the concept of labels, both those that are given to us by others and the ones that we give to ourselves. 

Labels - which ones do I want to own?

The conference opened with a video of women, including many of the WHEN volunteers, confidently sharing some of the labels that people had given to them, as well as some of those they wanted to give to themselves. From “eccentric” to “ambitious”, “bossy” to “confident”, and  “emotional” to “compassionate” the video introduced the concept of positive and negative labels and our ability to choose whether to discard or take ownership of them. 


The keynote:

A joint keynote was delivered by Professor Kalwant Bhopal (University of Birmingham) and Yasmine Bouidaf (UCL) with a focus on the status of women in higher education, particularly women of colour. 

Professor Kalwant Bhopal: ’’Challenge, interrogate and disrupt’’

Figures from Kalwant’s research revealed that women make up 54.1% of those working in HE yet men are more likely to be on permanent contracts (66.7%), in senior decision making roles and more likely to earn £55,000 on average more than women (Advance HE, 2018). These figures clearly show the level of inequality in higher education, which is true for academic as well as for women in professional services. Her research reveals that men perform slightly better while BME women are known to be the most penalised as they are less represented in top roles in the sector. This point also helps with reinforcing the meaning and our understanding of one of the forms of intersectionality and of how much of this is about the dichotomy of race-gender, particularly for BMEs. Kalwant also explained some of the systems of support that are currently in place to support BMEs women:

  • Collaborations or peers support (e.g. emotional)
  • Mentoring (both formal and informal)
  • Career promotion and progression (key points to identity in each one’s career trajectory)
  • Recognition of differences but also of similarities (all women compared to BMEs)

However, there is a long way to go and Kalwant concluded by suggesting ways forward:

  • Draw upon existing networks of support (including White allies)
  • Create new forms of support (e.g. social media)
  • Challenge, interrogate and disrupt systems of oppression (an inclusive sisterhood)

Yasmine Bouidaf:  ‘’Lower barriers, not standards’’

The second keynote was delivered by Yasmine Bouidaf who is the founder of a well-established tech company (Serious Datum) aiming at addressing behavioural changes and more specifically, at tackling any form of discrimination in the workplace. Her work highlights the importance of behavioural change both at an individual and institutional level in order to increase awareness and possibly reversing unconscious bias in any kind of gender-relationship. Her work focuses on women in professional services all reporting the same range of harmful issues, for instance receiving personal comments, feeling or being ignored at work, assumed to be junior staff, having a combative attitude (these are the 4 most common comments recorded). Unconscious bias is an unintentional behaviour that’s why the technology developed by the firm is about a headset making user experience how women are more likely to feel and what they may have to experience daily in the workplace. It is specifically about making people/men see what it is like to be a woman in the workplace, what it is like to be regularly interrupted and undermined. The game is about showing all harmful practices that happen daily in any workplace and try to spread the message that, as a manager in your institution, you are expected to promote diversity in your team and reverse this kind of negative behaviour. This is, therefore, about being in the habit of treating people with the same degree of respect and not just because they are women or BMEs (because sometimes labels do not work and do not make things better, anyway). The final message from Jasmine for all women at WHEN was to lower barriers, not standards in their workplace.

The panel discussion: How I became my authentic self 

Chaired by Alice Chilver with, Dr Jummy Okoya (University of East London), Professor Kalwant Bhopal (Birmingham University), Professor Karen O’Brien (University of Oxford), Susie Morgan (University of Essex), Yasmine Boudiaf (Serious Datum) and Dr Terri Simpkin (Braver, Stronger, Smarter)

WHEN’s founder and CEO, Alice Chilver, facilitated a round table discussion with our invited speakers, exploring their standpoints on how to become your authentic self. 

Yasmine made the point that, in order to reach her authentic self, you have to first enable others to see the same, and this is the goal and the challenge at the same time. Kalwant’s point was about having to conform to rules and norms of the context when you are not in a position of power, or you do not have enough professional experience yet. That might include having to accept things you do not like or that you believe to be wrong. In these situations, the experience helps you to discover your authentic self and can build up your confidence in order to eventually speak up against what goes against your values in your workplace. She feels that it is likely that women may feel lonely in any workplace so they have to count on allies and these may be found in supportive networks as well as in individuals and highlighted the key role mentors can play in supporting women’s careers. Karen talked about a possible disconnection – in terms of values, people and behaviour – between your true self and your workplace self. In fact, rather than being one authentic self which we need to be true to, Karen suggested the need to develop a professional persona in a HE setting. By way of example, she asked how many of our authentic selves might be tempted to turn up to work in our pyjamas and slippers (let’s just say, a fair few hands went up!)

How I see myself vs how others see me - flash talks

One of the most enlightening segments of the morning plenaries was the Petcha Kucha slides, where presenters had to get their point across in no more than 5 minutes, spending exactly 20 seconds per slide! The room was filled with cheer and a positive vibe as our speakers came to take their place one by one and spoke about their own identities and how they brought out the best in themselves. Here is a snapshot and some take-home messages:

 Fiona Secondino: 

  • To be soft at work can often lead to being seen as weak (meaning to be collaborative) 
  • To be a resilient leader so not to allow anything to influence you negatively
  • To be a  generous leader, and set time for others, including  your team members
  • To be a black woman regarded as a source of strength and to be valorised

Terri Simpkin:

  • To acknowledge that all the labels we receive contribute to better understand our personal story
  • To figure out how labels are likely to impact on the way we see ourselves in relation to others.
  • To appreciate how geographical differences play into labels e.g. in her case Australia and the UK as the places bringing labels with them that make sense to her life and career.
  • To be mindful of imposter syndrome and to understand how it affects our labels 

Jummy Okoya:

  • She simply went through all the labels she has been given and she has given to others in her life and career.
  • She worked through some of the more negative labels she felt had been given to her, like clueless, a novice and being the perfect candidate for an organisational experiment
  • To the more positive labels Yummy wants to wear with pride, like being curious and self-aware, multi-dimensional and a cross-pollinator 

Jenna Townend:

  • To gain awareness of being a failure as an academic after getting her PhD
  • Being a millennial and so expected to do lots of things in connection with this label and having to conform even to what you are not
  • To understand the privilege as a  woman, as a white woman
  • To uncover the journey to be a feminist, creative, resilient, and insightful

The day continued...

After enjoying a networking lunch, our delegates made their way to attend interactive workshops and a very popular career surgery which we shall cover in other blogs. It was a day of mutual learning, creating connections and lots of networking opportunities. 

As one delegate said:

‘’When I started my day, I didn’t know anyone. Now I am leaving with three new friends!”

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