When Theresa May became the UK’s second female Prime Minister in June this year, the British press deliberated whether this was evidence of the glass ceiling being smashed at last, with Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel held up as other examples of women ‘rising to the top’. Given the ongoing, systemic (and for some women, worsening) gender inequality in the labour market, we should not be celebrating just yet. Academia is no exception. The Equality Challenge Unit reports that only around 22% of UK professors are female, and less than 2% are Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women. We know that women are paid less than men in academia, and are more likely to be on casual contracts. Class matters here too – and so does sexuality, disability, and age.
The challenges and pressures that the ‘neoliberal university’ unleashes have merited much debate among academics as we try to navigate and contest the marketization of higher education, of pervasive metrics and accountability cultures, of the exploitative casualization of academic labour, of ‘fast academia’. What Ros Gill (2009) refers to as the ‘toxic conditions’ of academia are not only unpicked within critical scholarship but are increasingly registered in online spaces – from anonymous blogs to more tongue-in-check memes – which appear to position contemporary higher education as the real-life equivalent of the HBO series Game of Thrones. Alongside, and within these important discussions. we cannot lose sight of the uneven power relations and processes of in/exclusion at work. We formed The Res-Sisters in the spirit of research, resistance and sisterhood to join other voices to interrogate our roles as academics and how we can ‘do academia’ differently.
The game of contemporary academia requires enterprising, productive and competitive subjects, whose research – and likely soon teaching – must be excellent (as Angela McRobbie has noted, there is little space to be anything other than exceptional, or simply for a ‘good job well done’). Some are more able to play the game than others, but it is in the very nature of the smoke-and-mirrors of neoliberalism that structural inequalities are hidden from view. We were starkly reminded of this when a publisher approached us to discuss our paper on gender inequality in the academy after seeing the abstract in the 2016 BSA Annual Conference programme. He was interested, but questioned our argument: surely all academics experience these conditions, so what could a feminist viewpoint offer? It is vitally important to challenge this thinking.
The Res-Sisters started life when we wrote a book chapter on our experiences as early career academics for a forthcoming collection edited by Rachel Thwaites and Amy Pressland. We bonded over shared research interests but also in collegiality, friendship and support. As researchers working within the sociology and cultural studies of education and youth, we have written, presented and spoken about our experiences: not just to break the silence but offer an alternative. To do this we have drawn on the critical work of feminist, working class and BME scholars to connect our own struggles within the academy to wider issues of inequality and power, and to find resources and mechanisms to find our way through these conditions.
We found a certain irony in being faced by the inequalities we seek to confront in our own research, and recognise that in participating in academic careers, we may be complicit in the systems with which we are concerned. The members of our group occupy different position of class, race, ethnicity and sexuality, as well types of institution and contract, and our experiences are not all the same. What we wanted to do through our writing is to recognise what we shared, not what divided us, and how we could come together to reject competitiveness and individualisation. The very writing of our book chapter was an exercise in feminist collective action, written by the group as a whole, with no lead author. Alongside highlighting the challenges we have faced, we also want to offer positive stories of fighting back, along with our ‘Manifesta’ as a resource to inspire dialogue and change.
While we recognise how our different class and racial identities intersect with our positioning as women to generate different experiences of academia, feelings of not being good enough, or of being out of place were shared among us. In addition, the ‘speeding up’ of academia was not providing us time and space to pursue our research in understanding and challenging inequalities and injustice. As early career researchers trying to establish careers in a commodified environment, we feel a disjuncture between want we want from academia – progressive social change, contributing to knowledge, a satisfying career – and what it demands from us – measurable outputs, ‘satisfied’ students and to consistently be ‘excellent’. What’s more, when we speak out about sexism, racism, or classism, we are met with what Sara Ahmed has referred to as ‘rolling eyes’ that tell us to ‘get over it’.
With most of us the first in our families to attend higher education, we might be held up as evidence of meritocracy and gender equality, so we are caught in a position where our calls for the recognition of inequalities and injustice are downplayed by our very existence within the academy. The price of admission of course, is the pressure to make yourself fit in, to not remain too working class or too Black, to adopt appropriate accents and styles of dress. We all shared experiences of everyday practices of hostility in how we inhabited academic spaces, and fantasies of escape in conflict with the desire to effect change. How can we change the game and refuse to play by its rules? It is here that we look to the possibilities and challenges of critical, feminist theory and research that can give us the tools to forge a new path. We look to fighting back via the concept of ‘fugitivity’ and (re)creating spaces; of enacting feminism in practice; of transgressive teaching; and the importance of self-care.Rather than trying to escape, we can refuse the legitimacy of the status quo. In our work, we drew on Vik Loveday’s use of ‘fugitivity’ within higher education, where working class subjects feel like fugitives but continue to participate on their own terms without feeling indebtedness or gratitude.
Taking inspiration from past and present feminist politics, we can create spaces of care and solidarity, of not being grateful but shaking things up, of working truly collaboratively together. We can enact this in our research practice, like Emma’s Jackson’s call for a feminist ‘punk sociology’, and also simply through supporting each other in both physical and virtual spaces so that our working environment is one of belonging and safety. We need to consider our relations with our colleagues, seeing them not as competitors but as collaborators and people to treat with care and respect. The kindness as radical practice described by Tracy Fortune and her colleagues is both a survival technique and a way to resist rationality and instrumentalism. It goes without saying that we extend this kindness to our students as well, and recognise the emotional dimensions of our labour as important and valuable. There is an overtly political element to these caring relations, so that we are not individuals but a collective who engage in action to improve our working environment.
Our work as teachers is an important way to enact change and we want to re-appropriate education as a critical space, taking inspiration from radical, engaged pedagogies (hooks, 1994). Students are also our collaborators, and we must create safe spaces for students from non-traditional backgrounds to feel safe and valued, and deconstruct and decolonise reading lists full of old white men. In this way, we can take back power from teaching as a tool for performance management through ever-present metrics.
Such pressures are just one way that working in academia can be tiring and stressful. One solution is ‘slow scholarship’, but as Heather Mendick highlights, not everyone is able to participate, particularly if you are on a short-term or precarious contract. When we shared our experiences, we sought to acknowledge how our different positions mean that some of us are more secure than others, and we must work in ways that recognise these inequalities and support each other. A feminist ethics of care is based on values and an agenda outside of individual career advancement. We are not only academics – we are mothers, carers, friends, daughters, sisters, partners. It is also necessary to extend kindness to ourselves, drawing inspiration from Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed on the radical possibilities of self-care.
How to put all of this into practice? Here we present a condensed version of our five-point Manifesta, our ‘call to arms’ to help us all think how we can come together for positive change and embody academia differently (you can read the full version here).
The Res-Sister Manifesta
Embrace collectivity and nurture allies
We are most powerful as a collective. We can disrupt forces of individualism, provide support networks and organise against injustice. We need to welcome and nurture allies, and join together across intersectionalities. Unite, collaborate, co-author, and form allegiances outside academia.
Little acts of solidarity make a big difference
Everyday gestures can contribute to big changes. If a colleague is stressed or unhappy: talk to them and see if we can help. We can chat to nervous PG students, ask helpful questions in conferences, share our knowledge and networks, invite our colleagues, mentor our students.
Academia is not a meritocracy, but we can challenge the toxic conditions. We must stand together to oppose precarious contracts, speak out for PhD students, call out the whiteness and maleness of institutional power. Carving out alternative spaces can help us foster inclusivity, solidarity and care. From big action like strikes to everyday acts of causing trouble: resist!
Recognise your power and privilege
As researchers, we are fortunate as we have a platform to speak. Some of us are even more privileged due to our whiteness, class capital, the institutions we work in. We have to recognise our power and privilege and use them for egalitarian ends by creating spaces for the marginalised, providing platforms for voices, acknowledging and accrediting the voices of others. We must take people with us, and practice this in our teaching practice too.
Self-care is a must
This should not come at the cost of health and wellbeing. It could be easy to work ourselves into the ground, to prove ourselves as good enough academics and proper feminists. A feminist ethics of care relates to how we treat ourselves too. We might not feel safe to call out, it might be too costly to rock the boat, we might be unwell or too tired to fight. This is why the strength of collective is so important.
And have fun: there are also many pleasures of academia: let us work together to make the most of them!
Gill, R (2009) ‘Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’ in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.
hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.
Res-Sisters are a feminist collective of early career academics. The group’s collective interests include challenging inequality both within and outside of academia, resisting the neoliberal agenda and making space for alternative voices to be heard.
Image: Kiran Jeet Kaur