Too bad, 'good girl'

July 22, 2005

Our increasingly feminised culture ought to help women succeed but it doesn't, argues Mary Evans

When footballer Paul Gascoigne famously burst into tears on the pitch, he had no idea that he would become part of the "feminisation" of culture. And after the nation's grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the case for feminisation appeared closed: we had all become emotionally sensitive and not just willing but determined to show our feelings in public.

But another aspect of feminisation is less generally recognised - namely the way in which the audit culture of higher education encourages the replication of those patterns of conformity and conventionality that are also an aspect of femininity, patterns long associated with the "good girls" of the social world.

Good girls are neat and tidy, they hand in their work on time, they complete given assignments and they respond positively and with good grace to the authority of their seniors. If this description rings any bells, it is probably because it typifies the kind of academic preferred by the Quality Assurance Agency and the research assessment exercise.

The academy, as we all know, remains deeply divided along gender lines. The system takes in equal numbers of women and men (albeit to rather different subjects), but then awards more first-class degrees to men and employs more men in tenured and senior academic positions. So far, so completely traditional. What is less traditional is the way in which the audit culture intersects with expectations and assumptions of masculinity and femininity.

Arguably, this culture uses a deeply gendered template about acceptable behaviour in a way that privileges not the gender from which this template is drawn (good girls/women) but rather the people who are more powerful (men).

Since female academics still operate in a world that is not theirs, the pressure on women to conform to the good-girl model - tick all the boxes and fill in all the forms - is considerable. It may be 2005, but most university graduation processions still look like those in Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas - published in 1938. Add the token female writer/actor and the pattern of order and authority remains unbroken.

If universities collectively took the view that good-girl behaviour was the road to seniority and reward, then statistics on the number of female professors and full-time rather than part-time staff would look rather different. But, of course, they do not. Universities reward what is perceived to be originality, creativity and the ability to shift if not mountains of work, then at least mountains of paradigms. The worst excesses of cultivated eccentricity may have disappeared from British universities in the past 30 years, but what has not disappeared is the complex relationship between academic authority and gender.

In the present climate of the energetic monitoring of academic behaviour, the system creates the expectation that each individual will meet targets and accept compliance with imposed regulatory practices. The wonderful phrase of Lucien Goldmann - "homologous structures" (similarities in the structure of ideas) - allows us to pursue the idea that those most likely to follow the apparent public expectations of good-girl behaviour are those most familiar with its practices, namely women.

Equally, those same individuals are the more likely to lose by following these precepts because behind the committee room doors traditional judgments - about the value of the exceptional rather than mandatory contributions - are being made. So no promotion for good behaviour (or indeed for teaching or worrying about the students). The time spent completing the forms and fretting about writing the right article for the right journal is lost with all other private pathologies of order.

Part of Woolf's argument in Three Guineas is that women should be able to refuse to comply with structures that are complicit in the furtherance of inequality: the same argument remains relevant today. For women, the pursuit of acceptance in the public world through conformity to it has often been taken for granted.

Today, we can detect norms that expect emotional literacy from men (so men can do both masculinity and femininity), but we are much more ambivalent about masculinity in women. We are still uneasy with women who refuse to be good girls.

This leaves women perversely disadvantaged in a culture that apparently values feminine attributes. If audit is supposed to make the world fair, it is all too easy to conclude that if women do not excel in that world, they themselves are to blame.

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

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