Gender and performance in the neoliberal academy

In my previous blog post, for ‘A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U’ I was responding to some of the concerns that a colleague had raised, in her letter of resignation, about her gendered experience of the neoliberal, competitive, speeded up academy. My colleague is the mother of young children, and has found the multiple demands of teaching, research and administration overwhelming, especially in a context of institutional panic about the REF and league tables, and escalating expectations of ‘excellence’. Below I offer more thoughts on the particular impact of the culture of restlessness on women in universities, as this seems to have touched a nerve among readers on the blog and on Twitter.

In the UK, performance review and REF submission loom large as ‘drivers’ of academic anxieties. In the US, tenure and promotion take their toll, especially on women, who may face domestic as well as professional expectations. This is a reflection written by a female US academic about her upcoming mid-tenure review:

For some of us, it’s not that we are afraid to lean in. It’s that we have jumped in head first and are barely treading water even when we are considered “successful.” It’s not that my success has come at the expense of family or that my career advancement has been stifled by raising a family. It’s that my success in academe is simply not the kind of success that I envisioned myself. Success should feel good, make you beam with pride, feel as if all your hard work was worthy of something bigger. I envisioned, and frankly deserve, a type of success in which the next panic attack isn’t just around the corner and in which supportive spouses don’t feel like they must resort to ultimatums to cultivate a meaningful family life. (Sangaramoorthy, 2015)

As this example shows, it is important to recognize the differently gendered effects of the neoliberal preoccupations with competitiveness, efficiency and increasing productivity. Without wanting to appear essentialist about the particularities of the effects, we need to take into account the realities of many women’s lives. Lynch (2010) and Evans (2010) both refer to the ‘careless’ university which only rewards ‘careless’ employees. It is your bad luck if you have caring responsibilities which limit the time you can devote to ‘productive’ work.  Shame on you if you wish to mentor a younger colleague, and overlook a publication deadline. Capability procedures for you, if you happen to lose the lottery of research grant ‘capture’. Women, writes Evans, must be prepared to perform according to the metrics of success that have been derived according to norms of masculine lives.

So far, I haven’t even addressed the extent of the extra imposition faced by women of color. As well as acting as role models and sources of counselling and affirmation for students of color, institutions often burden such faculty members with promoting and building diversity. These assignments soak up time, and expectations of published outputs are rarely adjusted accordingly.

And these are the good institutions that claim to care about diversity. For the most part, it is barely acknowledged except in the form of an Equality and Diversity department, there to ensure legal compliance and statistical monitoring. There is no intervention against the compulsory conformity, the inscriptions applied by racist structures on bodies seen as different – these all belie institutional claims and commitments to diversity. I have borne witness to the exclusion of several black women colleagues: their careers casually thwarted by neglect; their unique contribution to the student body forestalled.

For all of us there is a common theme. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the managerial regime in the form of performance management reviews, teaching evaluations, student satisfactions surveys, research excellence frameworks. Failure to enter into the discourse results in illocutionary silencing, since one has become literally unintelligible to the managerial mind.  By locating critique outside the range of the sayable, our resistance is blunted (Davies and Bendix-Petersen, 2005: 85). The discourse of audit, as Strathern (2000) explains, is often about ‘helping’ people to monitor themselves, and indeed, Gay Tuchmann (2009) has said that we do this as reflexively as a diabetic pricks her finger.

What I found so rare in my colleague’s letter of resignation is that, even at a point of desperation, she has somehow found the reserves of self-worth to think her way outside of this. There is a peculiar force field to audit culture and the rituals of verification (Power 1999) that go with it. Regimes of performance management formalize these to the extent that our whole academic identity has been re-shaped by a series of managerially-imposed criteria, which for many of us, are simply incongruous with academic values and aspirations.

The response to my blog post on Twitter was heartwarming. I feel encouraged. I have no idea how my colleague is feeling, but I’m guessing there is a poignant sense of a supportive community, though intangible, invisible and located somehow out of reach. This is the clandestine academy that Thomas Docherty has written about. There is an urgency, as I will argue in my next piece, for making our views known to management – to resist the discourse one performance indicator, driver and dashboard at a time.

References

Davies, B. & Bendix Peterson, E. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Docherty, T. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. 10th November 2011. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/418076.article

Evans, M. 2010. Coercion and consensus in higher education. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 39-54.

Lynch, K. 2010. Neoliberalism and marketization: the implications for higher education. European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17.

Misra, J. and Lundquist, J. 2015. Diversity and the ivory ceiling. Inside Higher Ed, June 26th.  https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/06/26/essay-diversity-issues-and-midcareer-faculty-members  Accessed 3rd July 2015.

Sangaramoorthy, T. 2015. A hockey mom seeks tenure. Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Hockey-Mom-Seeks-Tenure/229193/

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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