Why I had to quit

Sexism, unthinking managerialism and toxic ‘them and us’ attitudes are still pervasive within UK universities, according to an anonymous academic who found the dissonances between her values, career expectations and lived reality too much to bear

三月 19, 2020
Walking through keyhole
Source: Alamy

Resigning was a hard decision. I had a permanent position. My first permanent post, in 2005, did not just fall into my lap after I received my doctorate. I had to work hard for it through a number of interviews over a period of two years, some of them bruising. I do not have the sparkly allure of an Oxbridge credential on my CV, partly because I felt I could do a more interesting PhD elsewhere, and I research an uncompromisingly interdisciplinary and hard-to-classify topic in an area of the humanities that most UK universities are not currently expanding, medieval studies.

So I know how precious a permanent contract is. I know how many people are desperately hoping for one and I always swore I would never give up my permanent status, no matter what the university system threw at me.

But things can change and the dissonance I experienced forced my hand. I want to publish this personal story as a contribution to ongoing discussions about corporatisation, restructuring and gender discrimination within higher education.

Having served as a head of department at my first institution in Wales, I moved in September 2014 to an English university to take up a similar role. I was part of a group of new heads of department and I’m inclined to believe what I was subsequently told: that there was no plan, at that point, to abolish departments. But, as my new colleagues informed me, the institution had become addicted to change under a series of vice-chancellors. This probably reflected several factors that made it less attractive to students: it is a small university located in a less desirable city than some of its close neighbours, and is unable to boast Russell Group credentials. Anyway, my new institution soon announced a process of restructuring, which replaced departments with bigger units – and I discovered that I had moved across the country for a role that would become obsolete by August 2016.

Although I am sure I made some mistakes, I am convinced I was a good head of department in both institutions where I took on that role, highly regarded by my colleagues and demonstrably able to make tough decisions. It was clear from the outset that in my new role as head of English, which included creative writing and some language provision, I would be required to make some difficult choices around budgets and staffing. Student numbers were falling and some staff seemed to be burying their heads in the sand. I led the department through the consultation process that prefaced the 2016 restructuring, trying to make fair decisions about the staffing profile. And in the first year of my appointment I had already overseen a complete revamp of all the taught programmes, as part of a university-wide drive to revitalise our offering.

A revamp was a good idea in principle, but the institution showed signs of panic in embracing a rules-based managerial approach that did little to encourage creative thinking and seemed to disregard the expertise of many excellent academics, specialists in their field, who were really keen to provide the best possible experience for our students. It was very stressful to support and enthuse new colleagues in a context of incompetence and unnecessary bureaucracy. Yet I had just relocated across the UK, started settling my son into a new school and bought a house, so moving again would have been quite an upheaval. My story is mainly about what happened next. 

Miniature woman and book

I had long resisted the idea that gender discrimination is still rife in the UK university sector. I wanted to believe that times have changed. I learned the hard way that they have not.

In the process of what the university termed “matching and slotting” that accompanied the disappearance of my new head of department role, I was first interviewed for a faculty management position in research. In terms of my CV, I was highly qualified, indeed the most qualified candidate. I had successfully managed a unit’s submission to the research excellence framework in my previous institution, had an extensive research portfolio and secured funding from both the Arts and Humanities Research Council and European sources. I was given hints that the job would be mine, yet it went to a male colleague with a far less impressive track record. I also noticed that all four of the people appointed to research management roles in the new faculties were men.

I have no doubt that I experienced gender discrimination during the matching and slotting process, although discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove. An experienced member of the university health team, who recognised the profile of the decision-makers involved, advised me not to make a complaint, since it would “only damage your own reputation”.

I ended up taking on a faculty management role in international recruitment. I felt I had no choice. I had not moved institutions just to return to a purely academic role, but I was worried about the financial implications of the change in my contract, which included an unanticipated reduction in salary. Nor was my new position particularly appropriate for my career trajectory or my status as, in effect, a single parent.  

My partner and I had never managed to find employment in the same institution. Perhaps we should have been more pushy about this, but that’s also hard, especially in fields where jobs are scarce. Having to look after a child during term time means that you cannot always get to the 5-7pm events. I know this is a real problem for many academic parents, especially women, given that most of us have moved away from the traditional support network of grandparents and other family members.

Before I had a child, I was unaware of the difficulties presented by the 5pm research seminar. It is usually possible to do the juggling required to be available some evenings, so I don’t condone members of staff who play the “I have childcare” card to justify absence from all such events. And it’s great that it’s become acceptable for academics, usually women, to take babies and young children to conferences, although this is also hard work.

My own son has attended a lot of events – as a baby sleeping peacefully across a row of soft chairs while we welcomed the new first years; tuning in and zoning out with headphones at poetry readings; raising a glass of orange juice at the opening of a prestigious conference organised by my colleagues. I always got the odd critical look if he rustled a crisp packet too loudly or forgot to whisper, but colleagues were generally understanding, and many had already done such juggling themselves.

Taking on a management role in a university tends to mean attending more events out of office (and childcare) hours. I became adept at the contortions required to fulfil the requirements. As a head of department, I picked the events I felt I ought to attend as an advocate for my colleagues or my subject, while often sending apologies for the more fun bits such as the dinner after, exhibition openings or public lectures.

Despite all these challenges, I had a real appetite for management. I wanted to serve as a head of department and contribute to the academic culture of my institution. But I also retained my deep commitment to research. Of course, one’s research time is radically reduced when acting as a head of department (especially with the addition of childcare responsibilities). But I had been very productive in the early part of my career and I managed to keep research ticking over thanks to an excellent network of wider colleagues around Europe, PhD students and a brilliant research assistant I worked with for a while.

At the same time, I was uncomfortable with the pressure to cross over on to a different track and to take an “us and them” attitude towards academics, as a means of driving through change and eliminating outmoded practices. On one occasion, when an excellent junior colleague was struggling with a teaching timetable scattered across the week, I very much regret that I found myself echoing the management line that a full research day free of teaching is not a right (even though I know that such a day is a lifeline for maintaining research activity during term time). Yet in general I tried to remain an academic at heart in my head of department and other management work. If one is struggling because of management duties to get a day in the archives, finish a paper or start an article, then one is more able to empathise with the tensions experienced by colleagues who are both very committed to their teaching and constantly aware of the publication pressures of the research excellence framework. And, in any case, I strongly believe the empathetic variety is the most successful kind of leadership. 

In more privileged institutions, it is possible – and sometimes even expected – for a head of department or member of faculty management to maintain their identity as a research academic, albeit a less productive one than previously. It’s the squeezed middle institutions, under such pressure in the current climate, that have tended to embrace models of management that seek a separation between academics and managers.

I became more and more aware of how such policies were at odds with my fundamental values. In one of the many “us and them” meetings I attended, I heard a finance officer describing research output in terms of a factory production line. (If they are not producing, then they are not fit for purpose – it’s as simple as that…) I reacted badly when a sentiment expressed by one of the non-academic members of the senior management team – “If you’re not at your desk, you’re not at work” – was widely cited within the institution. And I became aware that my plans for monitoring success in the run-up to the next research excellence framework struck the wrong note among a management focusing on these industry-based analogies of productivity. My own approach, based on nurturing, was no doubt deemed too fluffy (and perhaps too feminine). When I tried to articulate the proposition that “You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it” in relation to research, it became obvious that there was no room for this kind of argument.

I carried out my new faculty management role in international recruitment for a year but eventually had to stop. The dissonances were just too great between the role, my own commitment to research and the direction the university was taking as it scraped away at academics’ creative freedom in a drive to homogenise. I took a period of research leave, but I didn’t go back. I resigned about a month before I was diagnosed with a cancer. I have no doubt that the dissonance and sexism I experienced, well beyond the normal and expected stresses of management, were a contributory factor.

Now I am a thriver, rebuilding my career slowly, writing fiction and other things on the west coast of Ireland, breathing fresh air. Despite what happened, I remain confident that I have real skills in the empathetic leadership that enables colleagues to achieve and grow. I’m not finished yet with academic life, but I’m wary of its costs. 

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (6)

It would make more sense if most women's career aspirations were more weighted to their later years - and the same for expectations placed on them - to make room for motherhood.
So the younger men get promoted earlier? and women later? Could you please calculate for us what that will do for lifetime salaries and pensions? Or are you suggesting that women should choose between becoming mothers and having higher job ranks and decent pensions, and men do not have to choose between becoming fathers and having higher job ranks and decent pensions?
What this writer describes is the not so new normal for academics in Australia. Until we destroy the salience now given by courts, commissions and tribunals to the neologism "managerial prerogative", this will just get worse.
This sadly has echoes of experiences I have had, as single parent in academia. I feel it is not sexism per se, but the fact that there is still scant regard in some places for the compassionate, empathetic manager. I too had, in the past, been told that I am 'too nice' to be in a management role. I persisted, I always do. My management style has been widely appreciated by those I have managed. There are some good 'tough managers' but, in my experience, tough management usually equates to bullying and bullies have no management ability. Bullying and abuse of power is not difficult. If references were sought from those an applicant has managed and from peers and not only from those who manage an applicant, the choices of who gets the job would be very different.
If I had to pick and address one form of discrimination in HE right now, I would think racism would be a more pertinent issue to address than sexism. I think HE has focused so much on sexism (not to say that more cannot be done) but has almost completely ignored tackling racism. For example, where is the racism equivalent for Athena SWAN?
There are obvious country differences in Education systems for primary into secondary and tertiary levels. Combined with socialization practices, there emerged a conscious and unconscious sustained motivation to engage in certain behaviours in the wider society and within organizations and institutions and other workplaces. Such behaviours become increasingly manifest as healthy and humane or unhealthy and inhumane in our interactions with each other across time. If they are manifested as gender, ethnic, social class, religious, she group of occupational biases, they are often rooted in educational exposures and socialization practices in earlier years. In an organization such biased behavioral orientations may be reflected in policies, procedures and organizational priorities. On many occasions policies may state otherwise, that is, prioritize inclusiveness irrespective of gender, ethnicity, social class etc. but employee behaviour does not help with such policies. Such organizations can not make any meaningful impact of progress because they are not aware that those who are marginalized by their bosses are the ones who have the competencies to make a positive difference in the organization. Unfortunately no amount of Education or qualifications can root out such biased behaviors which come to be known as prejudice discrimination in later years.

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