Whilst international women’s day provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, as well as to highlight the discrimination they experience, it is only one day. It is important to recognise the biases that prevent women from being seen as experts in their field throughout the year and continuously fight against them. Furthermore, the women included within these celebrations and conversations need consideration. Representations of minority groups, often tokenistic, still rely on stereotypical or populist imagery. For example, when there is an image of a disabled academic, it is seen as important to make sure their wheelchair is clearly visible. As a female academic with dwarfism, I have never seen any representation in academia that I can relate to. Furthermore, it also means that my presence creates an incongruous encounter.
As a female, disabled academic, I have experienced first hand having to try and prove myself, including with management, wider society and amongst some students. Both disabled people and women are often seen as less capable compared to their non-disabled, male counterparts. According to the University and College Union, women make up nearly half (46.8%) of non-professorial academic staff in UK HEIs, yet they make up less than 20% (19.8%) of the professoriate. Thus, whilst it is important for women to make an impact, there are barriers which often see them shouted out or attempts made to silence them.
My research interest focuses on the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism. In 2021, my first monograph Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences was published by Routledge. I have also had a number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Whilst, as a woman, I often feel as if I should not boast about my work or achievements, I feel I have to if I am ever to be recognised as an expert in the field. Despite being an expert, I have experienced men with dwarfism often trying to shout me down and ‘mansplain’ dwarfism to me, which acts as an attempt to silence me. Furthermore, it is often men with dwarfism, who of course have lived experiences, but do not have any academic credentials, who are provided with a platform to speak about dwarfism in the media.
Having a voice can be empowering, and of course, is key to initiating social justice. Despite the mansplaining, I use my position within academia to highlight the disabling barriers people with dwarfism experience. However, when I have spoken out, it is not only my dwarfism that has been a target of hate speech but also my gender. For example, using my research to remove the word midget from ‘Midget gems’, a type of sweet sold in numerous UK supermarkets, resulted in a lot of abuse.
The abuse mostly came from average sized men and, whilst at first, it might seem that they were upset at a bag of sweets being renamed, it was more to do with a female, disabled academic having a say in society. Their emails, social media posts and hate mail, all suggested that I should know my place in society and they would reinforce this through participating in online harassment, which social media has enabled them to do with limited backlash. A number of disgruntled people took not only to social media but also searched for my university email address in order to send abusive messages, including from an anonymous email account:
“What a nasty old vile witch you are.
Banning midget gems. Nasty old cow. Wish someone would ban you permanently.
Just cause you’re a MIDGET doesn’t mean you can ban the word. Just face it you’re a dwarf. Nasty old vile cow.
You’re a midget, small lady. Go sue me.
Just shut your face and stop being woke. Grow up!” (email@example.com)
Just to clarify, I did not ban midget gems but simply convinced a few companies to change the name. For some reason changing the name of a bag of sweets makes me a ‘nasty old vile witch’. Here, my disability is not being attacked but rather my gender. Both ‘witch’ and ‘cow’ are slurs often directed towards women. However, my disability was also targeted. The use of the term MIDGET, in full capitals, is an attempt to regain power. Calling me a midget, a term devised by non-disabled freak show owners, is an attempt to demonstrate that I should accept the term given to me by average sized people. This is further emphasised, by insisting that I stay silent.
There was also a letter that was posted to my university address, which referred to me as ‘Mr Pritchard’ because of course, how can a woman work in academia? However, this person is not the only one to refer to me as ‘Mr’ since I became ‘Dr’. This brings me back full circle, women are not seen as experts, especially disabled ones, and therefore if their voices are not shouted down they are silenced through other biases.
These experiences have also demonstrated the lack of support towards disabled women in academia. After receiving these types of messages, I was advised to stay away from the media, which would have also silenced me. However, I felt that it was important to get the message across, otherwise how else will things change for people with dwarfism? What was actually needed was better support for minority academics.
It is not surprising as to why women are less likely to boast about their work, but rather play it down. I have had to push for my work to be recognised, but also had to endure both the sexist and disablist abuse from others. It is a catch 22 situation because unless you highlight your achievements it is unlikely that others will.
- This piece is part of a series of posts marking International Women’s Day. The contributors offer very personal reflections from a variety of positions, exploring themes of connection, power, marginality, solidarity and struggle. Read all the reflections on IWD:
Erin Pritchard, PhD, is a lecturer in Disability Studies and core member of the Centre for Cultural Disability Studies. Her recent book, Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences, published by Routledge engages with theories within Human Geography and Disability Studies to unpack the socio-spatial experiences of people with dwarfism in public spaces. She has also co-edited a special issue on representations of dwarfism for the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. Currently she is co-editing a book focusing on sexual misconduct in academia.