'I wanted to capture a whole range of views.' (Guillermo Gutierrez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

April 20, 2023   6 mins

“Are you not terrified? Everybody is going to hate you.” As she began the interviews for the research project she was leading, participants and colleagues asked Dr Laura Favaro if she was afraid. Now, three years later, she is haunted by the work. “All my interviewees provided invaluable insights,” she tells me. “I… have an unbearable sense of guilt for failing to manage to keep hold of and publish on their transcripts. It torments me.”

Favaro dared to study whether women in academia feel able to express their views on transgender issues. For doing so, she says she has been hounded out of her university, barred from publishing her findings, and branded transphobic. In other words, she has been censored for asking questions about feminists being censored.

When Favaro was asked, in the summer of 2019, to lead a vital new research project, she was a rising star in academia. Her PhD in sociology had been awarded at City, University of London in 2017 without a single correction. Examiners described it as “one of the best Doctoral Dissertations they had ever read”. Now, there was funding to carry out a sociological study of the “gender wars” in academia within the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre at City. “My dreams came true,” Favaro tells me, “I was so excited to lead such an important project.”

She moved back to London from her native Spain, with a baby and a toddler in tow, and her research began in March 2020. She carried out an extensive literature review, and an 18-month observation of Twitter. She also included case studies, such as an event at City during which a lesbian feminist was subjected to physical intimidation and removed by security for asking a question perceived as transphobic.

Of her 50 interviewees, 20 described themselves as “gender affirmative”, 14 as “gender critical”, and 16 were from “unknown” perspectives. Feminists who saw themselves as “gender critical” spoke about having been ostracised, removed from networks, disinvited from events, subject to complaints to management, insulted, and accused of not only transphobia but Nazism. There had been letters and petitions against them. They had been blocked from job prospects and promotion. There had been threats of violence and intimidation. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the “gender critical” feminists who agreed to be interviewed were late or mid-career: what woman in the early, insecure stages of a career in academia would feel able to admit to a viewpoint that is met with such abuse?

Favaro’s findings paint a damning picture of academic freedom. The women who stayed silent about their views on trans issues said they felt anxious, depressed and alienated. They were terrified of being subjected to the same fate as those who had spoken out. Some reported feeling paralysed, ashamed and upset, while others admitted to having secret conversations with like-minded women. Meanwhile, the ”gender affirmative” interviewees were either in denial about the bullying, or believed that TERFs deserved it.

Favaro tells me she came to the project “with great curiosity and genuine openness. I wanted to capture a whole range of views.” To make her research as representative as possible, she applied to the British Academy for funding to conduct a broad survey of social scientists in Ireland and England. She asked her interviewees about sex and gender, as well as working conditions and censorship in academia, and their thoughts about how to resolve the conflict. All interviewees were female — with the exception of one transwoman — and involved in gender studies. Favaro actually “interviewed more academics supportive of what I call genderism”, she tells me. “It would have hugely benefited me to find their perspective convincing.”

But by the time she had completed her survey data, her conclusion was unequivocal. “Having approached the topic with an open mind,” Favaro wrote for Times Higher Education in the summer of 2020, “my discussions left me in no doubt that a culture of discrimination, silencing and fear has taken hold across universities in England, and many countries beyond.”

Her work did not go down well. Indeed, the response has, says Favaro, been characterised by “disturbing disappointments”. After she presented the university with a 200-page document evidencing the aggressive silencing and persecution of feminists, for instance, management suggested she needed to offer a “both sides” narrative. Favaro found that even some academics working on violence against women would excuse rather than condemn extreme threats of violence coming from certain trans activists — or, for example, call rape survivors not wanting to be examined by a male doctor “bigots”.

Favaro started to feel that support for her work was being withdrawn. Her line manager told her the project had become too contentious. A number of complaints were made — including one accusation of “ethical breach”, lodged by a former participant. The university investigated this, and Favaro was exonerated. But, as Favaro has written, “further such baseless accusations have been taken at face value, leading to the suspension of my research, and the withdrawal of access to my data.”

The phenomenon Favaro later described, in her THE article, as a “remarkable coupling of condemnation and ignorance” was clear from the outset. One early note in her research diary recalls a colleague — who was completely oblivious to the arguments and concerns she was researching — saying: “I’ve never met a TERF, have you?” Her tone expressed palpable repugnance. This was, of course, important data in and of itself. The whole experience served as “a painful reminder [of] how little women matter”.

Unfortunately, the public has been denied the opportunity to make up its own mind about Favaro’s research. The survey, entitled “The Gender Wars Survey: A Case Study of Working Life in Academia”, has been deemed “dangerous” by City University management. Both Favaro’s 50 interview transcripts and 700 survey responses have, she says, been confiscated. While working on the survey, Favaro contacted the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to tell them about the forthcoming research. They decided to commission a report on Favaro’s interview findings, which was submitted in April 2022. It, too, remains unpublished.

The response to Favaro’s work, of course, rather proves her point. The one thing upon which Favaro’s interviewees all agree is that there is a toxic climate in academia today, and that it has hugely detrimental effects on research and teaching, as well as the health and welfare of academics themselves. Feelings of stress, anxiety and exhaustion are disturbingly commonplace — especially among female academics. It is almost exclusively women who are the targets of bullying and harassment in the gender wars.

Favaro feels that the ethos of social media — which is shaped by the “outrage economy” — is penetrating academia. “Rather than evidence, innovation, critique and discussion, this is an academia of safe ‘hot topics of the day’, ‘soundbites’ and ‘compelled speech’ with ‘populist’ inclinations, as participants themselves explained to me.” Universities now foster groupthink, enabling only mediocre, timid scholarship.

“There are some serious systemic issues in academia that need urgent attention,” Favaro says. “I would love to be able to stay and contribute to creating positive change.” But at the moment, she’s fighting to have any kind of future in academia. “This job was meant to boost my career,” she tells me — “I left my life in Spain for this… I lost my support networks” — “and it has threatened to destroy me. This is the ultimate cancellation. It’s a publish or perish situation within academia.” In other words, if her data remains buried, her career could be seriously blighted. “I worry constantly that my work will never be published.” But the data belongs to City, which she says has threatened her with data laws.

And so, as a last resort, Favaro is taking legal action against City. “I hate the media attention,” she says, “but I have to take this case.” Like so many of us who have gone to court in similar circumstances, she is fighting not only to protect her own rights, but also for others. “I feel I have let my participants down because I have failed to keep hold of their data,” she says. “We are talking about more than 700 individuals taking the trouble to talk to me or fill in the survey. I find the decision to suppress this evidence nothing short of a scandal.”

City has said it is “unable to comment on employment matters relating to individual members of staff”, but also stated: “We refute the allegations made against us and reject the context in which they are presented.”

It seems that Favaro has become a victim of the very problem she was hoping to solve. But anyone with the guts to do this research in the first place is obviously courageous. It is time to send a message to institutions that silencing, censoring and bullying women because we refuse to capitulate to gender ideology will bring consequences. “I am fighting for my data, and to get it published,” Favaro tells me. “I will not give up.”

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.