Tara Brabazon: Let’s hear it for the women

It’s time men recognised the powerful relationships and allegiances between administrative and academic women and how much academe depends on their contributions

October 9, 2008

Working as a female academic is like being a proctologist with depth perception problems. We can do the job but many people are made pretty uncomfortable when we do.

Few female vice-chancellors and professors walk our university corridors. How we manage this information in our daily lives is important. Too often, I look searchingly into a coffee cup, shake my head at the sexism of contemporary life and then switch on Strictly Come Dancing. But in recent weeks, I have watched my institutional environment more closely rather than tittering through television.

Like most of us trapped in the frantic hurricane of the fortnight before the new semester, I have been running between buildings, sending enough emails to melt down Microsoft’s corporate headquarters and begging for information/help/support/assistance/a favour/divine intervention/a miracle from just about every department in the university. On every occasion in the past two weeks those favours have been asked of women, and each time they have said yes.

Their generosity and kindness have made a difference to staff and students. But such encounters show that the invisibility of women in academic life depends on our perspective. I have relied so heavily on the goodwill of the marketing and admissions departments, along with endless requests from the library and print room, that they have the right to instigate a restraining order. They justifiably groan every time they see me.

These women and thousands like them are the metaphoric bra of universities, holding up institutions, lifting them when they require support and making them pleasant to view. That last role explains why so many remarkable women are buried in our marketing, admissions and registry departments, providing “the face” for universities.

But when we enter the institutional brain of research meetings, women drain from participation. Earnest, serious, “mature” men gather to discuss, with gravity and a monotone, the innovations and developments in their scholarship. Yet when walking through university open-plan offices there is not a man to be seen.

So many extraordinary women seem barred from the gated community of senior management. But there are reasons for this exclusion.

Women rarely think about being a female academic or female administrator. We are simply an academic or an administrator. We see the world with our eyes, not our genitals. The problem is that – for the men around us – the female frock in our identity closet is the most important in shaping their relationship with us. As we move through committees of charcoal grey suits, red ties and shiny shoes, it is like entering a foreign country. Women are visible and we behave differently.

When tracking women’s role in university life, there is always an “and” to add to a seemingly complete job description. Men can be researchers, full stop. Any other function beyond that designation is surplus to requirements.

But women must teach and research and market and run orientation programmes. There is clearing and admissions. This “and” culture hurts women. Men are much better at creating life’s full stops, rather than adding another subordinate clause.

An academic friend of mine encapsulated this difference. I asked when I could send out his study guides and readers to students. He replied that “they have to be photocopied.” I replied, naively perhaps: “When do you think you’ll do that?” Without missing a beat he said he would ask our course administrator because she would have to do it.

Pause.

I thought about the extraordinary work this woman had completed for staff throughout the summer. I could not burden her with even more work so – you guessed it – I photocopied the course materials. The next day, a female academic for the same course finished her study guide. I knew she had finished it because she told me about it while standing at the photocopier generating the documents for students.

Being a female academic or administrator is about managing this “and” existence. Through all the success we may experience there is always one more job, task or goal necessary for that promotion to principal lecturer or office manager.

In Australia, this subtle undermining of women’s work takes on a more vehicular turn of phrase. Women may cook, clean, earn money, pay bills and arrive at the office looking slightly better than a mop with lipstick.

But a bloke assessing our occupational effectiveness always seems to find fault: “Well, Jayne, you seem to be balancing work and family commitments. Your health and safety certificates are up to date. It is good to see you’ve finished the Vista and PhotoShop training. Thanks for fixing the photocopier the other day before the technician arrived.

“But we will need to see a bit more effort and commitment from you. You need to be more of a team player. Can you reverse a trailer? What about a caravan? How is your parallel parking?”

I am challenged when reversing the shopping trolley, let alone an object with wonky brake lights. But there are two questions we need to ask – with honesty – in our organisations in response to managerial probes of women’s commitment and career development. What type of women’s work is valued in our universities? How much of this work is not even noticed?

The question is what we can do about this university culture of women’s “and” rather than men’s “or”. Put another way, too often women eat the cake before demolishing the icing. That is our problem. We should eat the icing and throw away the cake. Or we could just make icing and avoid any form of baking as a protest against Jamie Oliver being given another evangelical cooking programme.

My metaphor is not accidental. Cakes and food matter to women at the moment. Food triggers new fundamentalisms about bodies, diet and nutrition and is implicated in any discussion of women’s power and identity.

At the moment, our workplaces want small women to operate from the shadows, barely filling out clothes let alone the offices with a view of more than a car park and a skip.

It is always important to remember when listening to a nutritionist pretending they are a calorific messiah that even skinny women die. Even if the superfoods and free radicals (which I used to think meant Trotskyites who had splintered from their collective) are regularly featured in our menu, there will be a moment when all of us will meet our maker, or at least the woman who makes his appointments.

Like most women who grew up after the excitement of feminism’s second wave, my relationship with the movement will always be ambivalent and complex. My understanding of femininity owes more to Julie Burchill than Germaine Greer.

My understanding of sexuality owes more to the Pet Shop Boys than Janis Joplin. But we will never have women filling our university’s chancellery suites, let alone Parliament, if we cannot fill out our own bodies.

For men, the bigger the ego – the smaller the coffee. For women, the smaller the ego, the more minuscule the body that carries it. But feminism operates at its best when it connects consciousness and corporeality, mind and body. Control over calories is not a replacement for leadership in our lives.

The brilliant Henry Jenkins once remarked with his usual flourish: “The lifestyle of a male academic is not that compelling or interesting to anyone other than male academics.” That maxim is as true for women as for men.

Academics live a gilded life and have the daily privilege of mixing with intelligent, ambitious and creative people. But when we recognise the powerful relationships and allegiances between administrative and academic women, we start to understand the compelling and inspiring stories that few hear but more need to know.

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