Gender Research Hub kicks off 2021/22 with launch event

Wolfson’s Gender Research Hub had a highly impressive first year.

Allysa Czerwinsky at Wolfson College

One of the College’s three Interdisciplinary Research Hubs, the Gender Hub brings together international fellows, students, and alumni to create an open and active channel for discussions about gender and elevate gender-related research by College members.

Last year, it hosted some of the most eye-opening, challenging, and inspiring events of the College calendar.

‘Let’s Talk: Tackling Violence Against Women’ brought perspectives from criminology, history, communication studies, and gender studies to the issue of violence against women. ‘Sex Works and Borders’, part of the Wolfson Explores Borders programme, saw sex workers and activists from England, Ireland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden discussed their experiences and identified areas for change.

Their ‘International Women’s Day Conference’ was a thrilling presentation of research and lived experiences, while ‘Beyond Borders: Women’s Movements Around the World’ was a landmark event, bringing together academics and activists from outside the Euro-American world to discuss women’s movements. 

This evening, The Gender Hub kicks off its 2021/22 programme with a launch event (Wednesday 22 June, 18:30 – 19:30), and we spoke to one of the driving forces behind the Hub, Allysa Czerwinsky, MPhil, Criminological Research (2020), about the group’s plans for this academic year and how the wider Wolfson community can get involved.

Why did the Gender Hub get started in the first place and who has been involved?

The Gender Hub is part of Wolfson’s three Interdisciplinary Research Hubs, which are meant to foster innovative solutions to current problems by creating lasting discussions and dialogues among passionate and interested College members. The Hub was formally launched in July of 2020 (along with its sister hubs on Global Health and Sustainability & Conservation), and since then the Gender Hub has made a substantial impact on discussions about gender around College.

We’ve had quite a small team this year, but were lucky to have an array of students and alumni involved! In addition to myself, our organising committee has consisted of MPhil student (and this year’s LGBTQ+ Rep) David Sanchez Garcia and PhD students Anna Ceschi and Dan Scott, and Junior Research Fellow, Katrin Wittig.

We’ve also had several WCSA Reps contribute to Hub initiatives over the past year, including our Welfare Officer Megan Coe and our Women and Non-Binary Reps Ella Jennings and Monique Keane. Importantly, we’ve had a fantastic assortment of academics and activists from across the world who’ve taken the time to speak at our events, many of whom are keen to stay up to date with the events we put forward this year as well. 

What are the kinds of issues the Hub has been addressing and what are the burning issues you’d like to see tackled over the next year?

So far, the Hub has focused on wider problems related to gender inequality such as domestic violence, sex workers’ rights, trans rights, and current activism across the world. A lot of our events have been held to commemorate days of action, such as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, International Sex Worker’s Rights Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and International Women’s Day.

Over the next year, we’re really hoping to continue these larger conversations while offering more opportunities for students who are passionate about gender and the areas it intersects with to connect with one another in both academic and informal settings. We’ve done a bit of that with the 2021 International Women’s Day Conference, but there’s still a lot of opportunities for us to foster lasting connections among College members.

While larger discussions about oppression and addressing gender inequality are incredibly important, there’s also need for people who are passionate about gender to connect with each other in a supportive environment at College. I really hope to see the Gender Hub work to close that gap this year.

What have been the standout moments from the first twelve months?

I’ve had a role in everything we’ve put on this year, so it’s incredibly hard for me to choose! I think the events that have brought together people from across the globe are some of my favourite things we’ve done, as they’ve been the most fascinating and have prompted important discussions about how we as activists and academics approach certain issues.

Our Sex Work and Borders event was incredibly cool because we had the opportunity to learn from current sex workers and activists about the legislation regulating sex work in various countries, and how these approaches create vastly different working conditions for those involved. Similarly, our Beyond Borders: Women’s Movements Around the World panel featured the work of feminists from outside the Euro-American world to help us decolonize our perspectives on activism and advocacy. Events like these have been incredible opportunities to expand our knowledge and learn from the first-hand experiences of others, which in turn helps inform our own approaches to research and activism here at Cambridge. 

The International Women’s Day Conference is my personal highlight from this year. We were able to feature the work of 13 College members who spoke about their gender-focused research or personal experiences, ranging from being a woman in the male-dominated field of conservation, the experiences of midwives during the pandemic, and the intersections of race and gender highlighted by the minds behind the Shade in Cam podcast, among other fantastic topics.

After getting the chance to present at our first IWD Conference in March of 2020, I really wanted to make it an annual event at Wolfson in the hopes of providing a space for women and gender-focused researchers to share their experiences and professional/academic work with a wider audience. Putting a second instalment of this conference on with the Gender Hub’s support is a huge step toward making that dream a reality.

I’m also incredibly proud that we were able to host a conference at all this year – while Zoom conferences certainly don’t have the same feel as an in-person conference, it still gave us a chance to create a sense of community and provide us all with a safe space to talk about the issues that we’re working on or that we face on a daily basis. We’ve already started planning our third IWD Conference for March of 2022, so stay tuned for that!

What has the pandemic showed us in terms of where we are in dealing with gender inequality and gendered issues?

The pandemic has definitely exposed a lot of weaknesses in how we’re currently addressing gendered issues, especially domestic and family violence. I’ve spent the past year on the COVID-19 Task Force on Domestic Violence with colleagues from Cambridge and Harvard, and we’ve all seen first-hand just how terrible the lack of resources for people who’ve been forced to remain in abusive or unsafe situations due to lockdown measures is.

It’s incredibly hard to access exit resources in abusive households during normal times, but stay-at-home orders add additional layers of complexity to issues of surveillance, accessing discreet and confidential help, and safety planning. We’ve also seen a lack of shelter access for those attempting to flee domestic violence situations, particularly in rural areas, as volunteer transport services to shelters in city centres have been extremely limited and waitlists for beds have been months long. A lot of non-profit organisations also rely on their volunteer base to assist survivors, and several lockdowns that caused personal and economic hardship meant that a lot of the fundamental support we’ve relied on in the times before disappeared quite suddenly.

I do think that the pandemic has also resulted in some important initiatives to help address gender inequality, especially around exit resources for survivors. Things like a universal signal for help to show on Zoom calls, a ‘silent solution’ system for emergency services in the UK to safely communicate a DV emergency to police, a codeword initiative within British pharmacies where survivors can “Ask for ANI” to be provided with a private space, access to a phone, and resources to notify police or other crisis intervention teams – these have all been implemented throughout the pandemic.

There’s also been a lot of funding put toward free counselling and rail cards, grants for organisations currently addressing domestic violence, and text-to-chat lines for survivors around the world. While the pandemic has made it clear that we’re not as far along in addressing gendered issues as a lot of us thought, it’s also pushed us to create innovative solutions for accessing help that I hope have highlighted the need for greater funding and resources in these areas beyond the pandemic.

Are you optimistic that some of the big issues in gender inequality will be overcome in your lifetime?

I try my best to be optimistic for the future, but I do think we’ve got a bit of a way to go before we’ve addressed some of the larger inequalities we’re facing today. Gender inequality is an extremely multi-faceted and intersectional issue – without addressing other axes of oppression, it’s incredibly difficult to make gains for equality and equity.

While there’s been a lot more awareness about gendered issues and some incredible gains in representation have been made over the past few years, governments continue to strike down fundamental protections against discrimination and limit access to hard-fought rights. Texas’ recent anti-abortion law is a striking example of how fragile the gains for gender equality can be, and how quickly they can be reversed.

We’re also seeing increasing levels of fatal violence against Black and Latinx transgender and gender non-conforming people across the globe. We can’t really address gender inequality without addressing racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, ableism, classism, and other aspects of oppression, and I think we still have a lot of work to do within those areas as well.

I have no doubt that we’ll see some important victories for gender equality throughout my lifetime and that things will improve, but I don’t have the most confidence that we’ll ever completely address all the axes of oppression that impact our fight for gender equality. Although I’d love to come back to this in a few decades and prove myself wrong!

What would you say to someone in the Wolfson community who was thinking about joining the Gender Hub?

If you’re keen to get involved in the Hub, I highly recommend coming along to our open meetings and events, or getting in touch with us through Facebook or the Gender Hub email. The Hub is open to everyone with an interest in learning about gendered issues, even if your work or expertise doesn’t directly relate to gender and the areas it intersects with. If that sounds like you, you’re more than welcome to join!

Hub members have the flexibility to contribute as much as time allows – if you’re only able to sit in on a few meetings or attend events, that’s fine! Likewise, if you’d like to plan events on a topic or issue that’s interesting to you, the Hub can support you in doing so. New members are also able to get involved with all aspects of the Hub, including our general meetings, planning and hosting events, creating new initiatives at College, and fostering outreach between our Hub and other organisations in Cambridge and beyond.

We have some great events in the works for the coming months, including a Gender Hub formal; Between the Sheets, our gender-focused book club; an event on International Transgender Day of Remembrance; and the 2022 International Women’s Day Conference; but we’re always looking for new ideas and more support from within the Wolfson community!

What are you doing next and will you stay involved in the Hub and College more generally?

I’m just starting my PhD in Criminology at the University of Manchester this week, which is incredibly exciting! I’m planning to extend my MPhil work on misogynistic abuse in the incel community by looking at the use of coercive control tactics within multiple community forums and across the broader Internet manosphere. I’ll definitely be helping out with the Hub and some other College initiatives this year to get us through the transition period, but I do hope to take on a less active role in the years ahead. While it’s been incredible to spearhead a lot of what the Hub has done thus far, I want to watch the Hub grow beyond what I’ve been able to contribute. The Wolfson community is made up of incredibly talented and passionate people, and I have no doubt that they’ll help the Gender Hub continue to grow year after year.

You can register for news from the Gender Hub from its email list or like its Facebook page to be notified about general hub meetings and events.

Wolfson College Gender Research Hub starts tonight Wednesday 22 September, at 18:30. You can find out more and register online.