Linda Knight

A different kind of academic performance: using the arts to address sexism in Australian universities

The 2015 Australian census data establishes that women make up 56.7% of the staff in Australian universities, yet there is a dearth of women in university management and the professoriate. Men outnumber women by a ratio of 1 to 3 in these positions.

Women in academia face several key inhibitors to achievement within their careers including a ‘boys club’ culture, and a form of academic masculinity where men dominate discussion by framing statements as questions, and call female colleagues and peers ‘ladies’ or ‘girls’. Groups such as the Chilly Collective have argued that the climate for women in academia is less than welcoming. Clearly there is a need to take action and challenge this kind of everyday sexism.

Feminists describe sexism as elusive and difficult to pin down in complex institutional university structures, so much so it gets reproduced even by those who seek to challenge it. As Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar, asserts, sexism is slippery because it is often implied rather than obviously demonstrated and lurks within the everyday actions and speech of staff and students. Slippery sexism becomes so commonplace it often goes unnoticed or ‘let go’ by those who experience it. The micro-aggressions that everyday sexism (re)produces are often not recognized by those who experience it as well as those who perpetrate it. Eventually, many learn how to allow it to exist in their everyday lives. We become tired of it; to speak out every time is exhausting, and then when people do speak out they are trolled. In academia, such a speaker would often be labelled as over-reacting, angry, difficult.

In 2015 we formed a group called #FEAS – Feminist Educators Against Sexism to research and pin down sexism in universities by making visible statements about the ways women encounter misogyny during their career. We create performance arts interventions to help bring sexism into the open and to make audiences aware of its presence in universities. We use the hashtag #FEAS to make use of, as well as comment on, the pressure for academics to network and be entrepreneurial, able to self-promote and brand themselves as an extraordinary individual within the institution.

#FEAS connects to the history of feminist activism, sharing its intentions, collective approach and heart with the consciousness-raising activities of second- and third-wave feminism. We use a ‘Guerilla Methodology’ like the feminist artists known as the Guerilla Girls which is activated through humour, irreverence and facts to explore:

  • Collective action – reflecting feminist activism and the notion of women sharing power with women
  • Irony/humour – comedy and puns which disrupt sexism within formal academic settings such as conferences
  • Subverting the everyday – rethinking common events to highlight the everyday nature of sexism in universities

Our first performances took place at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) 2016 conference. Our performances were collectively designed during two collaborative workshops funded by an AARE Strategic Initiatives grant. The workshops enabled women academics at all stages of their career to meet, hear about the ongoing research by Diezemann & Grieshaber into women’s academic career progression as well as brainstorm our arts interventions.

The interventions

We performed three interventions at AARE 2016:

  • Sexist/anti-sexist Bingo – a comment on the ways women often view their professional success as being due to luck or chance. We developed a sexist/anti sexist bingo game that paid attention to some of the sexisms women endure at conferences and we distributed these to women AARE delegates throughout the conference.
  • Stand-up Comedy – a performance that draws attention to the slippery, evasive nature of everyday sexism through irony. Workshop participants condensed their personal experiences of sexism into single sentences or phrases. We then took these and turned them into ‘jokes without a punchline’ that were performed as a pop-up, stand up comedy. Linda Knight, #FEAS co-founding member, dressed as a 70’s style stand up comedian and read out not so funny statements such as “my Dean always calls me darl” accompanied by canned laughter
  • T-Shirts, Business cards, #FEAS ‘brand’ logo – we irreverently referenced the marketisation of higher education and the notion of the corporate academic. Applying for funding has become increasingly futile because of governmental changes to funding priorities and the worsening conditions of possibility for women due to the favouring of priority research areas that can have higher proportions of male academics. The branding intervention reflects this ceaseless self-promotion and entrepreneurial work.

More than just interventions: Researching sexism in the everyday

Sexism in universities is endemic. It often takes the form of male colleagues commenting upon the physical appearances of their female colleagues – university systems were shown to often blame the victim of sexism through practices such as the compulsory naming of complainants. In addition such comments were often ‘let go’ by participants as they were so much a part of the fabric of the everyday. ‘Mansplaining’ was also rife: women academics being lectured on personal research expertise, and being told who to read by male academics.

Our interventions are not only about these everyday sexisms. We also intervene into the conventions of empirical research methods. Each of these arts-based interventions have resulted in empirical data that does something radically different: it mobilised people in instantaneous ways, through their audience participation, their wearing of the t-shirts, their postings on social media sites using the #FEAS hashtag. And it continues through daily requests to join our facebook page, to continue using the #FEAS hashtag, to wearing the t-shirt to the recent Women’s March in Melbourne and Brisbane to planning for the next batch of arts interventions. It is a project that is making a difference, no matter which way you look at it.


Emily Gray (RMIT University, Linda Knight ( and Mindy Blaise (Victoria University respectively work across Education, Early Childhood, Gender, and the Arts. They formed #FEAS (Feminist Educators Against Sexism) in 2016 during their project, Developing Arts-Based Interventions into Sexism in the Academy. The project, funded through the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) responded to existing research into sexism in the academic workplace by using humour, irreverence and collective action to interrupt everyday sexisms within Higher Education. 




Taking children out of school to travel is not ‘unjustified’: bad policy from NSW Govt

I was dismayed by the announcement that time away from school for family holidays will now be marked as “unjustified” absences in NSW public schools. I am an academic who works in education so I understand very well, and support, the importance of consistency in learning, however I do not support this new policy.

Like many Australians I have close family members living overseas. I am about to take long service leave and traditionally this is the time used by people like me to catch up with family. I intend to do exactly that. However because of the distances and time involved in my travel plans I will have to take my ten year-old daughter out of school for 11 weeks.

During this time away from school, as well as seeing her family ( which I feel is invaluable), she will experience several different cultures and their histories firsthand. We have plans for her to create an art journal, research and write a history blog and write a travel journal, as well as do work from her maths workbook. I don’t believe for a minute she will be missing out on having an education for eleven weeks.

Apparently (unnamed) research correlates school attendance with academic performance. This infers not attending school, no matter the reason, is likely to result in poor academic performance.

I would like to know what is deemed ‘academic performance’ in this context. NAPLAN results? If this is the case then the policy is based on silliness.

And I am wondering where the idea came from. In the UK there has been a similar crackdown on parents taking children out of school, but it was aimed at the widespread practice of overseas workers taking their children out of school to see family at times outside the rainy season (which usually falls during the British summer school holidays).

Yes I have been told that I am speaking from a privileged position being an academic working in education. However I don’t think my reaction comes from privilege at all – after all, many children in Australia are taken out of school for a range of ( as I see it) legitimate reasons such as travel, cultural rites and responsibilities, elite sports and more.

I think the real issue here is about a singular definition of education. To me education is a lot more than just NAPLAN results or having a child go to school just so someone can tick a box and the government can claim it is doing as good job keeping children in school. I believe there shouldn’t be a uniform clampdown on attendance that forbids any chance for a child who is well to have time away from school.

Yes, policy is complex and there are many worrying reasons children do not attend school on a regular basis, and I understand very clearly that non-attendance bears an impact on education. Despite these complexities I’m still inclined to question our ingrained views of the nature of schooling.

Who is to say my child is not getting a better education traveling (and learning) with her family for eleven weeks than sitting in a classroom for the same amount of time?

Schooling, as we understand it today in Australian schools, might not be quite the best fit that it perhaps once was. I realise that is a big statement to make, and I know I say it as someone who has indeed benefited from having an education.

But I believe it bears thinking about when we are moving to a process whereby we are almost incarcerating children through the use of punishments and fines to force them to attend school.


Linda Knight copyLinda Knight is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. A researcher and artist, Linda is interested in radical pedagogies, and philosophies and theories of childhood. Specifically she has explored: Deleuzian and Guattarian theories in relation to early childhood and education; drawing as a critical act; pedagogic sites and acts; and disruptive and unconventional methodologies.

Linda has a sustained reputation as an international artist, exhibiting in Australia, New Zealand, USA and UK over a period of 20 years and her work is held in private collections in USA and UK, and in research collections in Australia.