Fri 21 Oct 2022 — 9 min

On 15 September, an article was published in Times Higher Education (THE) called Researchers are wounded in academia’s gender wars. Widely read in the higher education sector (and often criticised for its focus on problematic university rankings and managerial concerns), THE regularly publishes pieces sympathetic to anti-trans perspectives, to the point of uncritically promoting fringe anti-trans campaigns and academics – even after they have left academia. Trans (and even trans-inclusive) voices are rarely included in their coverage and our concerns minimised or ridiculed, and so those with access to the article opened it with trepidation. They were right to do so.

The article was written by Laura Favaro, a postdoctoral research fellow at City University in London. It opens with Favaro claiming to have been warned off her topic of study – the disagreements between gender critical and trans-inclusive women, in a project aggressively titled “Gender Wars” – and describes the character of the “debate” as especially unpleasant in academia, setting up some straw men with unsourced quotes (presumably from her data) on “both sides” of the issue. Favaro then claims that she had approached her topic with an “open mind”, but goes on to quite clearly align herself with the gender critical minority (14) of her 50 interviewees. She dubs trans-inclusive academics “genderists”, and writes disdainfully and without respect about both their views and their approach to answering her questions. This alone would be considered unethical practice by most qualitative social scientists.

Normally THE and other media articles about research projects link directly to the research under discussion. This is best practice for transparency, and where possible should be a peer-reviewed article, conference paper or book. If the research output is “grey literature” (e.g. a think tank or charity report or government white paper), linking to the actual study is still usually a requirement for media coverage. As noted by cognitive neuroscientist Eve Forster, nothing related to the Gender Wars project has been published or is in press. This makes it difficult for readers to check Favaro’s claims or interrogate her methodology and research ethics. As it turns out, this would have been helpful.

Inclusive feminist professor Alison Phipps, often targeted by anti-trans activists, tweeted a thread on the morning that Favaro’s article was published. She had been a participant in the research and regretted it. Phipps was also named in the article and a quotation from her book used to mock her. The Twitter thread tells us Phipps’ motivation for taking part in the study (project mentored by an academic she trusted, who unfortunately had taken a hands-off approach, and the researcher’s claim to be “open-minded”). Phipps also explains how she was treated during the interview process, which involved reading out insulting comments (“including sexually violent things”) attacking her personally, from gender critical people hostile to her work.

Usually, this kind of approach would be considered by university ethics committee to be highly sensitive with strong potential for risk of harm to the participant. It would have to be acknowledged in the ethics application process and participant information sheets. Under no circumstances would a research participant be expected to listen to emotive content in opposition to their state views – let alone directed at them specifically - without prior warning. It fails the basic principle of fully informed consent, as Phipps was not told in advance that this would happen. As Phipps says: “I told this researcher deeply personal things about myself, my family, and my interactions with GC feminists and others, and feel incredibly exposed. I am also worried about retaliation in the form of these details now being made public or disclosed to GCs to fuel attacks on me.”

The study’s participant information sheets, seen by TSN, and Favaro’s THE article do not disclose that she used this approach in her interviews, or acknowledge its potential for harm. Contrary to the "minimal risk" described in the participant information sheet, multiple participants have shared both on Twitter and privately with TSN their concerns and their poor experiences during this study and its reporting. TSN have seen emails between Favaro and participants, including those who chose to withdraw from the study.

Participants felt that Dr Favaro misrepresented the study, which they agreed to due to the inclusive feminist reputation of Professor Ros Gill and the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre at City University. Trans and pro-trans participants then felt duped, as the research was carried out from a gender critical (GC) perspective. Participants were harmed both by the line of questioning and re-traumatising recounting of painful experiences in the interviews and also the framing and detail of the Times Higher reporting. Favaro made it difficult to withdraw participation, as emails TSN have seen confirm. She also engaged in unprofessional (“rude”, “hostile”, “pressurising”) communication with participants and former participants.

The information sheets and emails approaching potential participants did not state who funded Favaro’s research. The latter would be required in a peer-reviewed article and journalists covering research are advised to check for funding details in the acknowledgements section or ask the researcher and share that information with their readers. TSN’s investigations have uncovered this information, and it does not make for comfortable reading.

Participants did not know that these interviews were not just part of Favaro’s wider “women’s rage” project, but also the research on “sex and gender” that had been funded by EHRC and reported in the Telegraph earlier in the year. Favaro is not named in City's tender and the online information academics tweeting about her article later found related only to her British Academy/Leverhulme small grant, which was for survey-based quantitative research into social scientists in summer 2022 with senior colleague Vanessa Gash (also gender critical). The Telegraph article stated that “The regulator corrected the title of the research on the published contract, which was originally called ‘Gender Wars’, following an ‘unintentional human error’.” Gender Wars is the name of Favaro’s broader project and the phrase was also used in the subject line of her email communications with participants in the research interviews reported in THE.

Trans and trans-inclusive participants would have been more sceptical of the project had they known of EHRC’s involvement, given the organisation’s shift to an explicitly trans-hostile stance following the appointment of chair Kishwer Falkner and other gender critical commissioners. A spokesman for EHRC told the Telegraph: "This research, by City University, aims to understand the perspectives of a range of people on issues of sex and gender, so that the commission can help communities across Britain to talk about complex issues of identity in ways that foster good relations and respect between groups, in line with our statutory remit.”

Unusually, this research contract was awarded to City as a single tender action, which means the funding opportunity was not advertised competitively for suitable organisations to apply. It was directly awarded to City. This should only happen, as per government transparency guidelines, in exceptional circumstances, none of which appear to apply in this case:

  • If there was competition for initial work, limited follow-up work which could not have been anticipated in the original contract award. This must not start a series of several single tenders on the same grounds.
  • Where there is a compatibility issue, for example with office equipment, IT, or where a proposed business model or other recommendation made by a consultancy is to be implemented.
  • Where there is genuinely only one provider who is capable of meeting the requirement or will be interested in doing so.
  • Where there is a genuine emergency requirement for goods or services to maintain business continuity. This is not an alternative for failure to commence a procurement process in good time

Single tender actions must be authorised by the Executive Director, following a report explaining why it is required. Claire Prosho of Steph’s Place attempted a Freedom of Information request about this project, which was rejected in April as the research was still under way. It would be wise for someone to rewrite and resubmit this request.

City University have a clear ethics policy and good research practice framework which were breached by Favaro when conducting this study. TSN contacted City’s research integrity lead before writing this story and have not received a response after more than 14 days.