“You can be successful, whatever gender you are.”
This quote comes from Associate Professor Jan Eldridge, a non-binary trans-woman who is currently the head of Physics at the University of Auckland.
This year, International Women’s Day (IWD), is running #ChooseToChallenge, an initiative which challenges womxn and gender diverse people to speak up and challenge the stereotypes and adversities they face every day. Throughout this article, the term “womxn” will be used to refer to women and gender diverse people, to better reflect the diversity of experience and community at UoA.
International Women’s Day has been occurring annually since 8th March, 1909, and has often been a time to highlight the struggle for gender equality. It’s been celebrated by the United Nations since 1977, and in that time, the push for gender equality has made great strides. But the struggle is not over yet. IWD is both a celebration and protest. It’s a time to be visible, to be loud, and to make our voices heard.
At Campus Life, the Student Wellbeing Team is heading an event on the 8th March where womxn in leadership—whether that’s clubs or in their field—can come and consult in a welcoming space on womxn-led issues and initiatives.
The University of Auckland itself also runs initiatives to highlight gender equality on campus and in executive spaces, such as the Women in Leadership Programme. But there’s always more to do.
Craccum spoke to three leading womxn to discover how gender inequality is being challenged today.
Hemangi Toora is a Uniguide Leader with the Uniguide Programme at UoA. They provide training for UniGuides as the first point of contact for first years.
“I can use my own background and experience to teach students,” says Hemangi. As an Indian woman within the role, Hemangi notes that being “a role model figure” encourages her to “empower other women of colour, and not let their cultural background prevent them from using their voice and being in leadership.”
As a UniGuide leader, Hemangi notes that one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is seeing other people who are inspired to step into leadership roles. For Hemangi, seeing the positive impacts and changes the UniGuide programme makes in others’ lives brings a sense of fulfilment.
Similarly, Ella Shepherd, the chair of the Campus Feminist Collective (CFC) wants to use her voice to empower other womxn. “We are a touchstone for feminist issues,” she says, “we respond to concerns raised and facilitate discussions or activism in that sphere.”
Ella has been able to use her position as chair of the CFC to push for legislative change, and last year, she was heavily involved in petitioning for the abortion law reform. This was part of a wider change, moving the club away from being “reactionary” and towards positive change, such as providing free workshops, public events, and lectures that are educational.
It was a “shift toward being a positive force while still not compromising the fact that we want to see destruction of the patriarchy,” she said, laughing.
Echoing Hemangi, Ella noted that the strength of the CFC comes from their diversity of perspective. She notes that “everyone can bring their lived experiences to the roles… when we get a new executive, the aim or focus of the club shifts. We’re never stagnant.”
As womxn and gender diverse people in positions of power, Ella, Hemangi and Jan know that their visibility in the community will help promote other womxn and gender diverse people. Representation is important.
“[You’re taught that] the only way you can be a successful physicist is as a male,” said Jan. “It took me a while… the thing that worries me as a non-binary trans-woman, if you fail… they will blame it on womxn or gender diverse people. I’m trying to do the best I can, of course, but it’s an added pressure.”
“It’s really about being a role model figure,” adds Hemangi. “[As womxn], sometimes we can be surrounded in environments that inhibit our potential for leadership. That can [discourage] girls from speaking up and taking opportunities.”
For Ella, community is one of the most empowering experiences one can have. “Really try to get involved and find a place on campus,” she recommends. “Sharing experiences can be really empowering.”
And that’s what Jan wants within the Physics department as well. “As far as I’m aware, I’m the first person that hasn’t been a man as a Head of Physics department at the University of Auckland.” She notes that she’s not criticising the previous leadership, either, but rather wants to pivot the department toward “value-led leadership,” ensuring people are “being kind to each other” and “ensuring interplay between departments.”
“If everyone looks the same then we get the same answers,” she notes. “I want to encourage people and grow our numbers.” To Jan, having a robust community means a higher ability to problem solve.
Often, womxn and gender diverse people can be overlooked for presenting a certain way, but Jan believes that her visibility as a trans-woman is a great strength.
“A lot of people pointed out [to me] that it’s not just being a trans-woman, [I’m] actually quite a feminine trans-woman in what [I] wear” she said. “There’s a perception of physics being a man’s field, that people won’t think you’re a serious physicist because of what you’re wearing… but now other womxn can see me being myself in the department.”
Although she’s never planned to be a role model figure in that way, Jan believes that the visibility of womxn and gender diverse people in leadership roles is always a positive change. And that’s what Hemangi and Ella want to emphasise as well.
“Being a woman in leadership is giving me the opportunity to share my story,” says Hemangi. “It can encourage and empower other people to speak up and share their stories. It becomes a chain that helps break those stereotypes and norms.”
And as Ella knows, womxn as a collective are powerful. Previous work done by the CFC included advocating for trans rights. Their previous chair, Ruby, worked on changing the laws around birth, marriage and death certificates.
This year, CFC are aware that they are “operating in a COVID context.” They encourage others to come forward with suggestions on how support and care will look like through this time. “Womxn especially are put into caring roles: older sisters caring for siblings while parents are working etc. We are conscious of that challenge and looking to support people to continue studying.”
As we’ve seen, “the pandemic is absolutely going to have gendered effects and consequences,” and CFC wants to foster communities to help womxn in whatever ways they can.
“It’s a support network that really helped me,” said Jan. Being a womxn or a gender diverse person at university can be isolating, she notes, “you feel like you’re the only one. But you’re not.”
“Listen to yourself and figure out what you want rather than accepting what has been written for you,” says Hemangi.
“These stereotypes, these norms have been around for generations. But we can bring change.”