On this second day of our strike, I have done something that pushed me entirely out of my comfort zone: I MCed (was the Master of Ceremony) for our daily rally. While we have had many women speakers at rallies during our recent strikes, I think I have been the first woman MC.
I may sound like I’m boasting. I’ll take that. While our union has had women general secretaries for a while, individual branches (which are to a large extent autonomous) can have gender imbalances. These need to be addressed, lest we replicate the issues in the Higher Education system, where the gender pay gap is shocking (more on that in a minute) and women are critically underrepresented in senior roles.
So I got myself out of my comfort zone. It was hard; and at times I felt like handing over to someone else. The microphones didn’t work properly; there was a constant stream of cars entering the main building at the entrance of which we are holding our rallies; and then there was The Pneumatic Drill (which deserves capital letters).
My institution is acquiring a new shiny building of extraordinary proportions. This building has already required the demolition of several other buildings, and is now requiring the demolition of parts of our Student Union building. Hence The Pneumatic Drill.
Speakers had to shout to get their voices heard. But at times, the noise would stop, and the building site would act as an echo chamber. As I was listening to one of my wonderful colleagues, her voice echoing in the near-empty building site, I was reminded of where my academic journey started.
In my final year of secondary school (the one that experienced long strikes), we went on a school trip to Greece around Easter time. It was our ‘voyage de rhéto’ (the final year of school is called ‘The Rhetoric’ in the Francophone Belgian system). It was a wonderful experience: it was the first time I took a plane and the first time I encountered some of the sites I had come to love through my Greek and Latin classes (before you ask: this was still relatively common in Belgium at the time – I didn’t go to private school).
Athens, Delphi, Olympia were all amazing. But the site that really made its mark on me was Epidaurus. I will never forget visiting the theatre there (we only visited the theatre – it would be several years before I came to think of Epidaurus as the home of Asclepius, the god of healing). The magnificent theatre, with the stunning mountain backdrop, left an indelible impression. And that acoustics! Guides will all play the trick of asking people to seat as far as possible, and then drop a coin. And you will hear the echo of that tiny coin reverberate in the theatre.
At the time of my visit, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to study at university (but I knew I wanted to go to university). The Belgian system does not require us to make those decisions until very late. I was still toying with the idea of studying mathematics. But as that coin dropped (a metaphor that does not exist in French by the way), all became clear, and I knew what I wanted to do.
And today, at our rally, for short moments, the acoustics was beautiful. I was fortunate to talk during one of those moments. As I closed our meeting, I reminded the group that the mean gender pay gap at our institution is 21.6 percent. I said that, as a woman, I could not accept this situation, and that I wanted management to explain how this could be. And I knew I could not give up trying to get my voice heard in my work, as an academic and in the union. And the echo carried my voice. And I found myself back where it all began.
You can watch a short video featuring The Pneumatic Drill on Twitter (with thanks to Rowan for allowing me to share).