24th September 2022
We chat with Anna Bull from the University of York about The 1752 Group, which aims to transform how higher education institutions prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence and harassment. This project is part of the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator 2022 Cohort.
Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
My academic background is in sociology, and I’m now based in an education department at the University of York. I have worked on questions relating to social inequalities, particularly gender inequalities, and also class inequalities, initially looking at music education and now looking at higher education, and particularly sexual harassment in higher education. The theme that runs through my research is gendered power within education institutions and how this power is used, or how it is experienced by people learning in education institutions, both in music education and in higher education.
In terms of what I’m working on now, I’m currently principal investigator for an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project looking at institutional responses to sexual misconduct in higher education. The project is called “Higher Education After #MeToo” and we are looking at what has changed over the past kind of five years in terms of how institutions are responding to reports and disclosures of violence and sexual misconduct, whether from students or from staff, and asking whether it’s possible for institutions to respond in ways that will give victim-survivors a sense of justice and safety.
Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this idea?
I was a co-founder of The 1752 Group along with Tiffany Page, Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia, at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I did my PhD. Back in 2016, we formed the organisation as a campaign group after my co-founders were involved in a long-running sexual harassment case at Goldsmiths where it took several years to get the university to take action. We chose our name, 1752, because of the amount of money that Goldsmiths were willing to put into addressing this issue. They pledged to give us this amount of money to run a conference, thinking that it would make us shut up and go away. But of course, it didn’t, because this conference didn’t fix any of the issues at the university. So when we set up in 2016, we chose this name as a reminder that sticking plaster solutions are not going to be sufficient to solve this kind of endemic institutional problem.
We are particularly focused on staff or faculty sexual misconduct, which is an area that universities find particularly difficult to address. We have been a campaign and research group since 2016, and we have carried out a study with the National Union of Students, we have worked with Georgina Calvert-Lee, a leading equalities lawyer, and we have been trying to make this issue visible and map out ways forward. When the opportunity came to apply for the ARC programme, this was in line with our ambitions as a group, as myself and one of my co-directors had been thinking for some time about trying to do more with our research in terms of interventions in the higher education sector to support institutions to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct better. The ARC programme seemed like a good way to get on with doing what we have been talking about doing for a long time, which was to make sure that our research was actually reaching the people in universities who are at the front line of addressing this issue. So we are devising training and consultancy resources for universities in this area based on the research that we have done previously as well as my ongoing research on my ESRC grant.
Q: What does your venture aim to achieve and how does it tackle the issue?
What we aim to achieve is a survivor-informed response across all workplaces, all universities and all education institutions across the world so that when sexual and gender-based violence and harassment occur, which they inevitably will in our society, that victim-survivors feel safe and supported to respond, and they feel that the institution and the perpetrators are held accountable. Ideally, transforming every university across the world is our ultimate aim. In the shorter term, I suppose we could say our aim is getting to the point where research-informed strategies and interventions are changing practices and changing the way that institutions prevent and respond to gender-based violence and harassment.
Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
I have had really fantastic support from my technology transfer officer in my institution, and from my mentor on the programme, who have all been encouraging me to think bigger. Too big sometimes, but maybe you need to think big then scale down. I think also, there is a different mindset that I have had to shift towards, from thinking as an academic to thinking as a social entrepreneur. So it has really been about that shift in mindset, which is a really big shift for academics actually, even for somebody who is an activist like me. I’m already used to thinking about how I can bring about change, but now I’m also thinking about how to bring about change through a social enterprise model, since we are setting up a community interest company, without apologising for charging for our expertise, and through figuring out how to find the right people in organisations to pitch to and to work with. I’m also reminding myself to value my own time and to think about what is the best use of my time in terms of making change. I would say the mentoring, the organisational support, and just the general mindset shift are the biggest things.
Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far?
Right at the start, the programme encourages you to hold a lot of market validation conversations. I’m having a lot of chats with people in the sector, who I might have already been in touch with but I hadn’t prioritised having those conversations. It is time consuming, but it is helpful on a lot of different levels. The other thing is that it is a different mindset from academia where you have to be quite accurate, precise and detailed, to doing business development which is more back-of-the-envelope. It is more about whether you can convince people that you have got a good idea rather than whether it actually is a good idea.
Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work/research?
I feel like I’m still in the programme. It has been a real rollercoaster, because at many points along the way I have felt like I have bitten off more than I can chew. And I still feel that. I think it has slightly shifted the way I think about how we value academic work, because we are trained to value papers at highly cited journals as the main thing that should be valuable, but now I’m finding myself working on papers and thinking, to be honest, the biggest impact I’m going to have is in terms of developing resources that a university is going to use or writing a Twitter thread. This is kind of the direction I was thinking about anyway, but now, we are really thinking about what is most valuable about the work we do. I also need to be bolder in just speaking to people and asking for what I want. In ARC, you are encouraged to speak to the people who hold the budgets, who make the decisions, so to go to the top of whatever organisation it is that you are targeting. Overall, then, I’m starting to be bolder and more ambitious in my thinking about what is possible to change.
Photo credit: Anna Bull