The macho world of academia

October 5, 2001

Are women in universities being sidelined by the 'new academic order'? asks Richard Collier.

In today's marketised world, university education is seen as an industry, increasingly preoccupied with economic rationalism, efficiency and income generation. The student is now the demanding "consumer" of the new knowledge services provided by the (new) academic. This is changing how many people view the university mission. It is also changing the conditions in which people work - and these are playing out in some very different ways for men and women.

A rich body of research, including the latest figures from Natfhe, suggests that many features of university life, not least in relation to the allocation of tasks, academic pay and promotion, have long been gendered. Men continue to dominate senior positions in UK universities and, for many female academics across the sector, there is a perception that, notwithstanding "cat-flaps in the glass ceiling", the ceiling remains. But the recent structural changes are themselves transforming the gender debate, says a forthcoming book, Gendered Universities in Globalised Economies .

The dominant managerial ethos in the university sector is perceived by some as being distinctly "masculine" in several respects. It is marked by a top-down, hierarchical management structure that erodes collegiality, fosters insecurity, resists dialogue and is singularly lacking in empathy.

Second, and crucially, in the "new academic order" it is women who are seen as most threatened by the changing nature of university life. As the making of a successful academic career increasingly entails long hours, travel, extensive publication, networking and an at-times aggressive self-promotion, the resulting time bind means that family work needs to be minimised.

It is also argued that it is predominantly women who are called on to negotiate the "double shift" of balancing academic commitments and "private lives". Men are seen as being accommodated by the new cultures of the business-like universities in ways that women are not.

It is true that some women do balance work and family commitments and rise to the top. The authors of Gendered Universities suggest, however, that many women, and men too, find the burdens of academic work and family life increasingly unsustainable.

Although all universities make public declarations about equal opportunities, an emerging body of scholarship suggests that discriminatory practices can be more subtle and invidious than they might first appear.

If the university of the not-too-distant past was dominated by the cultures of paternalistic masculinities, that of the 21st century appears marked more by new entrepreneurial masculinities. The present emotional economy of university life is one that has resulted in more concern across the academic community about work/life imbalance, long hours, health, unsympathetic management and the sacrifice of family in pursuit of career - each of which continues to be gendered.

There is a strong argument to be made for the need for and inevitability of reform of practices and structures across many UK universities. It would, however, be most unfortunate if at the very moment when both the private sector and the government are seeking to take work/life issues seriously, and when a growing number of young women and men declare their expectation that they will, in their future employment, seek a balance between their home and working lives, universities were to be insensitive to the issues of gender equity arising from this change.

Richard Collier is professor of law at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Gendered Universities in Globalised Economies , by Jan Currie et al , will be published by Lexington Books.

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