Women, work and academia

I am never quite sure where October goes.  At the end of September I felt as I was looking out on vast swathes of time in which to complete the first draft of the next chapter of the book.  I am doing minimal teaching this semester and most of it, or so I thought, was concentrated in November, which I have also filled with two trips (one abroad).  And now, here I sit, on the last day of the school half term, with not a word of said chapter written (although a very clear idea of what it needs to say) and facing a series of looming deadlines for funding and articles which I have promised to complete.

Which is not to say October hasn’t been productive.  I’ve done a lot more postgraduate teaching than I anticipated, all of it hugely energising.  There can be few things more exciting than sitting with a PhD or MA student as they start to work through their ideas for their thesis – unless it is perhaps supporting those students as they complete the final stages of three or four years of intense work, and realise that they have independently produced something unique and important.  I have also been doing a remarkable amount of administrative work, not least because I now lead a new research cluster in Women, Gender and Sexuality.  Setting this up, and working with colleagues as we think through as a community how issues of gender and sexuality shape our working lives within a university setting has been thought-provoking, at times troubling, at others life-affirming – and remarkably time consuming.

Which is why it is only now that I have the opportunity to write up and reflect on one of the events partly related to the WGS cluster (we provided tea and coffee for the post-workshp social event) which occurred over two weeks ago now.  This was a workshop organised in conjunction with the Katrina Honeyman Lecture, this year given with immense panache by Professor Selina Todd.  (The lecture itself deserves its own blog post, but I am still trying to find the time and space to think through all its implications properly, so will defer the pleasure of reporting on it at present.)

The two-hour workshop which preceded the evening lecture took the form of a facilitated discussion among a range of academic women of experiences of gender discrimination and harrassment in the academic workplace.  Two panels of speakers, the first made up of three academics from universities outside of Leeds, the second of three academics from Leeds different stages in the academic life cycle, were given three questions to respond to in turn, followed by a more general discussion.

The first panel, which included Helen Smith (Lincoln), Julie-Marie Strange (Manchester) and Selina Todd (Oxford) were first asked to introduce themselves and explain the work they were undertaking around gender equality, experiences which ranged from organizing an Athena Swan bronze award application through experiences of the Aurora leadership programme and its influence on running a department to the development of a new initiative, Women in the Humanities.

They were than asked about the labour involved in equalities work. Much of the response was about the Athena Swan scheme, both critically and constructively.  On the one hand, panelists spoke of the labour involved in applying for the scheme, which often goes unrecognised in workloads and those in authority, the risk it runs of reducing action on equalities to a tick-box exercise, and the tendency of university hierarchies to assume that women would undertake such work.  It was also pointed out that equalities work is not only time-consuming but brings and emotional burden, given the sensitivity of the subject, and that the labour is not limited to the application itself but, if the award is to be more than a tick-box exercise, involves commitment to change going forward.  On the other hand, it was pointed out that Athena Swan and similar schemes are needed, and will increasingly be needed, by university management structures as markers of best practice.  This gives them the power to serve as a conduit for examining and possibly changing institutional structures by adding to the indespensibility of those who provide the labour of recognition.  Both Julie-Marie and Selina pointed out that if the application process embodies and enacts the aims of the award, through for instance ensuring workload recognition for those organising the award, then such applications can act as a driving force for structural change.  For this to happen, there had to be wider acknowledgement, either through sympathetic leadership or through the pressure of collective action, what Selina termed the posse within the discipline, although she also argued that we needed to reach out in solidarity across departmental boundaries, particular in recognising HR as a resource for bringing an external perspective to the examination of institutional structures, if only through their knowledge of equalities legislation.

This discussion led directly into the final question for the panel on how we can go about putting pressure on our institutions to change.  Here the responses were about both individual behaviour – calling out bad behaviour when we see it, naming our own experience and claiming it as experience rather than anecdote, taking up training and coaching opportunities to strengthen our ability to give voice our experiences and to support others who might feel more vulnerable voicing theirs – and group behaviour, with a particular call for unionization as a way to make our voices heard within structures that universities understand and which attract allies, not least our own students. Selina in particular reminded us that, as individuals we can only ever expect to take small steps towards changing institutional structures and none of us can fight every battle all of the time – we need to be strategic about our time and emotional resources.  But lots of small steps, taken together, can, in the end, bring about institutional change.

This was followed by a discussion in which points were raised about who is responsible for calling out bad behaviour, particularly that which is observed, relative vulnerability and security, where gender intersects with class, age and location within the professional academic life cycle, the influence of Athena Swan on research practice and how to overcome institutionally constructed divisions between academic and support staff.  Throughout these discussions the need for inclusion and solidarity to effect structural change was central, although the importance of those with job security in recognising their privilege and using it responsibly to call out bad behaviour and identify patterns of abuse was acknowledged.

The second panel was made up of Professor Emilia Jamroziak, Dr Laura King and Ms Nicola Ginsburgh.  Asked first to reflect on issues that specifically affect women in the academic workplace, Emilia pointed to the changing nature of academic careers, with an increasing focus on management, particularly at a senior level.  This, she pointed out, often comes with little training, which is problematic not simply for women seeking these more senior roles, but also for the ways in which women are managed.  Lack of effective training for all academic managers increases the likelihood of a culture of silence around bad behaviour, which is too often ignored and not effectively disciplined when called out.  Laura pointed to the pressures on women relating both to lack of job security and to the biases which shape the academic job market.  She suggested that while universities are increasingly talking a good game around implicit bias and training for its recognition, this too often masks broader institutional problems, displacing the identification of discriminatory behaviour onto individual subconsciousnesses, rather than seeking ways to alter structures to eliminate such behaviours.  Nicola picked up on this last point, noting that there were a number of structural assumptions which attached themselves to postgraduate students in particular, such as those around the desire to pursue an academic career.  She also pointed to the distinctiveness of the student experience as more isolated than that of the academic, making it harder for postgraduate women to form an effective posse.  This was further reinforced by the assumptions of the temporary nature of student status within the school, affecting students’ ability to complain.  The fact that the student might not be present in the institution in the long term but the person whose behaviour might be complained about might be, due to holding a permanent position, shaped decisions about whether to make a complaint.

The panel was then asked for suggestions as to how these challenges might be addressed.  The answers echoed the earlier discussion, with Emilia arguing that women needed to work together to build the sort of alliances that, she suggested, men all too often use to silence discussion.  Echoing Selina, she argued that cultural and structural change can be achieved through engagement and the sharing of information to challenge the definitions of institutions hierarchies which are not absolute truths. Laura supported this, suggesting that we need to change the definition of female discussions to define them as discussions and the sharing of information, not gossip.  Nicola finally suggested that we need to not only contribute to but also place demands on representative organisations such as the unions (including the student unions), to reflect the particular challenges faced by women in the academic workplace.

The discussion element following this panel turned more to reflection, a facet of the audience also being part of the institution under discussion.  A particularly fruitful discussion took place around the question teaching practice, and the need to shape the curriculum to more fully reflect diversity.  Problems were identified in relation to this, not least in terms of the additional labour required to diversify modules options and reading lists, labour which all too often fell to those already under pressure of time as hourly-paid or early career teachers.  However, the potential for such diversification to effect structural change was also discussed, through the potential for creating new areas of power linked to appointments and the allocation of scholarships, and that offered by co-teaching as a way of creating space for discussion and solidarity.  The potential for incorporating the equalities agenda into already recognised systems, such as departmental and staff reviews (which are required of everyone) was also put forward.  This point, about building change into existing structures was also raised in comment about the gendered labour of documentation and the privileging of the quantitative decision-making.  The answer, which Selina suggested was true across academic systems and beyond, may lie in the need, already noted, to take ownership of the value of qualitative data, claiming experience as such, rather than anecdote, and using it as evidence for our claims to be heard.

As is inevitable with any discussion involving a diverse group of passionate, intelligent participants and tackling a subject as large and complex as gender within the academy, there was much left unfinished and several points which I questioned.  Is ‘amplification’, whereby colleagues repeat a point that is attempting to be silenced until it is acknowledged, a useful tactic, or does it run the risk of entrenching the attitudes expressed in this well-known cartoon?:

office-sexism-women-business-relationships-cartoons-punch-magazine-riana-duncan-1988-01-08-11How many of the pressures experienced by post-graduate and hourly-paid teachers are a facet specifically of gender and how many of wider problems with academic employment structures?  How do we incorporate men, and particularly men in senior positions, into our discussions without constructing them as a potentially alienating other?  How do we, as individuals, effect small changes as individuals without getting overwhelmed by the challenges of effecting wider structural changes, challenges which have the power to undermine our subjective integrity as academic workers?

There are no easy answers, but for two hours two weeks ago a large group of women and men attempted to put some of our ambitions for change into practice, sharing experience and proposing strategies.  And these conversations will continue, through the WGS cluster and other venues, and through future organised events, not least a conference that will take place in March in the School of History at Leeds which will explore care both in history and in the academy.  More details to follow – once my colleagues and I manage to carve out the time to organise the next steps.

Advertisements