"And the survey said"
By Shannon Stunden-Bower and Sharmalene Mendis
CWAG Student Representatives 2003-2004
As soon as we took on the roles of student representatives to CWAG
for the 2003/4 year, we began asking ourselves what we could do
in service to the organization at large and its student members
in particular. As we struggled to hit on a satisfactory project,
other questions suggested themselves. What do grad students want
from CWAG? What sorts of folks comprise the CWAG membership? What
is CWAG's purpose? We were obliged to recognize that the questions
far outnumbered the answers. With this, a survey was born. Sincere
thanks to all who took the time to respond to the Membership Survey
circulated in February 2004, as well as to Jennifer Hyndman, Bonnie
Hallman, Maureen Reed, and Scott Bell for valuable advice over the
In keeping with our special concern for students' experiences,
there were small differences between the questions asked of students
and those asked of faculty/post-docs. This report will address in
turn each section of the survey, lingering on the responses that
seem to us particularly interesting and highlighting differences
between the replies of students and faculty/post-docs. While the
number of responses was not overwhelming, we hope that what follows
is a useful starting point for discussions of who we are and where
we are going. And, of course, that it provides some guidance to
future grad student representatives who may be casting around for
Invasions of Privacy
We are happy to report that CWAG is viewed as a welcoming organisation.
Our faculty/post-doc respondents ranged from 30 to 60 years old; the
students, from 25 to 35. All were female. Of the total, 25% identified
themselves as lesbian or queer while 12.5% described themselves as
belonging to a visible minority.
Students identified junior status (seen as more a function of experience
than age) and financial constraints as factors that affect their experience
of CWAG. The annual incomes of students ranged from approximately
$17 000 to approximately $25 000, before tuition and taxes. The lowest
income among those in Ph.D. programmes was $21 000, and only one respondent
was at the M.A. level. According to students, limited financial resources
hinder their ability to attend the CAG annual meetings and thus to
participate in face-to-face CWAG events.
Why do members maintain their standing in CAG/CWAG?
For faculty, it is to keep abreast of new research, to remain in
touch with others in the profession, and to know "who is working
on what" not only for their own purposes but also so as to
be able better to advise students. Membership in CWAG is an opportunity
to associate with a group of "good people, academically and
personally speaking," who have "important aims".
Students shared many of these motivations, but also exhibited
a more concerted interest in the networking opportunities that CWAG
provides. The connections sought were personal as well as professional,
with CWAG seen as a "social context for academic practice."
CWAG exposes the "doing" that lies behind the "telling"
that fills the journals. These aspects of the organization help
to inspire students to continue work in the discipline. Travel grants,
low-cost opportunities to connect with other members, and informational
resources are things that students value in organizations such as
How can CWAG improve the professional experience of our members?
Faculty members suggested that CWAG could provide more information
on opportunities such as conferences and networks that appeal to feminist
and/or female geographers. This could be achieved at minimal cost
through more deliberate use of our listserv.
From the varied responses of students, two key themes emerged. First,
along with some faculty, many students expressed a desire for a
formalized relationship with SWIG.  CWAG was seen as an existing
network that could support the organization of local SWIG chapters,
perhaps through the sharing of ideas and experiences. Second, many
students would like to participate in formalized mentoring programmes
or informal discussions with more senior scholars on topics of concern
(i.e. What has been! your experience in balancing academic life
with outside interests/family? Are the expectations for graduates
increasing, and if so, in what ways?). Some expressed concern that,
due to heavy workloads, faculty might be reluctant to participate.
Interestingly, the more intimate connections sought by students
seem of the sort that could be provided by SWIG groups that are
organized locally and that have relatively small memberships.
Students have big ambitions for CWAG. It was suggested that CWAG
might engage in advocacy on behalf of women and minorities at the
level of the university. Also mentioned was the possibility of a
meeting at the CAG of CWAG student members. This would provide a
chance to connect with each other and to discuss our graduate programs.
CWAG sponsorship of a panel dedicated to students' work was another
suggestion. Through these last two, a more coherent student membership
might be created. Perhaps this would lead to more active student
involvement in the general CWAG business meetings. Students also
expressed appreciation for the opportunities currently offered by
CWAG, such as social events for members. This tradition seems particularly
well attuned to the needs and desires of graduate students.
Who 'belongs' in CWAG? This is a matter of confusion,
perhaps even of discord. To judge from the admittedly brief responses
to our questions, some assume that males are not part of CWAG. A
sense of organizational coherence is derived from the interests,
experiences and issues that it is assumed males do not share. However,
our membership list indicates that we do have a few male members.
Further, as the utility of binary distinctions such as male/female
has been challenged in the literature, it seems particularly important
to ensure that we recognize the breadth of our organization. Certainly
most will agree that there is much to gain by welcoming all interested
people to our community. This does, however, raise an interesting
question. If female is not a useful descriptor of our membership,
perhaps we must consider whether Canadian Women and Geography is
an appropriate title. Are we about women or are we about gender?
Are we made up of women and people who study women, or is it more
appropriate to think of our organization as uniting those who are
concerned professionally and affected personally by gender issues?
What divides CWAG's membership? An interrogation
of the divide between students and faculty was fundamental to the
survey, and the character of the divide is considered throughout
this article. Other divisions mentioned by respondents include longstanding
rifts among members and sub-disciplinary differences (such as that
between the human and the physical). A number of respondents commented
on the significance of what one described as a distinction between
feminist geographers and female geographers. Female geographers
do not necessarily present in CWAG sessions, as their current research
may not relate explicitly to gender. With professional activities
that are more removed from the shared concerns (however diffuse)
of CWAG members, female geographers feel less at home within our
To facilitate the bridging of divides, our respondents called for
greater participation in informal CWAG events. Casual mingling and
friendly conversation were seen to have the potential to bring us
together, not by the imposition of some artificial unity but through
the cross-fertilization that results from sharing ideas in a respectful
One respondent suggested that the impact of divisions within CWAG
is heightened by the structure of academe: members are unable to
dedicate much effort to fostering CWAG due to "time pressures
that constrain participation in intellectual communities and a professional
reward system that recognizes individual over community achievement".
This echoes Andre Roy's sentiments in the CAG newsletter, Volume
11, Number 1 regarding heavy academic workloads that stifle efforts
to create intellectually stimulating communities. He observes that
"we are at the point when we have to let some things fall by
the wayside if we want to make ends meet in a minimal state of mental
and physical health..." (10). Unfortunately, it is informal
commitments, such a valued aspect of CWAG, which can most easily
be allowed to fall away.
Getting together in any casual manner is further complicated by
the fact that we all live so far apart. Respondents were asked to
comment on how better to cope with the dispersal of the CWAG membership.
The establishment of a system of regional representation was viewed
as redundant and, indeed, impossible because of the difficulty of
freeing up the necessary time and energy. The consensus seems to be
that we should further develop our national CWAG electronic community
while supporting the development of local groups by building connections
with SWIG and using the CWAG network to further the SWIG movement.
What unites the CWAG membership? This question
prompted a variety of short and specific answers: our discipline,
shared research interests, common struggles (e.g. getting tenure),
our connection to academia. At a higher level of abstraction, one
respondent asserted that we are united by a "belief that organisations
such as CWAG perform a needed and useful function." Another
response suggests something of the nature of this function, identifying
CWAG as part of the redress of "the archaic and very white,
male, and British geography tradition within Canada." Clearly,
CWAG remains relevant to members' efforts to bring about positive
Should advocacy figure in the CWAG mandate, and if yes,
how? Most said yes, but were unsure how we would identify
issues and develop strategy. One workable suggestion was that CWAG
could support the work of existing equity committees by highlighting
emerging issues. One respondent commented that CWAG's current role
is more one of support than of advocacy. It was suggested that CWAG
might offer more vigorous support to individual members tackling
particular issues, such as salary parity among genders at individual
institutions. Perhaps it is more useful to consider how CWAG could
better support the efforts of individual members rather than to
think in terms of any sort of shared CWAG project.
From advocacy to recruitment: a faculty member wondered
about how CWAG solicits potential student members. Is there a formal
attempt to contact geography student associations to increase awareness
of CWAG? The answer, it seems, is no. As far as we can tell, CWAG
has relied on faculty to encourage their students to explore the relevant
study groups. If we are interested in cultivating a larger membership,
one effective means would be to develop a brochure describing CWAG.
This could be distributed to all geography departments and regional
CAG associations. A student suggested that information about CAG and
CWAG should also be distributed to American geography departments.
This emphasizes that, as CWAG has the opportunity to welcome all genders,
so does its appeal transcend national borders.
Faculty are concerned about the experiences of students. Indeed,
one asserted that "student involvement is the raison d'etre
of CWAG in my view." However, as we have already intimated,
many students feel that they remain on the periphery. CWAG functions
do present good opportunities to meet established scholars, and
students recognize and appreciate this. However, students experience
intimidation even in the most congenial of circumstances. Many are
unsure how to join the networks of personal and professional relationships
that connect established scholars. Students noted appreciatively
that some faculty make deliberate efforts to interact with students.
Perhaps if more faculty were aware of the significance of such encounters
for students, they might be inclined to find the time to get to
know another budding scholar.
In sum, it is clear that CWAG is valued by students and faculty/postdocs
alike. Nevertheless, in its current incarnation, CWAG seems to be
more successful at meeting the expectations of faculty/postdocs than
of students. In the responses we received, any suggestion of organizational
change was followed by an expression of concern regarding the additional
time and effort that might be required. CWAG, it seems, is perceived
as an additional commitment, piled on top of other personal and professional
responsibilities. Respondents appreciated the informal nature of our
meetings and social events, but were adamant that they were neither
willing nor able to take on much else. Any substantial reorientation
of CWAG must take this into account. Or perhaps we might try to imagine
what CWAG could do to ease the personal and professional load on its
membership. If overwork is the theme that is most common to CWAG members,
should addressing this in some deliberate way be part of our mandate?
Thanks again to all who assisted with this survey, whether through
advising, editing, or responding. We very much appreciate the feedback
we received, and we invite your responses to the results of the
 Supporting Women in Geography (SWIG) is a loose association
of local groups that seek to address the otherwise unsatisfied personal
and professional needs of members. This common goal is pursued through
a diverse range of strategies. Operating norms vary significantly
from group to group. There are a number of SWIGs across the United
States. To our knowledge, Vancouver is the location of the only
Canadian chapter. For further information on SWIG, please consult
the past two issues of the CWAG newsletter.