a world WITH women

I’ve been re-reading Doreen Massey‘s work on Cambridge high-tech science parks (1998), ‘the workplace constructed as a highly specialised envelope of space-time’, reflecting deep rooted dualisms of gender and science.  Massey argues that these overwhelmingly male-dominated spaces reflect and provide a material basis for a particular form of masculinity; for the production of knowledge abstracted from the real world.  These spaces are part of a long lineage of what Noble calls ‘a world without women’ (1992); enclosed masculine societies such as ancient monasteries and early universities, engaged in ‘capturing … the kind of knowledge production which was to receive the highest social valuation’ (Massey 1998).

camden council 1901

Our contemporary academy shares this lineage and despite two decades of rapid change, continues to reflect key characteristics of the late 20th century Cambridge science park.  Like high-tech industry, academia is a highly competitive knowledge-based market in which employees must ‘continue to reproduce and enhance the value of their own labour power by keeping up with the literature, going to conferences, maintaining the performance of networking’ (ibid).  Marketisation, communications technology and the REF have only intensified such pressures on individual academics in the last two decades.  A long hours culture is the norm, sustained in part of course, by academics’ intrinsic interest in and commitment to their subject.

The most significant difference between the contemporary academy and its forebears is that today’s universities most definitely constitute a world with women, albeit under-represented in particular disciplinary spaces and in the higher echelons of management. However, as my current research Gender(s) At Work is revealing, little has changed in the underlying structure of the work environment. Universities and the academy in general still reflect the deeply internalised dualisms of Western thought, of reason and science as abstracted from daily life; of academic work predicated on the absence of responsibility for others and of social roles constructed masculine and feminine.

In the daily experience of working in the academy this plays out on the hostile border between work and home.  Massey’s (male) research participants rely on (female) partners to maintain the domestic sphere; some attempt to protect their home life by not taking work home or insisting on regular start and finish times each day.  For the majority of women in this world, it is a matter of negotiating the work/home boundary from a different position.  Academic women frequently combine their paid workload with overall responsibility for domestic management and care and do so in the context of instant and continuous electronic communications.  My research is revealing multiple ways which individuals occupy this highly complex territory.

My re-reading of Massey coincided with an article in THE by Joanna Read on the art of hiring female leaders.  Moving from the arts sector to the academy, Read has been shocked by the lack of progress in promoting women to senior management roles and in the lack of opportunities to perform senior management roles on a job-share and part-time basis. She identifies a need for culture change from University Board level in order to encourage greater diversity in decision-making bodies.  Throughout the organisation she argues, women should be actively encouraged to go for promotion and to take up leadership roles, not least those who may feel constrained by the ‘glass ceiling’  and those returning from maternity leave.

It’s fascinating to consider Read’s article through Massey’s ‘scipark’ lens.  Is her pragmatic solution a sign of shifting boundaries between the spheres of work and home, of recognising the incompatibility of the traditional academic identity with the reality of gendered social relations?  Or does part-time and job share leadership simply reinforce the dualism of work and home without essentially disrupting the polarised structures of those spaces themselves?

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Massey, D. (1998) ‘Blurring the binaries? High tech in Cambridge’ in R. Ainley (ed) New Frontiers of Space, Bodies and Gender, London: Routledge.
Noble, D. (1992) A World without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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Kate Carruthers Thomas

Research Fellow, writer, poet.

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