Living in No woman’s Land: A Working Class Lass in Academia

Guest blog post By Kate Haddow

Firstly, thank you to the wonderful Res-Sisters, because if it wasn’t for their inspirational speech at the BSA Postgraduate pre-conference day this blog would have been lost in the abyss of unfinished documents collecting on my laptop.  Thank you to my fellow PG students who provided me with support and helped me put my often jumbled thoughts in to some kind of written work here. Finally thanks to the BSA PG Forum for putting on a great show.

I often wander around universities looking at different people and think how the hell did I get here? Who allowed me to be a PhD student? Me a working class lass from the North East doing a PhD? On the other hand I can’t help but laugh at university when you meet fellow students or even academics who brag about their humble origins and how they are working class ‘through and through’. I find now it’s becoming almost a competition to see who came from the most humble beginnings. It’s very much the four Yorkshire man sketch. “Well I had to work twelve jobs when I was six so we could afford to eat” then someone will reply, “oh that’s nothing that, we had to eat my little brother in order to survive”.  Meanwhile you’re stood there rolling your eyes.

They go on point scoring about their so called working class background and you’re left thinking ‘are you hell working class mate, at best you’re a polished version of working class’.  I often look at these people and wonder do they still know how it feels to be working class? And in what ways they are connected to that identity? Similarly when senior academics tell us their life story at start of a lecture, they go on about how they’re ‘proper’ working class, and that they came from ‘such and such’ an area. Meanwhile in your head you’re going ‘OK, that’s not exactly a council estate’ and you notice there is no trace of the associated, strong regional accent.  What is never mentioned is the journey from those working class roots to the position they are in now, which is generally one of great privilege and power.  It is always just brushed over like it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to become a Professor.

Don’t worry I am not going on to give you a sob story of how I am a true working class lass, all I will say is I grew up in a small mining community, my mam is a nurse and my dad was a mechanic, and no I’ve never had to eat a sibling. But I for one would be interested to hear about these working class professors’ adventures in academia, and compare them to my own experiences. From around the age of fifteen I always wanted to do a PhD and I knew it wouldn’t be a smooth, seamless transition but I had no idea just what it would cost me emotionally to endure the bumpy road to get to my PhD.

I have always been labelled as a borderline student, not quite first class but always a reliable solid 2:1 candidate.  I think the term ‘borderline’ sums me up nicely, in academia I have never felt like I truly fitted in to a nice neat category, rather I just float between groups.  I thought it was the best day of my life being awarded a scholarship for my master’s degree but my brief and turbulent time at a local Russell Group University would test my passion for social research to its very limits, and would lead me to question my own academic abilities.  Even though I lived locally to this university I had never felt so lonely in all my life.

The lowest point of my master’s degree was after a meeting with an academic, I waited outside their office and like the dedicated student I was, I had thoroughly prepped for this meeting. In my arms I was cradling all my colour coordinated paperwork which contained a list of things I wanted to discuss. When I entered the office the word “hi” had barely left my mouth when the academic told me that the meeting would be cut short to only fifteen minutes because they had a very important meeting to attend.  Sure enough they kept to their word, and after fifteen minutes they cut me off mid-sentence and said “anyway, time to go” and practically shoved me out of their door.  As I was hastily gathering all my papers and scooping up my bag, I fell over and dropped my pile of papers on the floor. My beloved (and expensive) Paperchase lever arch file spilt in two and my many months of hard work leaked across the corridor. As I pulled myself to my knees another academic came rushing along the corridor, I thought to myself, ‘oh how nice, they are going to help me out’. Instead they gave me a brief, puzzled look and said to the academic I had just come out of the meeting with, “we need to go now”. They both looked at me on sat on the floor in a sea of paper and one said, “Oops, sorry can’t stop” then trampled on my papers and rushed off to their meeting. I sat and sobbed my heart out.  Was I invisible?  Was this where I belonged, on the floor while they towered above me?  I sat for a good few minutes just thinking about how little I was thought of by some academics and some (not all) of my fellow students.

My time at this particular red brick university was full of people looking down at me as soon as I opened my mouth and my strong regional accent become heard.  I noticed if I voiced my opinion in a class or at a committee I was known as the ‘loud’ one, compared to other middle class students who when they spoke were considered ‘passionate’ and ‘driven’.  Whenever I expressed any interest in doing a PhD to academics their reactions were polarised.  On the one hand I had people who were so supportive and encouraged me to follow dreams and believed in my abilities. Then there were the others who simply told me things like, ‘you know it’s competitive don’t you’, without further advice.

A working class female academic once told me told me my journey would be a lonely one, and she was right.  At the BSA Postgraduate forum day I was asked to talk about my relationship with higher education and without hesitation I said to my fellow students, “I live in no man’s land, I constantly float between groups of people but I belong nowhere, because I feel accepted by no one”. When I stay at my mam’s and chat with family members I feel misunderstood. I think in some ways they see me as a traitor for almost abandoning my working class roots.  Some of my family and friends view me as odd and many people say to me a something along the lines of, ‘you’re a student wait ‘til you get in the real world, wait ‘til you start working’.  Yet at the same time these same family members and friends are my biggest supporters, my graduation pictures always take pride of place on the mantelpiece, and when I bump into people who have known since I was a toddler I often am told, “oh my you have done so well, and what a great job your mam did all by herself”. It’s all very mixed signals from everyone. I notice my middle class colleagues don’t get this surprised reaction, probably because it was expected that they would go in to higher education.  I was never expected to be a PhD student and I wasn’t encouraged by many either.

Being a working class PhD student is hard.  I work full time on my PhD, not including my prep for teaching or conferences that I am expected to attend, or the other commitments I have to university committees or societies to help make my CV ‘stand out’.  Then when I get home I have the joys of unpaid domestic labour to look forward to. When I ring my mam I get told off because I haven’t spoken to her for a whole three days, and I regularly sit at my university desk and hear my phone vibrate to see a text message from a friend saying “hi you about, wanna go out for a bit”, this message from a friend who still doesn’t understand that I am required to actually work for this PhD.

What truly breaks my heart and has really cemented this idea that I belong nowhere, is when I interview participants for my research.  I love my participants, they are why I am doing a PhD, they keep me grounded and remind me of my roots and they inspire me to keep going.  Sadly, many of my participants do not feel we share any commonalities.  One interview that will always haunt me is when I talked to a young woman about her foodbank use, her bottom lip began to wobble and tears filled her eyes as she recalled the emotional distress of using a foodbank.  I felt like I couldn’t just sit there and watch this poor woman break her heart, so I put down my pen and paper, paused my Dictaphone and flung my arms round her. As she was crying in my arms and I attempted to comfort her she snapped at me “its okay for you, you have no idea what’s it like”. I have faced the same struggles as this at some point in my life, but it is clear that some of my participants think I don’t know their struggles. This is the paradox of being a working class academic.

Although I did find some comfort from the Res-Sisters’ talk and my new found friends at the BSA pre-conference day, a fellow PhD student said something that stopped me in my tracks and really made me think about my experiences of higher education.  Many of my friends and family have attributed my success in higher education to luck, and in a way I have been guilty of this, often saying “oh I was lucky I got the funding”. It was during a conversation with this lovely fellow PhD student who said, “no you haven’t been lucky you have clearly worked incredibly hard to get to where you are now”, that I suddenly thought ‘she’s bloody right I have worked hard to get here!’ Why, as a working class woman do I attribute success too pure luck, when others brag about their excellence? Most likely because as women we are told to be modest, and my experience of being working class has told me bragging is just not the done thing, sadly.

To sum up then, what I took from the Res-Sisters’ talk and the BSA PG conference day was that I will continue to be me. I am not going to be sorry for my upbringing and I will not allow anyone to make me feel like I belong on the floor!  I will speak out and not be silenced by middle class colleagues and I will continue to be the ‘loud’ one in the crowd.  Most importantly I will tell myself I am good enough to be a PhD student and I do belong in a university setting.


BSA Postgraduate Forum pre-conference day – spaces left!

The ResSisters will be contributing to the BSA postgraduate forum’s preconference event in Manchester on Monday 3rd April.

The BSA PG Forum provides a really supportive space for postgraduate researchers within sociology (find out more on their interactive website here). Their pre-conference day (running the day before the main BSA conference starts) will focus on the theme of ‘Personal troubles, collective solutions: how can new academics work together for a better future?’

The day will features a number of interactive sessions on this theme (see timetable below), and keynotes from Pat Thomson and Kalwant Bhopal – two professors who have been highly supportive to early career researchers and PGRs.  The ResSisters will be running a zine-making session so expect lots of glitter !

BSA members can book for just £20 but non-members are also welcome (£40 to attend). Note: You do not have to be attending the main conference to attend the PGF day.

You can book directly on the BSA website here

Monday, 3 April 2017 – University of Manchester, UK

10:30-10:45 Welcome
10:45-11:15 Res-sisters collective
11:15-12:45 Zine making (res-sisters facilitated)
12:45-13:00 So what’s your PhD on? Introduction – led by PGF convenors
13:00-13:45 Lunch
13:45-14:15 ‘So what’s your PhD On?’ pt.2
14:15-15:15 Professor Pat Thomson, University of Nottingham
15:15-15:45 Break
15:45-16:45 Professor Kalwant Bhopal, University of Birmingham
16:45-17:00 Presidential Address

A Room of Our Own: Setting up a Postgraduate Women Network at Sheffield Hallam University

Guest Blog post by Rachel Handforth


Back in summer 2016, I was approached by an enthusiastic first year PhD student at my institution called Fiona Martinez. She wanted my help to set up a network for women postgraduate students, feeling that it was important that women had a chance to meet each other and discuss the challenges facing women working in academia. She had already drafted some aims and objectives for a network for women postgraduates, got agreement from the university to set up the group, and secured funding for the next academic year.

My first thought was why I hadn’t already thought of this?! Not only is my research grounded in feminism, focusing on the experiences of women doctoral students, but I had also experienced isolation during the first year of my PhD and found it difficult to meet like-minded peers. We recruited another member, Larissa Povey, to our organising group and put together a calendar of events for the upcoming year, including sessions on negotiating the work/life balance during postgraduate study.

There seems to be a growing recognition of the issues facing women working in academia. Similar networks aiming to bring women students together exist at institutions across the country, including at the University of Edinburgh and University of Lincoln. At our first event, we discussed the lack of women in senior roles (currently 22% of professors in the UK are women, according to the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2016 figures, and just 17 professors are Black women), the gender pay gap which stands at 12.6% (UCU, 2016), and the relative lack of women in traditionally male-dominated disciplines such as engineering and in the sciences.

Our network enables women students from across SHU to meet and socialise as well as providing a safe space for the discussion of issues affecting women in academia today. However, we feel that the network also has a practical role to play in supporting women students in their career development- acknowledging that women PhD students are less likely than men to be encouraged to engage in career development activities (Dever et al., 2008).

We provide women postgraduates with opportunities to build on their research skills, and are organising events such as how to get your work published, and a workshop on presenting your work at conferences. We have also held workshops for undergraduate and Master’s students where current PhD students shared their experiences of applying for doctoral study, and the realities of doing a PhD.

At our launch event earlier this month, the Head of the Graduate School in one of our largest Faculties, Professor Lisa Hopkins, shared her personal career journey with us, starting with an anecdote about one of her first teaching jobs where the cleaner presumed she was a student rather than the lecturer. She drew attention to the institutional sexism that women academics at all levels have faced, highlighting the experiences of Liz Schafer, a Professor in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway University who took legal action in 2010 after discovering that women Professors were paid less than men in the same roles.

Professor Hopkins also commented that women are often ‘good citizens’ of the academy, who engage in time-consuming activities such as being committee members, rather than activities which are more focused on career development. However, she also expressed her feeling that engaging in ‘academic citizenship’ was important in women helping other women to succeed, and that we all have a responsibility to help others and recognise the efforts of those who have supported us.

Our network has been very well received by women students who have attended our events, as well as by key figures at our institution. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Husbands who also attended our launch event, expressed a great deal of support and enthusiasm for our network.


Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, Chris Husbands and Professor Lisa Hopkins speaking at the launch event in January 2017


Yet despite the success of our launch event, for me it is the monthly interactions with colleagues and peers who come together to seek company, support, and solidarity, which are the most important. Our regular events provide a space for women to come together and support one another- speaking back to Professor Hopkins’ message about helping each other, which is an act of resistance within a culture which promotes individualism and competition. This network helps us to resist the individualistic culture of the academy, promoting and helping to maintain a culture that is instead both collegial and feminist.

Now more than ever, it is vital that women are able to come together and support one another, and Fiona, Larissa and I are proud to have created a community which has started to do this for women students at Sheffield Hallam University. We look forward to our next big event which will be on International Women’s Day, where we will explore women’s academic career experiences with our guest speaker Professor Sandra Eldridge, and discuss feminism in the academy.


Rachel Handforth is a final year PhD student in Education at Sheffield Hallam University. Her doctoral research explores the career aspirations of women doctoral students, examining how these aspirations change during the PhD.

Urgent changes are needed if universities are serious about addressing social inequality

Guest blog post by Martha Hilton

Going to university encourages independence, critical thinking and is often a rewarding life experience for young people. Higher education is an important tool for social mobility, enhancing career opportunities after graduation and often is a way for young people to climb the social ladder.

Despite this, the academic world has never been a welcoming environment for the working classes in Britain. Although more young people from less privileged backgrounds are now attending university, the barriers to applying and progressing through higher education still remain.

Educating All is a youth-led research project into the topic of social class and higher education, commissioned by the social change and leadership development charity RECLAIM, and led by two state school educated recent graduates. Our research found that working class young people are still failing to see these institutions as a ‘place for them’ and lack the same sense of belonging and entitlement as their middle class peers. Our survey, conducted with over 200 students and recent graduates from some of the top universities in the country, found that 70.1% of those who identified as working class found that their class was a barrier when integrating at university, compared with only 12.5% of those who did not identify as working class.


Discussion group on social class within higher education at the Educating All launch event at the University of Manchester.

Despite efforts from universities to increase admissions of state school educated pupils; it is clear that well-being and success at these institutions is geared towards the white, middle class and privately educated student. Xavier Greenwood, studying Classics at the University of Oxford, said that the university is “a place too steeped in privilege to champion social inclusivity in any meaningful way.”

My university, Imperial College London has recently come under scrutiny for allegations of bullying and discrimination, linked to the “elite white masculinity” of the majority of the staff population. The research found evidence of “ingrained misogyny” and stated that it is difficult to promote equality and diversity within an institution which is “so profoundly gendered, classed and raced”. After direct experience of sexism and classism at university, I applaud these findings but recognise that urgent changes are needed.

Recent government changes including the scrapping of maintenance grants and bursaries, will have an adverse effect on the poorest pupils. The new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) also proposes a rise in tuition fees based on teaching quality, meaning fees could reach £11,697 a year by 2025-26.

Successive governments, as well as employers and educators have put social mobility higher on the public agenda. Theresa May promised that her government will be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few” but by working class families, in her speech as the new Prime Minister. She also pointed out that “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university [and that] if you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.”

Despite this, the government is arguably yet to put these promises into action, and educational inequality remains a significant problem in our society. Not only are working class young people less likely to go to university in the first place, but they are also more likely to drop out and less likely to achieve the highest degree classifications once they are there. Research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) showed that 77% of students from the most advantaged areas with ABB at A-level go on to gain a first or upper-second class degree compared to 67% of those from the most disadvantaged areas.

The recent State of the Nation Report from the Social Mobility Commission, paints an alarming picture of social mobility within the UK. It points out that despite efforts in recent years to change the social make-up of many professions, currently only 4% of doctors, 6% of barristers and 11% of journalists are from working class backgrounds. A recent Law graduate from the University of Bristol who participated in our research spoke of her frustration at the fact that many of her peers had access to influential networks and internships at top law firms whereas, she “had never met a lawyer before, let alone had one in her family”.

It is clear that barriers remain for working class young people even after being admitted to a top university; hidden codes, cultural capital, access to finance and influential networks still limit the potential of many. As Xavier said, “The expectation that Oxford is a social leveller is quite frankly a myth.”

In this era of political uncertainty, social mobility and education need to be a top priority for government, employers and educators. Universities have a responsibility to provide equal opportunities to students, regardless of postcode, background or income. Education is a right, not a privilege, and universities need to make sure they are accessing and supporting pupils from the wide and diverse talent pool that this country has to offer.


Xavier Greenwood from Balliol College on the ‘uncomfortable truths’ of being a working class student at the University of Oxford.

Martha Hilton is a recent graduate from Imperial College London and now a researcher on the Educating All programme at RECLAIM. The Educating All report is now available from our website and for more information about Educating All please email


Call for guest blog posts

We would like to invite contributions to our blog that both reflect upon and expand the themes we’ve written about so far. This could include (but is not limited to):

  • Critical reflections on the neoliberal university
  • Personal experiences of the academy
  • Strategies for resistance, feminist interventions, and collective action
  • Challenging inequalities within and outside of academia
  • Collaboration and co-authorship
  • Radical teaching practice

If your proposed topic is not listed here, but you think we might be interested, please contact us anyway! We are keen to provide a space for alternative voices to be heard and would welcome contributions from groups under-represented in academic spaces (including those working outside academia and non-academic colleagues working in universities). We’re looking for contributions of 500-1000 words and you have the choice to be credited or remain anonymous. Some helpful guidelines on writing blog posts can be found on the Celeb Youth project website.

To express interest in writing for the Res-Sisters blog, please contact us with your name, a brief outline of what you’d like to write about (two or three sentences), and your contact details. We recognise that ‘speaking out’ about these issues and injustices can be risky. As such we’re very happy to post anonymous blog posts. Please let us know if you’d like your name to be included as the author, or if you’d prefer to post this anonymously.

Institutional sexism in higher education. The structural challenges of combining academic research with raising a family


Guest blog post by Tamsyn Dent

I started my PhD when my first child looked like this:


Freddy was 10 months old when I received a full time bursary to look at the gender gap within the creative media industries and an exploration into the relationship between motherhood and creative labour was to be the focus of my study. The fact that I myself was a mother, and a creative worker was regarded as a positive element to the project. I officially had three years to complete my doctorate however due to the lack of available support for part-time researchers, it was agreed that I could carry out the research on a sort of unofficial under the table, part-time basis and be given an extra (unfunded) year of study. It was acknowledged that since I was conducting research on barriers to mothers within a specific working sector it would be ironic if I were to encounter strict structural demands within academia myself. In this article however I want to share how, despite allowances, I did experience similar structural barriers, stigma and institutional sexism within higher education to those within cultural work that my PhD set out to investigate and critique.

Continue reading

Daniel Blake, a class in itself?

Written by Sarah Leaney


Me and my mum at my sister’s hen-do

Yesterday I went with my mum to her second Work Capability Assessment. We were dropped off outside the building; the sign ‘Assessment Centre’ was strangely unbranded, like a pop-up shop selling Christmas stock. We walked in as someone left, finding ourselves on the shop floor of the poorly renovated building. There were rows of seats on each of the side-walls, a locked door marked ‘assessment rooms’ and an empty reception desk. We waited and looked out of the large shop windows whilst others looked in. The receptionist came through the front door, having been on lunch, and we filled in a form. We waited again. The temperature of the room lurched from hot dry blasts to a sharp chill each time the large front doors opened, using an automatic system that maintained an open position just that bit too long. A woman opened the locked door and my mum was called in. We walked in our Sunday best, along the corridor, overly thanking the woman in each interaction. We sat, my mum’s small curled body distorted, seeking comfort on the office chair; mine woven in on itself, legs and arms crisscrossed around each other. The woman was chatting: ‘How was your journey?’ The cultural norms of social interaction are difficult to suppress, but we have learnt that ‘Good, thank you’ is an inappropriate response. The woman began her introduction, distancing herself from her practice, an almost involuntary head shake appeared to mirror our discomfort. We all knew the assessment had long since begun, but we humoured her, ‘Thank you’ – again. ‘The questions may seem random, it is only because of the form’ – but why should the form be random? ‘I am going to look at the computer screen, this is not because I am ignoring you’ – but why should the computer sit between us? These small acts of humanising the Assessment since my mum’s last experience bought into sharp relief the ongoing dehumanising process of claiming benefits. It is not enough to smile whilst you enact a violence upon the vulnerable. We no longer trust the system, and I cannot forgive the woman for her part within it. Continue reading

Silences Broken?

Reflections on ‘Breaking Our Silences’ 26/11/16 by Tori Cann

If academics no longer have any time to think, or time to read, what are we doing?

A few months back an email dropped into my inbox from Liz Ablett at Warwick. “We want to host a feminist PGR session on resisting the neoliberal academy” she says, and “can you speak at it?”


Perfect seminar topic I thought – and the day didn’t disappoint. Really big thanks to the organisers for putting together such a thoughtful and well organised event.

The room had a genuine feeling of being a safe space and one of collective consciousness raising. We moaned and we laughed, we got angry and we got creative. What more can you ask for from a feminist conference than that? Continue reading

Breaking Our Silences on the Neoliberal Academy – A PhD workshop – 26 October

This Wednesday – 26th October- Res-Sister Victoria Cann will be attending and speaking at a workshop for postgraduate students at the University of Warwick. The event engages with some of the more challenging and negative aspects of academic work that confront PhD students including casualisation, the culture of ‘publish or perish’, and the challenges of balancing teaching,  research and online engagement. The workshop will provide a space to critically reflect on these and consider strategies of resistance and support that might be applied to help overcome them.More information about the event and other speakers can be found  here

The workshop will be followed by a wine reception and a performance by Shit Theatre, an improv duo currently touring their feminist show ‘Woman’s Hour’. You can see a preview of Tori’s presentation on ‘Collaborative Writing as Resistance’ here