A march for transgender equality at Madrid Pride in 2010. Photo: Getty
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It’s time to end divisive rhetoric on sex and gender and create a trans-inclusive feminism

Sheila Jeffreys’s new book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, is a divisive and poorly-researched work. But it provides an opportunity to leave the divisive rhetoric behind, and create a truly trans-inclusive feminism.

Sheila Jeffreys, a long-time feminist activist and professor of social and political science, is part of a group of radical feminists that oppose allowing transgender women into feminist and other women’s communities. She has published a new book titled Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. The book, written in part with Lorene Gottschalk and drawing heavily on the work of Janice Raymond, spells out exactly why she and other radical feminists are opposed to “transgenderism” and seek to prevent trans women from entering “women-only” spaces.

Jeffreys makes three main points. First, women are oppressed because of their sex, and the concepts of gender and gender identity are used to lock women into positions of subordination to men. Second, “transgenderism” is a condition created by a medical system that seeks to reinforce traditional gender roles and generate profit through required therapy, hormone replacement, and surgeries. Third, “transgenderism” allows “male-bodied transgenders” (ie trans women) to infiltrate, divide, and destroy feminist and feminist separatist spaces, and “female bodied transgenders” (ie trans men) to escape misogyny by masquerading as men. Jeffreys says we must fight the rise of “transgenderism” because it hurts transgender people, their families, and feminists.

The careful reader will see that this text does not satisfy even low standards for academic rigor, research, or argumentation. Throughout the book Jeffreys misrepresents other scholars’ research and opinions, engages in ad hominem attacks to discredit the work of those she disagrees with, and simply asserts controversial hypotheses without providing arguments, data, or other support to back them up. She relies on outdated research, claiming the evidence that would support her position has been silenced by the “transsexual empire”. This allows her to avoid confronting the wealth of research that discredits her arguments, all while casting herself as the victim of politically correct censorship.

I do not want to comment on Jeffreys personal convictions or motivations. Certainly one does not need to be a member of a group to question or critique that groups actions. After all, I’m a cisgender gay man writing about a debate between feminists and transgender people (the term cisgender is used to describe people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). But, if you are going to critique from the outside, I strongly believe that critique must come from a place of established respect. Her refusal to use transgender peoples’ preferred names and pronouns, in addition to her use of the term transgender as both a noun (“a transgender”) and process (“transgendering”), are hurtful and inflammatory. Calling someone “a transgender” objectifies them and ignores their individual humanity, and the term “transgendering” implies that each transgender person participates in the same process or ideology. The entire text is a striking example of how not to criticise a group of which you are not a member.

The book is poorly researched and argued, and is not a meaningful contribution to feminist theory. That being said, it does put into sharp relief what I think is at the heart of the disagreement between radical feminists and trans people; namely, two different and competing foundations that explain and support their political views.

Feminists like Jeffreys ground their politics in sex. Jeffreys is clear that only men and women exist and are defined by biological sex. Gender and gender identity, on the other hand, are expectations and stereotypes that oppress women. Trans women may identify as women, but they are not women because they do not have the lived history of having been born and raised as women. Identity cannot replace or change your history of living as one of two biological sexes. Feminists have good reason to be attached to this foundation. Women are violently persecuted because of their sex, and the methods of that persecution, methods like rape and forced reproduction, often involve female anatomy. Uniting in this shared history is an important foundation for feminist consciousness raising and solidarity.

Many trans people ground their politics in gender identity, describing how this identity is a persistent aspect of their experience. Cisgender people must realise that a trans woman did not become a woman after transitioning, she has always been a woman, and because she is a woman she deserves access to women-only spaces. Certainly not all trans people identify as having always been one gender, but focusing on gender identity over biological or assigned sex is an important way to ensure that trans identities are not discredited, ignored, or marginalised.

Both groups have good reasons to defend what they see as the foundational truths at the hearts of their politics, but what gets lost in this all-or-nothing fight is the fact that every person has a unique relationship to their body, and these experiences are all valid and worthy of understanding. Jeffreys’s focus on sex can suggest that all women have the same experience of what it’s like to be a woman, a view that fails to account for the impact of race, ethnicity, class, and ability on how we relate to our bodies. The trans insistence on gender identity may prevent us from recognising that cisgender people and transgender people do have different experiences of their bodies. We must recognise that a trans man and cisgender man are both men, but men who have different personal histories that inform their relationship to their bodies and the bodies of others. Describing this difference certainly can be a form of cissexism but it need not be.

We need a trans-inclusive feminism that recognises trans people as who they are, while also recognising that the experience of growing up cisgender can be discussed without disrespecting trans identities, and that it could at times be beneficial to have these discussions restricted to people that share this experience. When we abandon our attachment to either sex or gender identity we can more clearly see the experiences we share and let those experiences form the basis of a coalition.

Gender Hurts is an ugly and divisive book. Because it lacks compelling arguments and evidence, I feel comfortable ignoring it and denying Jeffreys the attention she desires. Let’s treat the publication of this text not as a time to double-down in our familiar positions, but rather an opportunity to put tired and divisive rhetoric to rest.

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.