Irrational response

August 19, 2005

Female staff should stop filling the emotional gaps left by poor male managers, writes Mary Evans

As readers of Laurie Taylor's column in The Times Higher will know, the University of Poppleton is kept going by the hard-working Maureen. At this time of year, when job changes in universities are at a peak, Maureen is particularly busy with the cards, presents and general personal recognition exercises of the academic year.

Maureen, like secretaries and personal assistants throughout the world, is doing "emotional" labour.

The gender politics of this task have not escaped notice; Arlie Hochschild is among those who have defined and catalogued the importance of female staff working away at the personal life of institutions. The women who do this work are often junior in institutional hierarchies, and the work they do (organising and sending the get-well cards, the gifts, the flowers and so on) is, more often than not, initiated by them. A general rule would seem to be: the more senior people become, the less they are expected to concern themselves with the personal.

Hence institutional life publicly marginalises the personal, while every account of institutional life (be it university, political party or corporation) suggests that the workings of these great institutions are powered by highly "personal" and subjective judgments. Take, for example, the Conservative Party. Every diarist who has written about the Tories, from Chips Cannon to Alan Clark, attests to the fierce personal antagonisms that underpinned political judgments and choices. From "straight" male hostility about Michael Heseltine's failure to be a "good chap" to Margaret Thatcher's advanced case of Queen Bee syndrome, more or less any account of day-to-day political conduct would show how much the personal mattered.

Universities would probably claim that they are not like the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, spend a week or so in one and exactly the same refusal to acknowledge the personal and the emotional - and its underlying gendered script - would become apparent.

First, of course, it is the secretarial and junior administrative staff who carry out the institutional role of "mothering" - talking to students, explaining how things work and providing personal snapshots of more senior staff. ("She/he is really nice/can be quite difficult"). Super-mothering is usually carried out by more senior women: count the numbers of women who are senior tutors or are otherwise responsible for student welfare.

Second - and perhaps more perniciously - staff often exhibit judgments that Kingsley Amis once described as an "inverted pyramid of piss". He was referring to a character who took a bad idea then built upon it a massive superstructure of even worse ideas. This characteristic manifests itself in the making of judgments - based entirely on the personal - that cannot disclose or acknowledge the personal.

The "bad" idea is the idea that is the quasi-rational substitute for the personal. This is where Maureen comes in yet again, for it is Maureen who points out that X cannot do his or her job because he or she is coping with non-paid work problems; it is Maureen who points out that X has argued passionately for a particular course of action because it deeply affects that person's interests; and it is Maureen who knows that X is never going to do/write/agree to whatever is suggested because they are on holiday that week or they hate the person who suggested it. Maureen does not have to make up the "bad" idea because she knows the real reason.

The above are instances - fictional and otherwise - of how failure to recognise the personal and the emotional prevents us from knowing ourselves. (On this point, of course, a long tradition of theorists from Locke to Freud have had something to say.) But the point about the gender of the organisation of emotional work is that we put in place and accept structures that not only divorce emotional work from "real" knowledge but encourage the continuation of identifying the personal with the powerless.

For as long as Maureen collects money for leaving presents, we allow the more powerful to continue the fiction (challenged by numerous biographical and autobiographical accounts) that they act only for "rational" reasons.

It is therefore to be hoped that Maureen will throw away the collection tin for presents and cards. The impact on the social relations of work might well be considerable.

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies at Kent University.

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