Lean in? Leaning out could improve early career academics’ lot

Shahidha Bari on Sheryl Sandberg, sex discrimination and university exploitation

March 3, 2016
Illustration of a woman leaning against a pile of books
Source: Assa Ariyoshi

I cannot profess to being one of life’s great rule-breakers. The worst thing I ever did at school was to race along a stretch of empty corridor when no one was looking. Even that wasn’t exactly a glorious moment of delinquency, since I was swiftly collared by the headmaster. (Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I had, in fact, caught him, loping out for a crafty cigarette, and certainly his heart wasn’t in it when he mildly reproached me and then dispatched me with a fond pat on the head.)

I was never the type to graffiti the lavatory walls or leave the lids off felt-tip pens. I never hopped on the bus into town and bunked off economics. Mine was a youth obediently and bookishly spent, not misspent. These days, when my partner – one of those cheerful teenage tearaways who safely made it to adulthood by sheer dumb luck – casually regales me with tales of setting barns alight and securing a pint at the King’s Head (armed only with pocket money, a sprinkling of facial hair and chutzpah), I never think that I missed out on much. I never wanted to break rules for rule-breaking’s sake and, like many academic types, I genuinely believed that if I worked hard enough, then good things would come to me. The older I become, the more I doubt that.

In social affairs journalist Dawn Foster’s provocative new book, Lean Out, published in January, the idea that the dedicated and hard-working can inherit the earth seems a laughable delusion. The book is a slender but vigorous treatise, and it makes for a trenchant riposte to the platitudes of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s unfailingly chirpy Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The cover image of Lean Out – a marigold-gloved hand with middle finger raised – suggests something of Foster’s contempt for Sandberg’s brand of self-congratulatory corporate feminism, which extols the virtues of commitment to business and suggests that success for women could come easily if only they would go the extra mile/were confident/worked additional hours/replied to emails the day after giving birth (as Sandberg herself seems to have done).

The associated Lean In website offers 10 hazy tips for graduates, the first of which is “proceed and be bold”. Foster is quick to point out how such banal mantras seem exclusively to address a narrow professional class of women, downplaying systemic gender bias and refusing to acknowledge the deep structure of social inequality. She notes too, not without mischief, that Amazon’s Kindle eBook platform lists Sandberg’s book as among those least likely to be finished by readers. To fulfil your dreams you need to lean in, but you don’t have to read the damn book.

All of this makes for a robust critique, and it’s hard for any conscientious person not to nod indignantly along about issues such as maternity leave, unequal pay and zero hours. Its conclusion is both inevitable and startling: that women should “lean out”, and refuse to work in the hostile conditions of the modern workplace. If January and February were anything to go by – with junior doctors striking over new contracts that allegedly curb pay for unsociable hours and lift restrictions on the number of hours worked – then 2016 could well be the great year of leaning out.

In that context, the ongoing University and College Union campaign about the precarious situation of employees on casualised teaching contracts is not simply a parochial matter but recognisably part of the resistance to a wider culture of workplace exploitation. The figures provided by the UCU are staggering and worth circulating widely. They reveal that 46 per cent of universities use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching, and that 68 per cent of research staff are on fixed-term contracts, with “many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment”. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, told a parliamentary committee in December that there are about 200,000 teaching‑only contracts across the sector. Of those, about half are fixed‑term, some based on an hourly rate, some termly and others atypical. That 50 per cent stands in stark contrast to the figure of 3 per cent for the whole British economy, recorded by the Office for National Statistics.

In this context, the idea that universities might cast themselves as benevolent and sympathetic sorts of employers seems as absurd as any Sandbergian mantra. When asked, on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, about the advice she would give to young women, the late historian Lisa Jardine declared impishly: “Behave badly!” But behaving badly is a luxury ill afforded by those in precarious work situations, without the safety net of property or independent wealth.

These days, I only run down corridors to get to the next seminar room in time. As I do, I catch glimpses of the dozens of colleagues on temporary lectureships and teaching-assistant contracts, with their meticulously prepared handouts and class plans. These are the people who volunteer for committees and reading groups, and organise the additional trips and film screenings that give my otherwise leaden modules life. They are all desperately leaning in to a profession that exploits their goodwill and promises them nothing beyond their current contract. And I wonder whether we shouldn’t be leaning out all the way to support them.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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