Selina Todd of The Guardian delves deep into academia and the current eco system which see’s roadblocks at all levels of employment for females.
Two facts of academic life: the students get younger each year, and the criteria of university promotion panels grow more fantastic. I’m in the midst of writing references for colleagues applying for professorships at several British universities, every one of which requires its chairs to be “global leaders”. My references won’t just make a difference to these colleagues’ applications but also to their pay – for most universities negotiate professorial salaries individually.
As I began writing this year’s round of references, the gender pay gap among UK professors hit the headlines. I’m not surprised. Women are less likely to be recognised as “global leaders” by our male colleagues, so less likely to get promotion – and likely to be paid less than men if we are promoted. Employers’ scant regard for women’s childcare responsibilities doesn’t help, but the sexism is more widespread.
I recently sat on a panel responsible for allocating a prestigious academic award – a scholastic honour that would boost any appointee’s CV and help any application for promotion or a new job. As the only woman in the room, I was struck that the male members of the committee had come up with about 20 names, of whom a handful were women – despite this being a field in which at least 60% of academics are female.
All the women nominated had been professors for a considerable length of time, but some of the men had yet to attain that rank and had a sparser research record. When I asked what the formal selection criteria were, I was told there weren’t any – though those ambiguous terms “brilliance” and “potential” were bandied around a lot.
We’re told that women need to be bolder about self-promotion, but that depends on having support from our colleagues, which isn’t often forthcoming. Women are less likely to apply for external research funding – another criterion for promotion and job hire – than men. But as a study of research councils in 2000 showed, that’s because of their “status in their institution and the support they receive”.
But the bigger story is behind these headlines. We women professors are the privileged few – just 20% of UK professors are female – and the gender pay gap is larger in the profession as a whole than among the professoriat. For the reasons why, let’s consider the University of Essex – recently applauded in the media when its vice-chancellor, Anthony Forster, announced a one-off pay hike for female professors to bring them into line with male colleagues.
But Marina Warner recently resigned from her Essex professorship in protest at the neoliberal management style peddled by Forster and others. She pointed to an intensified workload and a denigration of the humanities, whose scholars have a nasty habit of teaching students to question the neoliberal orthodoxy of their university managers.
The people this hits hardest are women. As this week’s university strikes highlight, the “typical” university worker is not a highly paid professor, nor a lecturer on his way to getting a chair. She is a low paid woman on a temporary contract. We need to recognise this if we are to narrow the gender pay gap and to be realistic about the bigger transformation higher education requires if it is to be a healthy workplace, provide a rich education to students and benefit society.
Universities do not depend on “global leaders” in self-promotion. They rely on low-paid women working collaboratively with other tutors and students, and reading widely, in order to deliver imaginative teaching and mop up administrative tasks as well. Ironically, the qualities in which they excel, so very different from the competitiveness demanded of the aspirant professor, are essential if research is to thrive – but these women cannot be active researchers without working intolerable hours.
As a recent collaboration between feminist geographers argued, “good scholarship requires time to think, write, read, research … and resist the growing administrative and professional demands that disrupt these crucial processes of intellectual growth and personal freedom” – and such resistance can only come from collective action that busts the myth that academic workloads are manageable, calls for well-paid admin staff, and demands secure academic contracts. Now that’s the kind of global leadership I want.
(Article first appeared in The Guardian)