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.

glassed and gendered

Setting the scene for a new, interactive cartoon series: the glassed and gendered (HE) workplace…

The view from my post-1992 desk has changed utterly in 18 months, the sky now confined to a small corner, elbowed out by multi-story contemporary student learning and living spaces.  ‘Universities, ever more on edge about their performance in the National Student Survey and league tables, have responded by investing heavily in “student friendly” facilities (Scott 2015).  Glass features prominently.  Glass walls, windows and roofs, letting the light in, transparent, reflective …

Glass features too, if metaphorically, in the literature on gender and the workplace.  There’s the glass ceiling constraining women’s career progression (compounded by the sticky floor); the phenomenon of the glass cliff – describing the greater likelihood of women being put in leadership roles when the chance of failure is highest;  the glass escalator on which male staff ascend organisational hierarchies more speedily and smoothly than their female counterparts and the glass closet – in which John (Lord) Browne spent the majority of his otherwise successful corporate career.

So not just HE.  But the existence of this ‘hidden’ structural furniture contradicts those glass walled commons and spaces.  Starting this weekend, I’ll be introducing you to four inhabitants of our glassed and gendered HE workplaces – and asking you to send me your experiences to inform a new series of cartoons.

 

 

 

in olden days…?

I recently attended a friend’s wedding ceremony held in the Council Chamber of Camden Town Hall in London.  Milling about as official photos were taken, I noticed a black and white print hanging on the wall, featuring the Council members of 1901.  Given that this was pre-suffragettes, equal opps and @everydaysexism, it’s hardly unsurprising that every single one was male (and White).

camden council 1901

Far more surprising – shocking actually – are the contemporary instances  of all male ‘representative’ gatherings making significant decisions on issues impacting women.  The Donald reinstating the Mexico City Policy removing US funding to any overseas organisation that offers abortions, witnessed by his team of (male, white) close advisors (23 January 2017).  The Northern Powerhouse Conference leaflet which featured precisely 0 female keynotes (not to mention the programme which featured 13 female speakers out of a total of 98).  Extreme examples of male dominated fora?  Or public examples of a stubbornly enduring commonplace?

the real me

I’m not a big fan of Radio 4’s @BBCWomansHour.  I’m definitely not a fan of Jenni Murray’s often condescending and sometimes hectoring tone and I’ll admit I was ready to completely disagree with her Sunday Times article on trans women, published to mild outrage a couple of weeks ago.  In fact, I think it’s a thoughtful piece, well argued in places.  I even agree with some of it!

What I absolutely disagree with is Murray’s use of the phrase ‘real woman’.  For Murray a ‘real’ woman is an individual born with female sex characteristics who grows to be a woman and experiences a lifetime of pressure to become the socially constructed idea of what a woman should be.  So what’s not to like?  I fall into Murray’s ‘real’ category – but also into (self-defined) categories of Tomboy 50+, Dress Free, Make-up Free, Childfree … the list goes on.  Am I still real Jenni?

Sometimes I doubt it when I get shocked expressions from other women when I walk into the Ladies (roll on gender neutral toilets!).  Once a woman actually screamed!  Another time I had to get my breasts out to convince a woman in Bath that I was entitled to be there. I may be a real woman but TERFs please note, not all women-only spaces feel safe to all women ‘real’ or otherwise.

The thing is Jenni, we’re all real and we are all, depending on context, other.  It’s too easy to resort to media shorthand and throw contested terms like ‘real’ around, just like those  throwaway Women’s Hour lines such as ‘We all love a new lipstick don’t we!’. (No).  The the fierce defence of territory, of building walls (!) around identity rather than facing up to its fluid realities, is one reason prejudice and inequalities remain so intractable.

love thy neighbour?

Commuting is always a trial of sorts.  Seat reservations and noise cancelling headphones provide some comfort, but minor irritations quickly accumulate: the person talking blithely on their phone in their outdoor voice; the person eating a stinking burger,; the wrong kind of leaves/snow/wind … This week I encountered a new commuting challenge: sitting next to a besuited, late middle-aged man surfing soft porn on his phone.  I tried to focus on my work and avoid catching sight of repetitive shots of young women in so called ‘erotic’ poses. To be fair, my neighbour made an (ineffective) attempt to shield the screen from time to time, but the LED glow and something about his rapt intensity was distracting.  I wondered whether he did this every night on his train home; whether there was anyone at home; whether they knew or minded what he did: whether I would do something similar in a public place … ?  And more.  Did I feel objectified?  Theoretically yes, but in the same resigned kind of way as when walking past giant billboards of women in underwear or watching X-rated music videos at the gym.  Did I feel angry?  Mainly awkward – and I felt sad for those young women in their ridiculous poses.  We reached his stop and as he got up to leave, my neighbour politely apologised for disturbing me.  Indeed…  I found myself smiling politely back as I let him pass.