Picking Your Battles, Collective Action and Fighting Tokenism: A Talk with Professor Farzana Shain

Read on for a write-up by Laura, a first year PhD student, Postgraduate Decolonise Rep and WOKE Champion



On the 22nd November 2018, Dr. Farzana Shain (Professor of Sociology of Education) gave a talk as part of the Women Of Keele Educate (W.O.K.E) series.

When I heard that Farzana was the speaker for this week I jumped at the chance to write up the event for the W.O.K.E blog. I have been lucky enough to meet with Farzana a handful of times now, as part of the Decolonise Keele project, and at various events around Keele.


Whenever I talk to her, she instills in me this drive and passion for academia.

In fact, she was featured in my last W.O.K.E blog post as a person who offered me some important words of wisdom.


Farzana’s talk was about Tokenism, specifically tokenism in her academic career. She very kindly provided a definition of tokenism:


Tokenism is likely to be found wherever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power, or other desirable commodities with a group which is excluded. Tokenism is the means by which the dominant group advertises a promise of mobility between the dominant and excluded classes. The token does not become assimilates into the dominant group but is destined for permanent marginality. The token is a member of an underrepresented group, who is operating on the turf of the dominant group, under license from it (Laws, 1975: 51).


Farzana explained that in any given situation, the dominant group would cover approximately 60% of the overall group of people, whereas the token group would be made up of only 15%.

She also explained that tokenism can be displayed and ‘felt’ in three different levels – individual, institutional and systemic.


On an individual level, Farzana explained that people are assumed to represent a specific culture or group more than they represent the work that they complete and because of this she has encountered a number of situations throughout her academic career that have placed her specifically within a culture group.

Farzana told us of a time when she was working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) and completing research in local schools.

She was contacted by one of the local schools to ask if she would be willing to give a talk to the students that attended that particular school.

Believing that this was research related, she was interested in this opportunity. That was until the organizer asked her if she could produce examples of Asian Cuisine for the students to try, or give a talk on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).



Another more recent example Farzana gave was when she was speaking at a Gender and Education conference.

A chance encounter in the bathroom after the talk led a woman to explain to Farzana that she was the ‘token black person’ on the panel.

Similarly, Farzana received an email from a member of staff inviting her to participate in a project due to it having an equalities dimension.

These types of encounters bring with them a whole host of questions that Farzana openly shared with the room.


Mainly, the question of being chosen for the work and research she has conducted, or simply to make the panel diverse.


So how does Farzana aim to combat this tokenism?

She deliberately goes for ‘mainstream’ roles such as a Research Director position to show that she can perform in these roles and perform well.

But within these roles there is a level of institutional tokenism.

Farzana pointed out that women are generally hired for ‘women’s jobs’ such as teaching and learning jobs that require a certain amount of administration.

These roles contain work that is not only unpaid and unrecognized, but also takes time away from research and scholarship, which are the areas that are required for recognition, pay rises and promotion.

As well as this, generally being called upon to represent a culture, or as an expert in equality, is also unpaid or under-paid.

Tokenism is also present on a systemic level.

Farzana used the example of Further Education (FE) to detail this point.

She explained that FE underwent some changes that caused a mass exodus of male employees to leave their professions, causing the number of female employees to rise from 3% to 17%.

But with this came a reduction in salary and an increase in workload where women were expected to shoulder the burden for change in the FE environment.

Once the crisis was settled, the number of men working in these roles began to increase again.

It is only recently that the number of women Vice Chancellors has risen as high as 29%, with it sitting at around 16% for a long time. Still an unequal number for the role, but maybe a step in the right direction.

So, Farzana tries to take more ‘mainstream’ roles wherever she can.

This in itself presents challenges, people just don’t expect women to be interested in these roles, and to be able to complete them as well as their male counterparts.

She also engineers her research to reflect this attitude.

As well as researching topics such as race and gender, she continually stays in the loop with policy research, so that she is known in an area outside of race and gender equality.

Farzana advised us to pick our battles, some things just aren’t worth the fight. But when they are it is the collective voice that will shout the loudest.

Institutional networks such as the Decolonise Keele project and W.O.K.E are challenging power struggles that threaten everyday issues. To read more about Decolonise Keele click here.  

If you could be part of the departmental lead for the Decolonise Keele Project read the below poster:

call for working groups decolonise


Together, the collective voice can help combat issues such as tokenism.


Farzana’s talk made me reflect upon my own academic life.

It made me think of a time when I was applying for academia and I was told that I would definitely be given a place because universities love ‘mature students’ and mothers.

Not that I had achieved ten distinctions above the required amount for my course.

I research about migrant mothers and, although I’m not a migrant, I’m a mother.

But I also look at the way people are represented, even throughout academic study. I’d like to think that my research will someday pave the way for a different type of representation, for the way migrant mothers, working mothers, and mothers who study are perceived.  

And I’d like to think that one day this will enable me to write about more than motherhood, postcolonial science fiction and soap for example.

Farzana makes me believe that we do not have to be just one tick box on a form, we can  jump around and tick every box if we want to.


If you would like to join us in the women of Keele Educate project or if you are interested in more information about Decolonise Keele please fill out the below:



W.O.K.E Launch: Inspiring the Next Superwomen

Read on for a write-up by Laura, a first year PhD Student, Postgraduate Decolonise Rep and WOKE Champion. 


Yesterday, Thursday 11th October 2018, my alarm went off at 5:55 am and I’m sure I had all the thoughts a tired postgraduate mum could have,

‘do I need an education?’,

‘can I home-school my kid?’,

‘I need more sleep!’,

I piled my son into the car and dropped him off at his school’s breakfast club, just so I could sit in traffic for 40 minutes to (hopefully) get a parking space at Keele.

After working through the whole day, attending the postgraduate coffee morning (so that I can at least feel like I’m staying in the ‘postgraduate loop’), rushing home to collect my son from school and quickly throwing together a meal that was nutritional but required minimum effort, I piled my son back into the car and met my partner on the Keele car park to hand him over so that I could attend the official launch event of the Women of Keele Educate initiative (W.O.K.E).

By this point I was feeling the strain…

But, as I walked into the W.O.K.E launch event I was immediately surrounded by energy.

Roxy and Sophia, who have spent months making this initiative and launch possible (along with Ele and some WOKE Champions), were stood right at the front of the room greeting each attendee with the exact enthusiasm that has gone into making an initiative like this possible.


Woke Launch 11.10.18

Students and staff alike were seated, chatting amongst themselves, sharing ideas and just generally catching up. In this sea of quietly charged excitement I spotted a familiar face and decided to sit behind her for the event. We had a minute to chat and I explained about my busy day, I remember saying that ‘postgraduate life whilst parenting is like hitting the ground running except you’re sprinting the entire time’ to which she agreed and offered me some really great advice.

I wasn’t the only one… I wasn’t pretending to be something I’m not. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a good grip on this postgraduate life after all!

Roxy and Sophia both began the event by explaining a little bit about what W.O.K.E is and the amazing speakers we have coming up, internally from Keele and externally from other places (more details of these can be found on the W.O.K.E website soon).

It was then time to introduce the first ever W.O.K.E speaker; Anne Loweth. I must admit, I had no idea who Anne was at this point – she’s a senior lecturer in Biochemistry, an Athena SWAN Champion, and Keele’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for students, so you know… a big deal!

Anne’s talk last night was amazing, the perfect combination of academic achievement and work-life balance. I wanted to share with you the parts of Anne’s talk that resonated so much with me.


Woke Launch 11.10.18 Dr Anne Loweth

Anne began her talk by explaining that she had stood in this very same room, 29 years before the W.O.K.E launch, to deliver a talk to undergrad students about being a mature student. As a mature student myself, she had me interested from the word ‘go’!

Anne did not take the traditional route into education, instead after her A-levels she went into the world or work for practical reasons. She talked about working at Crewe Hall for a company which produced liquid pharmaceuticals like creams and medicines.

Looking back at her position in this company she can understand now how she was working in a very male, ‘macho’ environment and how some of the behaviours that were deemed as ‘normal’ would not be permitted today.

This triggered my own memories and I thought back to my experience of working in ‘macho’ environments.

Like Anne, I did not follow the traditional path to university and sought work after college. At the time, I lived on army barracks in Salisbury and worked for the RAF on an airbase just down the road. Not only was I one of the few females in my team, I was also a lot younger than many of the staff by at least 20 years.

It was the norm to hear comments about my skirt, my legs, to have a senior staff member place his arm on the small of my back, to be spoken to in a condescending manner.

Even though this was only just over a decade ago, this behaviour was just ‘normal’.

I even remember a member of my team telling me my ‘bum has the right amount of jiggly’… ‘normal’, right?

Anne’s words reminded me of how much change has happened in such a short space of time. I can now look back and see that this behaviour is not normal, and I now know that I do not have to stand for it.

When Anne was on maternity leave, she made the decision to not go back to work and instead, when the time was right, decided on going to university instead.

Again, my path has mirrored Anne’s.

She explained that when she came back to education as a mature student, she suffered many anxieties that I have also felt; would she be any good? How would she be able to juggle studies whilst parenting two small children?

But Anne found that she could complete a degree with two toddlers at home, and felt that not only could she complete it, but she was quite good at it. She remembered a time in the lab when the group were asked to complete an experiment that had a lot of different components, the other students (who were not juggling studying and parenting) were having a hard job with the amount of different things to do, and Anne thought to herself ‘this is easy compared to looking after two toddlers!’

Anne excelled in her studies and went on to complete a PhD at Keele university. She explained that the completion of this degree brought about new anxieties, post docs were meant to be flexible, relocate, perhaps even do a stint abroad.

But Anne said that in every decision she has ever made she has always put her family first, admitting that this may have had a knock-on effect on her career, but she was determined to keep a work-life balance that both her and her family were happy with.

Anne secured grant funding that allowed her to continue researching at Keele for a further three years, when this came to an end she knew she had to find a more permanent role.

As there were no contracts available at Keele at the time Anne managed to secure a lecturing role in Liverpool John Moores University.

This role did have its draw-backs though, there were no research hours included in the contract and Anne now faced a 100-mile commute taking her further away from her family each day.

Nevertheless, she made it work for five years.

In this role Anne was a personal tutor to many students, and this is where she learned to provide pastoral support to students, something that she brings to Keele in her current role on a much larger scale.


Woke Launch 11.10.18 Dr Anne Loweth

When a position became available at Keele in 2003, Anne jumped at the chance to come ‘home’ to a university she loves.

During this time, she has taken on the leadership of the undergraduate program in Biomedical Science, been appointed Head of School of Life Sciences, led the School of Life Sciences to its first Equality Challenge unit Athena SWAN award, been the interim Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, co-chaired the University’s Athena SWAN committee, and is now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Students (Keele, 2018).

And she has done all of this while raising her family… #superwoman!

After hearing Anne’s story, I felt so inspired that I wanted to talk to this amazing woman.

As the session came to an end and we were invited to partake in the refreshments available, I plucked up the courage to speak to Anne.

I can’t remember the exact words that I said but it was something along the lines of how amazing her talk was, and how much I had related to it.

We discussed imposter syndrome, something that Anne had mentioned in her talk. This is something that I feel has followed me around during my university experience, always feeling as though I had to keep up with younger students and trying to balance the academic and social sides of university at the same time as raising my son, always feeling not quite good enough.

Anne’s words were really encouraging, she told me of a time when her children were in their teens and she would be cooking their dinner before even taking her coat off after getting in from work.

She reminded me to take time for myself, to set myself ‘working’ hours and family hours and that even though I would be tempted to continue working into the evening, to always make time to relax with my family at the end of each day.

On a day when I was really feeling the strain, Anne reminded me that I am good enough, that I can do this and that having a family does not mean that you can’t have a career.

As I looked around the room and spied my supervisor who had brought her young son along to this talk, juggling her work-life balance (just as Anne, myself, and countless others in the room were), I realized that this journey does not have to be about making a choice between work and life.

Initiatives like W.O.K.E and many more are allowing a more inclusive working and studying environment for everyone who identifies as a woman, or is non-binary.

This is exactly why I wanted to jump on board.

One day I hope that I can stand in Anne’s position and inspire somebody the way that Anne has inspired me and many more people in the room last night.

Find more information about Anne here.

Find more information about the Athena SWAN award here.

Find more information about W.O.K.E by looking at the rest of the website

Ask Her To Stand

On Wednesday 18th July 2018, Sophia, Roxy and Kiran got a train into London to go and attend a conference put on by the Fawcett Society and 50:50Parliament, working on getting more women into Parliament by asking women to stand.

The Conference aimed to support women to run for political positions and work across party lines to tackle inequality.

The evening offered panel sessions and workshops giving practical advice to all those who self-defined as women and wanted to get into politics and public life.

Between the three of us we covered all 4 workshops, networked and bagged a bit of swag to give to Ele when we got back!

We sat near the front ready for the opening session and as we looked around we saw a huge room, full of women.

Representing every section of intersectionality.

Representing multiple layers of oppressions and privileges and united together, demanding change, wanting a different state of affairs.

We were so inspired and we were definitely in the right place.


From L-R: Sophia, Roxy, Kiran

Plenary Session

This opening session was incredible. Chaired by Sam Smethers – Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society.


We sat and listened to some amazing women:

Lib Dem: Baroness Sal Brinton

SNP: Alison Thewliss MP

Labour: Dawn Butler

WEP: Sophie Walker

Conservative, WESC: Maria Miller

Green: Amelia Womack


The audience asked questions and the panel gave us all some insight. The women of parliament collaborate a lot to work towards shared goals even when their politics disagree.

One audience member stood up, asking a problematic question. She wanted to know if the room and the panel would be happy if 50 percent of parliament was trans women to the 50 percent men.

To our relief the entire room replied yes.

Then each panel member spoke up, reaffirmed that transwomen are women.

One panel member pointed out that we are yet to even have one trans MP.

We were so happy that we were truly in an intersectional feminist space. We hope the audience member reviews her own prejudices now.

The panel continued to discuss the issues and solutions that they thought would help get equality for women.

Amelia Womack spoke about the need for job sharing options for MPs. It is the only job that does not allow this. Job sharing would ensure accessibility for anyone that had caring responsibilities. Sophie Walker passionately asked the room, “Are you honestly telling me that the world is run by white men because they are better than, for example, black women?! Are you kidding me?It’s about time we see all women’s lives reflecting on EVERY page of manifestos”.

Dawn Butler spoke about the standards we expect women to have to compete with men. She said she wanted to champion mediocre women. “I’ll be the champion of mediocre women, I want to see mediocre women in politics.” She went on to say that other women must help women to succeed. If you get up the ladder, lay foundations for an elevator. Help women behind you get up quicker. Support them.


We learned that a lot of the parties were using all women shortlists for roles, and that the Green Party extended nomination times if no women were put forward by another 2 weeks.

These are things we are going to keep in mind for the smaller project at Keele.

This panel session was beyond inspiring, just the room full of women with multiple experiences, the room was diverse and just as an intersectional movement would be.

It was truly amazing to be surrounded by so many women.

We felt really moved.

Summary of Workshops:

Why Stand? What difference do women make? (50:50 Parliament)

This workshop started with a presentation (that we are bringing back to Keele) to tell us the statistics that underlie the under-representation of women in politics. We then heard from three women. Two who had recently won their seats in 2017 Labour and Conservative MPs, and one lady who was heading up the #AskHerToStand campaign, offering support for any women that wanted to get into the Lib Dems.

We learned about what inspired them to stand, and found out it was a rather ordinary small action that led them to have an extraordinary change of career: Someone asked them to.

This simple task, a second human telling them, ‘You know, you’d make a good MP, have you considered running?’. It reassured us that the journey we want W.o.K.E to take is on the right path. We are so keen to empower everyone on campus, and remind them of how awesome they already are.

The second common point they shared was that they had looked around and realised, some of their male counterparts were truly awful at their jobs! They then realised they could do a much better job.

Something we learned all throughout the sessions is that representation shapes policy. Having women in the room and a diverse representation of women, ensures that policies that represent them are made and put forward.

This is what we want to achieve. Let’s get ourselves at the events, in the rooms and in the roles that will make a difference at Keele.

What’s Stopping You? Overcoming the barriers to getting into politics (Parliament Project)


This was an energetic and awesome workshop with breakout groups of 3-5 women supported by a facilitator. There were flip-charts and marker pens and loud noises! We talked about the barriers to participation and split them into categories

Despite the breakout groups being small when we all fed back what was discussed there was so many common threads. All the women spoke about a lack of confidence, a feeling they weren’t knowledgeable enough and a worry that they wouldn’t be able to do the roles.

These women were strong, talented people and yet we all shared this imposter syndrome.

Building Your Political CV: How to build the relevant experience

This workshop focussed on helping women make the most out of the experience they already had. Focussing on the transferable skills and boosting the confidence of the women in the room. We already have the skills to do these roles, it is about realising it!

Political Careers: Working in and around politics

This workshop gave women practical advice and allowed women to talk to those who already had political careers.

AskHerToStand Fawcett Society Image

We came back energised and inspired and determined to take more Keele women to conferences.

The shared learning and the empowerment was fantastic.

The event was live streamed and recorded so follow this link to learn more:

Ask Her to Stand 2018 Video of Conference

We hope you join us on a conference soon.

If you find something you think others would enjoy going to let us know!

For upcoming events click here