Tag Archives: feminist academics

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.


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.


A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U

Liz Morrish replies to a feminist colleague’s letter of resignation. 

I was very sorry to read your letter of resignation. I was, though, delighted that you decided to circulate it among colleagues at NeoLiberal U, along with an article, rapidly becoming a classic, if my Twitter feed is any predictor, by Mountz et al in the Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective, offering a manifesto for a slower pace of academic life. This is what you have not found at NLU, and you weren’t prepared to go on sacrificing the possibility of intellectual creativity, family life and personal space forever. Sometimes principles have to be lived by, because that’s the right thing to do. NLU doesn’t seem to have any other principle than to ‘maximize the staffing resource and leverage the maximum from the academic contract’ (I paraphrase).

It has been a long time since we sat down and discussed all this. That is just your point, though. In the speeded up university, with its distorted constructions of academic ‘productivity’, schedules are crafted to eliminate the necessary practices of caretaking. In my field of work, this is known as ‘relational practice’, and in its most benign form, it is attributed to women. I haven’t been doing much relational practice recently, and have been contemplating this neglect during a period of sabbatical. There is a tendency at work to hole up in offices, and scurry past colleagues you know to be in need of support. It is emails like yours that make me aware of how many of us inhabit the same private hell of alienation, shame, stress and guilt.

All of this is well documented in the Mountz piece, and by Ros Gill, Maggie O’Neill, Mary Evans, Kathleen Lynch, Bronwyn Davies and Eva Bendix-Petersen, Priyamvada Gopal and many others. The critiques of audit culture are mounting, but not as fast as the university ratchets up its demands for ‘accountability’. You found it impossible to prepare and teach new modules each year, do good research, cope with constant change and restructuring, and still be told that you are not working hard enough. I agree, it is uncongenial and it is abusive. As new ‘benchmarks’ for 3* and 4* ‘outputs’ are set by managers who seem oblivious to the demands of our profession, you looked ahead and found the future unsustainable. Sadly, you are not the first, or the last. We have let many hugely talented, capable, and caring, women slip out of the academy without an attempt to address the issues which prompt their departures. It is truly a care-less institution. There is official denial that there is a problem with staff retention, and to frame it in HR terms, your significance must be set against the importance of ‘the role’. There is only ‘the role’; you were merely the temporary place holder. And as you point out, there will soon be some newly-minted PhD who will be prepared to work the 60-70 hours a week necessary to fulfill ‘the role’. In the end, you had the strength and integrity to realise that academic freedom cannot survive in the hot-house culture of perpetual surveillance and ‘kaisan’ that has become the way of life at NLU. What you have observed – a system that stifles intellectual endeavor as much as it considers itself productive and dynamic – is termed ‘acanemia’. It disguises its damage by pretending that its individual parts are malfunctioning. You have correctly diagnosed the system as being sick. This has not prevented you from being harmed however, by what Ros Gill has called the ‘hidden injuries’ of higher education.

I wonder what was the last straw? The broken promises on workload equity and research time? The shifting goal posts for promotion? The time wasted on pointless change? The lack of collegiality? The authoritarianism which ruptured the working relationships you had developed? Or was it the growing awareness that immediate managers have as little power to improve your conditions as you do?

Given the totalizing reach of the in-corporat-ion, I am pleased to see you refusing to allow yourself to be judged by those absurd binaries and exclusions which govern our working environment. The ‘performance reviews’ which consider only the visible and measurable workstreams. And the monetizable, of course. Research active status will now be a designation earned only by a new, homogenous and care-less elite. It will not be allowed for the slow, careful writer who wishes to do scrupulous and yes, pleasurable work. In this obscene inversion of academic values, such a person may well be subject to the discipline of ‘capability procedures’ if we read the strategic plan. For capability now equals not scrupulosity of process, but speed and quantity of ‘outputs’, possibly augmented by the requisite citations and H-index. This is a world of multiple Neoliberal Us which have decided to eat their young. We have lost a good dozen in the last few years. Those former colleagues are now beyond the reach of REF, NSS, QAA, PDR and a whole host of officious, soul-sapping bureaucracy. Now that you are leaving, those others among us who critique the regimes of performance management, surveillance and ‘output measures’ are a little more isolated. It is affirming to hear similar perspectives from younger voices which discount managerial narratives of entrenched positions quarantined among peevish golden agers.

I’m sure, given the opportunity you deserve, that you would have ascended the ladder and made it all the way to professor. But, this accolade, too, has been reformulated to reflect an institution which never reaches its goals. No process is ever allowed to reach fulfillment, and so it is with academic careers. You thought you had arrived? Think again! The collective vice-chancellors of the UK seem determined to declare the area a professor-free zone, as one after the other, universities have declared war on their professors Taking your bow after an inaugural lecture is your first step into a new precariat. It can only be a matter of time before HR departments are instructed to replicate that strategic insecurity among the rank and file academic staff.

So get out and stay out of academia would be my advice. It is unlikely to get better. Three years from now, big data will see us all reduced to just a blinking light on a faculty ‘dashboard’. But I would like to thank you for your work. I’d like to thank you for not just turning your back and leaving silently. Thank you for calling out the insanity, and refusing to submit to false definitions and measures. You leave with the admiration of your colleagues, which to me, is the only prize still worth having.