As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.
Dr Emma Williamson, a Reader in Gender Based Violence and former head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, has been working with Women’s Aid to highlight how the pandemic has affected those experiencing domestic violence.
Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on domestic abuse. Could you tell us a little more?
We were aware quite early on that any lockdown was likely to have an impact on those experiencing domestic abuse. So we worked quickly and closely with Women’s Aid to look at how they could collect data in order to influence policy. A report called ‘A Perfect Storm’ came out in the summer based on a number of surveys with support services, victims and survivors. We found there was an increase in coercive control, with perpetrators using the restrictions as a tool to stop victims from leaving or seeking help. Many people didn’t realise that domestic abuse was an exemption, so they were worried they would be arrested if they left. This, coupled with a stark increase in homicides during the first six weeks of lockdown, showed there was a major issue. Some of our data was used in a Panorama documentary and we were able to feedback these crucial insights to policy makers.
What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?
The biggest triumph for me was when Boris Johnson announced the second national lockdown and explicitly said that domestic abuse was an exemption. That was amazing and so important. It felt like we’d come a long way from it not being mentioned or discussed, to it being said to the nation by the Prime Minister. That’s testament to the hard work of people in the sector, collecting data and ultimately presenting evidence to the government to show what’s happening on the ground.
What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?
There have definitely been times when I’ve been sat in a room as one of the most senior people and there’s been an automatic assumption that I am more junior. I tend not to get it in my day-to-day work thankfully. Because of my area of research, I work with a lot of really great senior women and professors.
I think a lot of female academics experience discrimination, especially those with children. Take lockdown: there’s a lot of evidence that suggests women have picked-up more of the caring responsibilities so I expect we’ll see fewer publications from women because their research activities have been put on the backburner. The gender pay gap is one example, but there are other inequalities in academia that the sector needs to deal with, particularly around ethnicity. Although I think we have come quite a long way, there’s still a long way to go.
Which women have inspired you in your career?
When I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, I travelled to London two or three times a year to attend meetings of the British Sociological Association’s Violence Against Women Research Group. It allowed me to meet the women whose work I’d been reading – the big names in our field of research such as Marianne Hester, Liz Kelly, Betsy Stanko amongst others. I feel lucky that over the years I got to know them and ultimately work with them.
Our PhD students here at Bristol always inspire me. Many are from overseas and have chosen to come to Bristol because of the expertise in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research; they want to take what they’ve learnt here to bring about positive change in their home country. The risk to them as individuals can be quite high but they’re absolutely determined to make a difference. I enjoy learning from them and vice-versa!
And, ultimately, I’m inspired by the bravery and courage shown by every single one of the victims and survivors who I’ve ever spoken to as part of my research.
What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
Not to worry about things you can’t change. When we’re younger, we spend a lot of time when we could spend that energy on other things. It’s easy to get frustrated by everyday things but sometimes you have to accept them and focus on the things that really matter, the things that you can change.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of what myself and colleagues have achieved in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Domestic abuse can be a tough area to work in but we know our research makes a difference. The Centre was due to celebrate its 30th birthday in the first lockdown, which obviously didn’t happen, and I guess ultimately it would be nice if our work was no longer needed. But for every step forward, a new challenge presents itself and we need to keep listening to the voices of people who experience domestic abuse and try to make a difference to their lives.