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?


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.

and the winner is … ?

The news is in and the news is good! The Equality Challenge Unit has awarded Birmingham City University an Athena SWAN* institutional Bronze Award, signifying the university’s commitment to the advancement of gender equality and an inclusive workplace culture. Success at our first application and under Athena SWAN’s expanded gender equality framework is no mean feat. As the University’s Athena SWAN Project Manager, I am delighted for the university, its staff and for all those who have worked hard towards this outcome, in whatever capacity.

Any institution that has been through the Athena SWAN process knows how much work and how many individuals are involved. In preparing the application I’ve worked with staff across the university: the Vice-Chancellor, senior management, academics, professional services, support staff, HR partners, data analysts, outreach, media relations, the unions … and more. The phrase ‘gender equality is everyone’s business’ is a cliché but happens to be true – theoretically and practically.

Prof Maxine Lintern (l) and Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas (r) Athena SWAN Chair and Project Manager respectively.

I’ve had this day in my sights since taking up the post in July 2015 and I’ll admit, it feels strange to finally reach this point. A Bronze Award is actually a beginning – of the doing rather than the saying, putting all the analysis and planning into action. But I’m taking a moment here not only to enjoy our achievement, but to reflect on why it matters.


Throughout the process, a number of individuals around the University voiced concerns that the Athena SWAN awards are simply a tick box exercise to make senior management look good; a version of what Sarah Ahmed calls institutional speech acts … which do not go beyond pluralist understandings of diversity and are non-performative in the sense that they fail to deliver what they have promised.** As a fellow sceptic, I understand colleagues’ caution, but I beg to differ. Others have labelled my work ‘politically correct’, ‘pointless’ or even ‘petty’. I beg to differ with them too!

I clearly remember starting in this role and encountering some colleagues’ genuine surprise that gender equality was still an issue – in the university, in the sector, in society in general. ‘Hasn’t that all been dealt with by legislation?’ they asked. ‘There are female VCs aren’t there?’ As ECU 2016 statistics show, progress has been glacially slow. Other colleagues squirmed a bit at the mention of ‘the g word’, or rolled their eyes, or even felt the need to tell a dodgy joke! Gender – it quickly became apparent – is something many simply don’t ‘see’; or only associate with female disadvantage (rather than male privilege) or think is something to do with maternity leave… Still others, far too many others, told me of daily, difficult, sometimes distressing experiences of sexism and discrimination in the workplace. I did a lot of listening in those first months.

In any Athena SWAN application, the data’s the thing! Not in its raw state, but analysed, reflected upon, selectively presented (NOT in pink and blue!). In working towards a Bronze Award, the quantitative data has become my friend (and I say this as a fully-paid up qualitative researcher!). Collecting all the data we needed was an arduous process. Discovering what data we don’t collect in the first place was revealing. Presenting data which incontrovertibly demonstrates the outcomes of structural, embedded, tacit, unconscious gender inequality throughout the organisation has proved shocking – and constructive. This too, is our starting point.

However, Athena SWAN is about more than data – and certainly much more than maternity leave! In requiring institutions to pay attention to their organisational culture, to intersectionality, to the gender profiles of, for example, REF submission and senior decision-making committees, Athena SWAN tackles gender and gender equality in a holistic way, acknowledging its complexity. Alongside my Athena SWAN work, I have begun a qualitative institutional research project Gender(s) at Work aimed at capturing this complexity in terms of experiences at work and career trajectories in HE for women, men and for those identifying as gender non-binary.

It’s fantastic to get a Bronze Award! Colleagues are already talking about Silver but at this moment I’m more interested in doing Bronze well. The proof of the University’s commitment to the advancement of gender equality and an inclusive workplace culture will be in our performance from this point on. I’m confident that this University has the people and the desire to make this happen.


*Athena SWAN is the national gender equality charter mark for higher education in the UK and Ireland.
**Ahmed, S., 2006. The nonperformativity of antiracism. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 7 (1), 104-126.