Blog confidential: Insistence and resistance

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Insistence and resistance

August 19, 2010

Like your correspondent last week, I too have a problem related to clearing and staffing, but "in reverse" so to speak. I am a new academic lead. Because I am short of staff, I have had to be very direct with one member of staff.

I am too busy to do clearing myself. So I had to insist that it be done by the only person who had not booked any leave this summer - a very strident female academic who is aggressive and lacks any sense of fairness outside her own world. Although I am new to this role, I understand that she almost always contrives to book annual leave and "self-managed time" over the summer - and thus to obtain almost six weeks away.

Although she has never volunteered for clearing, she has been willing to contribute during staff shortages. However, there is nothing exemplary in her day-to-day work - indeed, she previously secured "self-managed time" to work on a publication, now well overdue, that was supposed to help her win more research grants.

When I insisted that she do clearing, she claimed that I had "selected" her because she is a feminist! Fortunately, I have a dean who supported me. Now I fear that as she is upset, she may make a grievance against me and offer as evidence some jokes I have made about her lack of humour and abrasive manner.

I worry about being tarnished by such an action, especially when I believe they are usually deployed by people who wish to deflect attention from their own shortcomings.

Clearing this year promises to be a very quiet affair, but I think your letter betrays poor management skills and a lack of planning on your part.

A good manager plans in advance so that necessary tasks are done and the burden shared equally. She or he also defuses rather than creates tensions and deals with individuals in a way that does not attack their professionalism - appraisals, departmental meetings and the like are the place for this. The situation you describe reveals a lack of proactive managerial intervention and indistinct roles.

Rather more disturbingly, I also note some tactless behaviour on your part: comments such as "very strident female academic who is aggressive and lacks any sense of fairness outside her own world" and "some jokes I have made about her lack of humour and abrasive manner" imply to me that you have the problem. Would you make similar jokes about a member of staff who was "serious" about anti-racist issues or about the discriminatory challenges facing individuals with a disability? I doubt it. As a feminist myself, I think you need to reflect on your masculinity and how strong and confident women seem to threaten it and make you anxious.

Your situation shows that you need to think about planning, managerial structures and gender complexities. As to your present dilemma, I am unequivocal: you should stand in and do clearing, then work to improve formal departmental structures. Read The One Minute Manager, get a grip on your role and address what seems like insecurity about feminism.

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