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Vice-Chancellor: A man-to-man message about violence

Vice-Chancellor Robert van der Noort

I have been struck in recent days by the depth of emotion uncovered by the issue of women's experience of male violence and harassment, including among our University and wider community. Of course, like others, I was horrified by the sad and shocking murder of Sarah Everard. And, of course there are too many other examples not getting this level of coverage. But the response of wider society - both from individuals and institutions - has uncovered deep-rooted layers of inequality, injustice and resentment.

I hope you have seen the joint University and RUSU statement that was issued recently and the commitment it contains to work with our students to identify how best to tackle this issue together. As in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, it is not enough to simply express our sadness and shock. We must acknowledge that there are steps that we too must take. And so I also wanted to offer a more personal reflection, as Vice-Chancellor and University Executive Board champion for gender issues, but also as a man. And I particularly direct my comments to the other men in our University community.

The recent debate has really driven home for me how profoundly inappropriate it is not for us as men to question the validity of women's experiences when they share them, any more than I would question the validity of an experience of racism expressed by a person of colour. Men are, in different times and different ways, also subject to harassment and violence, but this is quite different from the systemic issue of violence against women, including those who identify as women, as the huge weight of data shows. As members of a university community, in particular, we should not dismiss evidence simply because we don't like it.

The fact that I would never consider being violent towards a woman is irrelevant. The reality is that violence and harassment is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. And we currently live in a culture in which women are told to consider any man as a potential threat, until they know otherwise. Indeed, their safety will often depend on that assumption. I cannot imagine the burden of stress that creates, to view so many aspects of my daily life - walking home, going to the pub, being alone in my own home - from the perspective of potential threats.

Committing to not adding to the already troubling statistics is vital, but it is not solving the problem. As men, we must actively work against this awful system. We must listen to women as they share their experiences and not react personally or defensively. We should support women in calling out harassment and discrimination. We need to ask women what would be helpful to them, without making assumptions. And perhaps most importantly, we must talk among ourselves, starting conversations with other men about our actions and attitudes, and show each other that we will not stand for discriminatory behaviour or beliefs. Some men worry, I think, that doing so will single us out as too serious - it was just a joke, after all - but then accept that you are tacitly requiring your mother, sister, wife, girlfriend, aunt, niece or female colleague or friend to live in a society that tolerates these attitudes. And the very real threat that that brings.

At Reading, we have made positive strides in our approach to ‘allyship' - creating a community of active allies to listen to the experiences of others and be supportive of people who identify along lines of race, sexuality, disability and so on. My challenge to you, and to myself, is to remember that these experiences are not exclusive to those in minority groups. As men, we should equally be active allies to women, who despite making up half the population, face their own distinct issues. There are also a wealth of resources for colleagues. These include mechanisms for both students and colleagues to report harassment and discrimination that they have experienced themselves or witnessed as well as the courses on UoRLearn about issues like diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. And, of course, we have the thriving Women@Reading network.

You wouldn't blame a cyclist or pedestrian who was killed by a drunk or dangerous driver. Instead, we target bad driving and drink-drivers through hard-hitting advertising campaigns, education, enforcement, and creating social stigma. And that's an example where the actual collisions are mostly accidental.

I have never been told to ‘smile, love' or been whistled at by a stranger, and I will probably never truly understand the anxiety, frustrations and fear that women face on a routine basis. But I can try to understand what those experiences - and many that are much, much worse - mean to women, and do more to stop men from acting like that in the future.

So can you.


Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor

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