March 2002: We invaded.
Okay, we didn’t “invade.” We, a group of feminist academics in Canada, attended a large Geography conference in the US, "armed" with pink flyers.
It took us a few weeks to make the flyers, which is surprising given that all we wanted to do was draw attention to the status of women in Geography. We decided to collect data on the number of women faculty in our discipline by scanning PhD-granting Geography departments in Canada and the US.
You might be wondering why this data wasn’t just readily available. It was, after all, 2002. Wasn’t there data out there? Well, no. The sciences always seem to be ahead of the social sciences in collecting these statistics. In 2002, universities surely were gathering data internally, but no one had published discipline-specific numbers, not for Geography.
From our data collection, we calculated some basic statistics on women faculty, breaking down data by rank. We wrote out some percentages re: rank and gender. We made some bar graphs. We printed them all out on bright pink paper. There was no mention of sexism or discrimination on the flyer. We merely presented the data that we had collected. We didn’t print our names or affiliations. In fact, until this blog post, no one has ever admitted in print to being involved with creating the pink flyers.
Now comes the fun part:
We distributed these flyers at the national conference. We placed them on empty seats in conference rooms. We handed them out to groups of geographers, chatting between conference sessions.
The response was overwhelmingly gendered. Approaching groups of older men was always a hit or miss activity. A warm smile and a “Pardon me. I just wanted to hand these out to you” was met with pleasant faces. Then, once they realized what had been handed over to them, often they became annoyed. If someone already knew what the flyer was, I would sometimes get a very hostile response of “I don’t want that.” As if I was handing over something covered in dog poo.
Okay, so right now this isn’t sounding like a feminist win, but it is! Even with some disgruntled recipients, it was a fantastic intervention. It got a lot of people talking at the conference. There were both men and women who were thrilled to see this data collected.
Conference gossip (usually salacious) is often the hot topic at dinner and drinks, but that year, much of the conference “gossip” was the paltry numbers of women faculty. People were abuzz. What were departments going to do when they were presented with these stats? What strategies did people have for changing things?
A few years ago, I came across an article from a geographer in the UK. He writes that in 2002 he attended a conference, and at some point a pink flyer ended up in his hands. He didn’t know who had created the flyer, but it contained some important stats about the low numbers of women in the discipline in the US and Canada. The flyer got him thinking about departments in the UK. His article then went on to present the data he collected and analyzed about gender and UK Geography.
None of us knew exactly what impact our pink flyer would have or where it would travel. Numbers, while significant, don’t indicate what systemic changes need to happen in the academy, but, still, the impact at that conference was awesome. For me, it’s a definite feminist win.
Bonnie Kaserman is an academic geographer and the author of (un)becoming academic, a blog featured on the Academic Matters magazine website (academicmatters.ca).