Harassed, silenced & compared to a racist for my gender critical views

by Prof Jo Phoenix

Harassed, silenced & compared to a racist for my gender critical views

by Prof Jo Phoenix
Prof Jo Phoenix
Case Owner
I'm an academic being harassed and vilified by my colleagues at the Open University for my views on sex and gender.
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Prof Jo Phoenix
Case Owner
I'm an academic being harassed and vilified by my colleagues at the Open University for my views on sex and gender.
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Latest: Feb. 9, 2022

NEWSFLASH - THE BEST LEGAL TEAM IN THE BUSINESS

Two months ago I resigned from the Open University citing constructive dismissal. Five weeks ago I started a new job at the University of Reading. It’s been such a hectic time, but it’s i…

Read more

My name is Jo Phoenix. I am Professor of Criminology at the Open University.

I am bringing an employment tribunal claim to hold the OU to account for the public campaign of harassment that has made my working life unbearable, and I really need your support.

My hope is that this case will force universities to protect female academics from the vicious bullying perpetrated by those who disagree with our beliefs on sex and gender; bullying that is designed to silence us and our research.

My Story

When I accepted this role at the OU in 2016, I described it as a love match. I took a massive pay cut to work here, having previously held senior leadership roles including being Dean at Durham University. What's happening to me has broken my heart. 

This position at the OU was my dream job because adult education is personally so important to me. When I was 15, I was raped by two men and then endured a rape trial in 1970s Texas. During this time, I ran away from home and saw more of life than a child should. It was adult education which gave me a way out and allowed me to thrive.

I've been researching sex, gender and justice for two decades and am known around the world for my work. But things started to go horribly wrong at the OU when I expressed views about the silencing of academic debate on trans issues, criticising Stonewall’s influence in universities. I also expressed views that male-bodied prisoners should not be in female prisons, and I set up the Open University Gender Critical Research Network.

As a result, I have been publicly vilified by hundreds of my colleagues in a targeted campaign against members of the Gender Critical Research Network; I have been called transphobic; I have twice been compared to a racist by managers; and I have been silenced and shunned within my department. 

I have been made to feel like a pariah and have become very ill as a result.

These are just a few examples of what has happened:

  • A senior manager told me that I was “like the racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table.” When I started to cry, she suggested that if I couldn’t cope with it she could put me in touch with counselling services.
  • I was instructed not to speak about my research, which includes research on trans rights and the criminal justice system, in departmental meetings.
  • Over 360 of my colleagues signed a public letter condemning the Gender Critical Research Network and calling for the OU to remove all support and funding from the network, alleging that gender critical feminism is “fundamentally hostile to the rights of trans people”. This letter also made demonstrably false and extremely damaging accusations about what was said in a podcast that I participated in.
  • Another public statement by my colleagues published on the OU’s website expressed "dismay" at the establishment of the Gender Critical Research network, accusing members of the network of having made transphobic statements and of choosing the label “gender critical” as “a deliberate provocation to trans communities.”
  • The then Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Representative for my Faculty has published numerous derogatory tweets about gender critical belief, including retweeting a tweet showing my name and photo with a reference to a "transphobic/TERF/GC campaign network".
  • I have been given suspiciously few opportunities at work given my seniority and experience.

The OU has shattered my dreams because it has failed to protect me, despite my repeated pleas for them to remove discriminatory and hate-filled statements that my colleagues have published on the OU’s websites. 

I have been diagnosed with acute PTSD because of this treatment and have been too unwell to work for months.

My case and why I am crowdfunding

We desperately need to show that this type of treatment is unlawful harassment relating to protected gender critical beliefs.

These issues of sex and gender are so important, and we need to be able to talk about and research them without fear of being hounded out of our jobs. I have been contacted by other academics who would like to join the Gender Critical Research Network but who are now too frightened of being publicly smeared as a transphobe to join.

Above all, I am taking this case to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.

I am crowdfunding so that I can pay for legal expenses to take this case to the Employment Tribunal.

 


Update 4

Prof Jo Phoenix

Feb. 9, 2022

NEWSFLASH - THE BEST LEGAL TEAM IN THE BUSINESS

Two months ago I resigned from the Open University citing constructive dismissal. Five weeks ago I started a new job at the University of Reading. It’s been such a hectic time, but it’s important that I share some news with you.

Your generous support has meant that the Crowd Justice fund now stands in at in excess of £100,00. This means that Ben Cooper QC and Naomi Cunningham will be representing me. Ben Cooper represented Maya Forstater in the Employment Appeals Tribunal and helped to secure the ruling that ‘gender critical’ beliefs are ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. Because of that ruling gender critical beliefs now fall under the protection of the Equality Act 2010.   Naomi Cunningham is a member of the amazing team that helps produce Legal Feminist. She gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee on reform of the Gender Recognition Act in February 2021, and was instructed in Fair Play For Women’s judicial review of Office for National Statistics guidance on the sex question in the 2021 Census. She has nearly 30 years’ experience of employment and discrimination law and currently sits on the board for Sex Matters. My solicitor, Annie Powell, is on maternity leave but Elizabeth George (from Leigh Day) has stepped into her shoes. It is impossible for me to convey the sense of trust and confidence I have in my legal team.

I still find it incredibly difficult to take on board everything that happened at the OU, even two months on. Shortly after I resigned the University wrote and told me that they had suspended the investigation into my grievance of harassment and bullying pending outcome of the employment tribunal, the tribunal that Ben Cooper and Naomi Cunningham will be representing me at. From what I understand, this is not normal practice. It is usual for grievance investigations to carry on and be concluded regardless of any case lodged in the employment tribunal.

Before starting my new job I returned to my old office at the Open University to clear my desk and pick up all my many books. It was a cold day and one I was not looking forward to. As it happened no one was on campus. I was relieved because I felt sick at the thought of coming face to face with of my harassers. After all, it is one thing lodging a claim in the employment tribunal. It is an altogether different thing seeing the people that broke your heart, tried to wreck your professional career and severely damaged your mental health and wellbeing. People tell me I am brave. I don’t feel it because facing these people on that day was something I just did not feel I could manage.

I used the lift to ferry my books to my car. In the lift was a sign stating that the University does not tolerate bullying or harassment. Closed in that lift, with my memories of everything that had happened left me feeling angry because the bullying and harassment of me had been allowed to continue unchecked. On the upper floors the lift doors open to a view of the legacy garden, a formal garden where alumni and supporters of the OU are remembered with plaques or flowers or plants. When I arrived at the OU as Chair of Criminology in 2016 I was blown away by the garden because it was a living embodiment of the trust, respect and affection that the OU commanded. I felt so proud. But, on my last day there, that pride turned into bitter, aching sad disappointment. To me, the actions and inactions of current academic employees and managers at the OU have betrayed what the OU ought to have stood for – being a place that exists for the benefit of all.

The contrast between my final days at the OU and my arrival at the University of Reading could not be greater. At University of Reading there were welcome drinks with colleagues and staff; Security, HR and Media have rolled out the red carpet to make sure I feel supported and enabled to do my job. This has underscored a very simple fact. It is the decisions and actions of managers and colleagues in universities that ultimately protect us from harassment and defend academic freedom. My hope is that my employment tribunal will provide case law to force managers to manage the way that particular groups in are using harassment to shut down academic discussion.

Best of all, I am writing again. I am writing about why sex matters in criminology. Finally. After two years, I finally feel able to offer a university my skills and produce the work that I have been paid to produce. 

As we stand today, my outline case – updated to include constructive dismissal – is lodged with the Employment Tribunal. We are awaiting the outline defence and (fingers crossed) we will shortly have a case management conference and will know the date for the full hearing.

Until then, please do continue to support my case. To the best of my knowledge, the estimate of the total cost being around £150K is about right. With your help we can get this over the line. With my legal team we have, quite literally, the *best* possible chance of winning. And, the win is such an important one: it will force universities to protect academics like me.

Update 3

Prof Jo Phoenix

Dec. 11, 2021

Adding Constructive Dismissal To My Claim against OU

Last week I announced, with the heaviest of hearts, that I resigned my post, with immediate effect as Chair in Criminology at The Open University. On December 2nd, 2021, I ended my 25 year long relationship with that institution. I also announced my pleasure at taking up a new post as Professor of Criminology at Reading University from January 1, 2022.  

I am now adding constructive dismissal to my claim against The Open University.

The failure to take seriously my grievance

On 24th June 2021 I submitted a grievance detailing the bullying and harassment campaign that forms some of my claim against the OU. As you know, I was labelled me a transphobe because of my gender critical beliefs, called a racist uncle at the dinner table and colleagues published several open statements and letters asking my employer to discriminate against me. 

You will also know that the harassment campaign took a serious toll on my mental health, my reputation, and my ability to work since I was being shunned and vilified by my colleagues. 

Because of this I asked the university time and again to expedite the grievance - I needed an outcome if I was to have any chance of returning to my full duties. Despite my pleading I was told on the 12 November 2021, nearly 6 months after submitting my grievance, that I might get an outcome before Christmas, but then again I might not. Finding out that there was no scheduled date for the outcome of my grievance felt like the ultimate betrayal by the university I loved. Once my initial shock and grief subsided, I knew that my trust and faith in The Open University was misplaced. Asking me to wait for more than six months to resolve a very serious grievance is an utterly unreasonable demand. Since I resigned, I was informed that The Open University has suspended the grievance investigation and will not provide an outcome until after the Tribunal, despite best practice guides. But there is more.

My Employer’s Public Statements

In the last 6 months, The Open University has also issued several statements of its own - placed on internal SharePoint pages, shared externally on social media by my harassers, and more recently on an external facing news page - that make its position clear. In the first statement the OU distances itself from the research network (and thereby me and other members) stating it is a “very sensitive topic” and offers support for trans and non-binary community, ending with a comment that the network is not institutionally endorsed.

In the second statement the vice chancellor states that the network (thereby me) has caused “hurt and distress”. To suggest that the academic work I do causes distress and harm whilst failing to acknowledge the distress and reputation damage done to me by more than 360 OU employees highlights the shockingly unequal treatment afforded me by my employer.

A third statement was published on the OU news page on 10th November. It stated that “The Vice-Chancellor's Executive found that the formation of the GCRN was compatible with academic freedom, while also acknowledging that some staff found the content of the group's work to be challenging or concerning”. The implication is clear. It is the GCRN (and by definition the network’s members including me) that are the problem. It felt like a gut punch.

At no point had The Open University acknowledged in these statements its legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to protect gender critical academics from harassment. At no point has it acknowledged the hurt or distress caused to me. These absences are not a mistake. They are the result of an active choice. Clearly my distress is not worth mentioning - even though it is out in the public domain and so they would not be breaching any confidentiality to acknowledge it. When my employer broadcast its shockingly unequal treatment of my distress on an external news page, my trust in them shattered.  

So far, through the exceptional generosity of all of you, there is now a fighting fund of just over £90,000. This sounds like a massive amount, but the OU has deep pockets and £90,000 will be swallowed up very quickly if I am to get the best representation. But I know that this case will help to establish a line in the sand and make it clear that baseless accusations of transphobia simply for standing up for the rights of women is harassment especially when made in an academic context. For that reason, I am bringing together one of the most exciting legal teams to fight this case which means a reluctant change in the Crowd Justice target to £150,000. This is a HUGE ask. So many have already given so much. And it is Christmas. If you cannot give now, please make a note to give in January or February when finances are a little easier. I have a long way to go and a hard legal battle to fight. Any and all help and support you can offer will go to ease my burden.


Update 2

Prof Jo Phoenix

Nov. 30, 2021

Not strictly related to my case against the OU

Friends, colleagues and supports

Forgive this intrusion. This is not an update on my case.

Some of you will already know about my experiences of being unlawfully cancelled and blacklisted by the University of Essex because some staff and some students claimed that I was transphobic. A month afterwards, Prof Rosa Freedman (University of Reading) was also unlawfully treated.

There is a documentary being screened on Channel 4 this Thursday (2nd December) at 10:00 pm. It is called 'Cancelled'. It focuses, at least in part, on what happened to the two of us. 

We both took part in the filming. The presenter is Richard Bacon and the Director is Tom Jenner. 

I have not seen the documentary, but I think the director understood many of the issues. Fingers crossed anyway! 

Thank you once again for your support. I will be putting together a proper update on the case some time next week. 

Best wishes

Jo

Update 1

Prof Jo Phoenix

Nov. 3, 2021

Hitting Milestones

Friends, Supporters, Colleagues

Yesterday was a milestone. You managed to raise more than £80K in only 17 days. Seventeen days. Four hundred and 8 hours. That is £196.08 per hour. This is what you all did, and you did it to support me bringing my employer to an employment tribunal.

Last evening, I was obsessively refreshing my various social media feeds. I could feel the joy of everyone in the comments and the retweets, in the likes and shares.

What an amazing thing you have done.

I mean this without any false modesty: I am humbled and touched beyond measure. I will do my very best to honour your donations, your support, and your hopes.

In the days before deciding to go to tribunal, I had to work out the minimum amount I needed to raise so that I could take the case all the way to Tribunal. That amount was £80,000. When I discussed this with my partner (the amazing Pj), she told me she would support my decision whatever I chose but she believed that we ought to go for it. She has, after all, been the one at home listening to my frustrations and anger and my deep pain. She was also the one who picked me up during the summer when I was struggling with PTSD and couldn’t sleep or concentrate.

Few people will realise what a decision like that means: we decided to gamble our house. If the crowdjustice fund raiser didn’t provide enough money, or didn’t provide any, we knew we would have to mortgage our house and risk our financial future. This is how committed we are to fighting this battle.

Your support and your donations – from the £1 and £2 donations (and I know how much that can be) to those who have given astonishing sums – mean my partner and I can rest assured knowing that we can take this case all the way to the final hearing without jeopardising our house.

I will be chatting with my lawyer over the next few days. We will be submitting the claim to the Employment Tribunal this week. We will also discuss whether another stretch target is needed.

My hope: to get, quite literally, the best legal team in the country. My aim is to do everything in my power to make sure that your generosity is honoured and that we win.

For now, my partner and I thank you. What an amazing thing you have all done.

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