March 8, 2021
Women in partnership: Prof Fiona Probyn-Rapsey and Dr Quah Ee Ling Sharon
As part of International Women's Day on March 8, Global Challenges is sharing stories of women in academia who have developed partnerships and mentorships, to celebrate their collegiality and friendship. These partnerships show the power of women when they come together, to face challenges and adversity. Thank you to all women who took the time to share their stories and who will no doubt inspire the next generation of women in academia.
Image: Professor Fiona Probyn-Rapsey and Dr Quah Ee Ling Sharon
Professor Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW
I first met Ee Ling in late 2016 when I arrived at UOW as a Head of School in the then Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Ee Ling was also new to UOW but had studied at USYD, a place I had just left. So, as new outsiders with a shared institution in our recent past, we had common ground and could, early in our collegial conversations reflect on the place we found ourselves in. I quickly connected with her passion for feminist and anti-racist work and her incredible drive to do more for others; to build better, liveable political spaces for staff and students at UOW, through her research and teaching, through her work with the Allies Network, through her work on the institutional responses to the sexual assault crises at Australian Universities and through her courageous and passionate speaking up against the invisibilisation of racism, sexism, homophobia.
“I quickly connected with her passion for feminist and anti-racist work and her incredible drive to do more for others.”
Her passion for what gets called ‘diversity work’ is awe-inspiring. Through that work we have connected, shared hopes and outrage. We connect over the frustrations, what Sara Ahmed calls the institutional ‘walls’ that diversity work is met with and can also become – a ‘tick box’ exercise where ‘training’ or ‘awareness’ is treated institutionally as the same thing as no longer being racist, no longer being sexist, as ‘having diversity’ or being diversity itself.
Universities are like most institutions that have a history of being dominated by white men; they are shaped by the profound emotional investment that men in power have in seeing other men retain that power. Men in leadership positions have an emotional investment in seeing other men in leadership positions because it feels right and even ‘natural’ to them. We see this in meetings where women’s contributions are trivialised, ignored; we see this in strategies designed for ‘equality’ that deliberately ignore the different starting points for women; we see this in tick box exercises to improve ‘diversity’ through more training for women (as if women are deficient and the problem, and not men’s love for men in power); we see this in women getting stuck in casual work in numbers that far exceed that of men, in the feminisation of administration but not necessarily ‘management’ and the repetitive speeches of men championing equality (not difference) with the same old stories of being ‘woke’; woke but not making way, moving over.
When someone questions the ‘naturalness’ of male leadership, it seems to be experienced as man-rage, horror and the challenger made out to be a trouble-maker, a ‘feminist killjoy’ (Ahmed’s wonderful reclamation). The feminist becomes the problem, the trouble maker, in the eyes of those who reject the idea that there is a problem at all. Get her to a ‘workshop’! Feminist friendships like ours are vital to being able to survive these spaces – we do not need to explain ourselves to each other, to do another training workshop on this, we can acknowledge and recognise what is happening around us by a simple look, a grimace, a weary laugh, because decades of feminist work observing, experiencing, analysing patriarchies stands beside us as we stand beside each other.
“Feminist friendships like these are life-rafts, buoyancy vests, whistles and headlights – they are also ways that we can keep crashing through the waves, surfacing, getting above it, breathing.”
Ee Ling has also taught me a lot – her courage in speaking out makes me feel more courageous about speaking out too; her observations about whiteness and its self-congratulatory privileges are profound, insightful, intellectually generous and honest. Feminist friendships like these are life-rafts, buoyancy vests, whistles and headlights – they are also ways that we can keep crashing through the waves, surfacing, getting above it, breathing.
Dr Quah Ee Ling Sharon, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW
I met Fiona in December 2016 when I joined UOW School of Humanities and Social Inquiry. Fiona was my former Head of School. Since the School has an excellent practice of arranging new academic staff on probation to be supervised by the Head of School, I was very fortunate to receive Fiona’s guidance and mentorship during my first two years at UOW. Over the years, we also found out that we are both passionate about advocating similar causes such as gender, sex and sexuality equity, decolonising and indigenising the curriculum, anti-racism and anti-whiteness.
“As feminist friends, Fiona and I support each other, cheer each other on, validate each other’s frustrations when we hit walls of white male supremacy and misogyny, protect each other from activism fatigue, and strategise together to develop feminist approaches in different aspects of our work.”
The mentorship that first marked our relationship soon developed into a feminist friendship. Feminist friendships are really hard to come by, especially in a white male dominated institution. But, they are so vital in sustaining and nourishing us in our pursuits for social justice and equity. Feminist friendships are certainly not reserved only for women but for anyone who actively looks for ways to create a more equal relationship with those less or not supported by systems. As feminist friends, Fiona and I support each other, cheer each other on, validate each other’s frustrations when we hit walls of white male supremacy and misogyny, protect each other from activism fatigue, and strategise together to develop feminist approaches in different aspects of our work.
The fact that we share similar feminist values and work ethics just generates rapport easily between us. Often, we do not need to explain ourselves or fear of being gaslit when we relate our frustrations with bureaucracy, whiteness, bullying and injustices at work. It is the safety that we provide to each other that allow us to trust each other and in our friendship.
It is Fiona’s fierce determination, strong sense of justice, steep feminist education, unwavering courage and clever strategising that inspires me greatly. Being in a privileged position as a white female professor, she is willing to put her power and privileges to ethical use in her mission to do the right thing, right the wrongs and fight for a better world. This commitment is not often seen in academia and broader society. Many people who occupy positions of power cling on to their privileges tightly. Not only are they unwilling to give up their privileges for a most just distribution of resources, they continue to be complicit in systems of oppression by continually reaping benefits from such systems and even go to the extent of exploiting less powerful people for their own gains. Therefore, the feminist work ethics Fiona has demonstrated is remarkable and very much needed to push back systems of white imperialism and racism in the workplace and academia generally.
“Fiona is always willing to listen, empathise and come up with ways to address wrongdoing and improve the situation. It is so important to have feminist allies like Fiona.”
Fiona is always willing to listen, empathise and come up with ways to address wrongdoing and improve the situation. It is so important to have feminist allies like Fiona, particularly in current times where white supremacy, neoliberalism, institutional racism and exploitation injures and weakens. There were situations where I experienced racism, misogyny and bullying at the workplace, I confided in Fiona and felt supported and safe knowing that she understood my predicament, appreciated the anguish I experienced, and took active and caring steps to support me.
UOW academics exercise academic freedom by providing expert commentary, opinion and analysis on a range of ongoing social issues and breaking news. This expert commentary reflects the views of those individual academics and does not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the University of Wollongong.