FOCUS: Inequalities in the Academy: Cogs in search of a new wheel

FOCUS: Inequalities in the Academy: Cogs in search of a new wheel

Sue Scott

Four of the papers in this issue of Discover Society arose out of a day conference that I organised, in April 2019, for the Academy of Social Sciences, on Women in Social Science since the 1970s. It was a successful event with around 180 registered and a lot of enthusiasm for what women have achieved, as well as a very clear awareness of the problems and challenges that we continue to face in the 21st century academy. The day was organized around five contributions from senior women and five from those early in their career. All ten of the speakers would have liked to write up their talks for this issue, but academic women’s lives being what they are this proved impossible. Here we have contributions from two senior women, one  – Jil Matheson – who has had a career as a social statistician outside of universities, the other Fiona Mackay is a Professor of Political Science.  We also have contributions from two of the earlier career speakers, Katherine Twamley discussing the support she has had from other feminist academics and the continued need for collective action, and Shan-Jan Sarah Liu on the challenges of being an Asian woman academic. The issue also includes related pieces on the need to resist racism (Katy Sian) and to decolonise the academy (Yasmeen Narayan); on the importance of kindness and generosity in academic life (Sarah Burton and Vikki Turbine); and also of the need complain and press for change in the context of sexual harassment and other violations in universities (Romit Chowdhury). In this focus piece I want to say some things about issues of equality and inequality in the academy over the last 40 years – How much have things changed? What new challenges have arisen? How should we meet them?

I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s when the second wave of feminism was breaking over universities but women were pretty well invisible in sociology as academics and in the literature – outside of discussions of the so called ‘symmetrical family’. I was lucky to be taught by several excellent women, but this would have been unusual, even in the context of the expansion of sociology in the 1960s and 70s. We had a couple of lectures on the Women’s Liberation Movement in the Modern Britain course, but as the only female in my seminar group for that week I was pursued down the corridor afterwards by the male lecturer attempting to open doors for me!

It is now 36 years since I published (with Mary Porter) an article with the Title ‘On the Bottom Rung: A discussion of Women’s Work in Sociology’ [1] and 34 since I wrote ‘The Personable and the Powerful: Gender and Status in Sociological Research’ [2]. During that period I was on my second and third  (of seven) fixed term contracts, three as a researcher and four as a temporary lecturer. Both of these publications explored, the challenges for postgraduate and early career (ECA) women in Sociology. Aside from three years as a researcher in a local authority in the 1980s, when the Thatcher government made pretty sure that there were no jobs in sociology departments, I was continuously employed in UK Universities from 1986-2013, when I decided that it was bad for my health and became ‘post-institutional’ in order be the kind of sociological citizen that I wanted to be.

I have recently read Jeremy Gavron’s account [3] of his mother Hannah’s life leading up to her suicide in 1965 and there is no doubt that things had got a little better for those of us trying for academic careers in sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, than they had been for her. Not giving someone a job they were well qualified for because they wore ‘too much green eye shadow’ would have raised an eyebrow, at least, by my time. She was described as ‘a lightweight’ presumably because her PhD research was on ‘housewives’ [4]. I was told, in 1981, that my course on the sociology of sex and reproduction was just ‘pop sociology’ indicating that change happened slowly. The question here is what has changed for those ‘on the bottom rung’ over this period?

Precarity – then and now
Certainly the marginalization of those on temporary and hourly contracts has by no means gone away. In the 1970s and 80s, men were much more likely than women to go straight from graduate work into a permanent full-time lectureship whereas women were more likely to get there, if they did at all, via research assistantships and temporary teaching posts. This latter route now seems to be common for the vast majority; indeed I sometimes wonder whether the Academy actually invented zero hours contracts. They were certainly around in the 1970s and 80s, but expanded rapidly in the 90s as those on established contracts saw the advantage of teaching less and researching more and the funding from the RAE (now REF), when it was devolved to departments, made it possible to appoint seminar tutors and very temporary lecturers in order to enable those deemed more important to concentrate on research. This practice has been reinforced over the years, by some University managers, as a means of trying to improve research results, but the initial push, at least in my experience, came from senior academics, including sociologists. When, as a Dean in the mid 2000s, I argued for establishing properly supported temporary lectureships rather than hourly teaching roles, I was met by a good deal of resistance from academic colleagues who wanted cover for their seminars, rather than a new early career colleague in a full-time post.

Raising Expectations
When I was undertaking ethnographic research on the PhD process, between 1979 and 1982, the culture in social science was mostly one of sink or swim.  Relations between students and supervisors often seemed to be more feudal than 20th century and one eminent professor said to me, without irony, “I sat at the feet of a great man as a (doctoral) student at Cambridge and I expect my students to do the same”.  While many of us were suspicious, in the 1980s, of the Research Council’s move to more training, more structure and tighter time limits for PhDs – indeed I had a piece in the British Sociological Association (BSA) Newsletter ‘Network’ decrying the changes as potentially limiting academic freedom – there can now be no doubt that the 1 plus 3 system – a Masters year of coursework, followed by 3 years of work on the thesis initially produced greater equity. There was a definite move away from the ‘bright young man’ model of the PhD student, with the estimates of brightness were often based on one senior male academics view, to a more open selection process. However, as in so many areas of academic life, regulation has intensified, and now, fully funded studentships are concentrated within the training programmes of the most highly rated research Universities. These awards are often allocated to those who have already done a masters degree, in order to maximize the funding, but with the (un) intended consequence of introducing further inequalities as this practice privileges those would can afford to finance their MA.

Other changes in relation to doctoral training have included the acquisition of a wider range of skills as preparation the next careers stage, including how to write for publication, develop research projects, engage in teamwork. In addition PhD students are now commonly expected to engaged in the first stages of a teaching qualification, as opposed to being through into the deep end of the classroom as was my experience, and are increasingly expected to publish before the even submit their doctorate so as to be REF ready for the job market. Unfortunately, unlike in the STEM disciplines this focus tends to be only on Academic careers, because in the UK unlike (for example) the Nordic countries where a social science PhD is valued as preparation for a number of senior roles.

In my view the move away from seeing the PhD as a magnum opus to defining it as more of an apprentice piece is a positive one. However, the combination of this with the increased pressure to have, after four years, your CV at a level that would only previously have been expected after 10 is to set the bar extremely high. Those who reach this standard by the time they submit their thesis might be thought to quite reasonably expect to gain a lengthy post doc research position or a lectureship, but the competition is fierce and permanent posts are very few, although still far more numerous in the UK than elsewhere in Europe.

Even if an early career academic does get a job with a reasonably long, or even potentially permanent, contract there is no settling in time as the deadline for the next REF or the TEF will be looming, with the accompanying expectations of sufficient high quality research outputs and excellent teaching evaluations. There is little wonder that ECAs feel that they are constantly being asked to jump higher.

As an early career academic I felt that I had to read everything in my field, if not in the whole of sociology generally, and I had around 16 contact hours of teaching a week, much of it new each year, with no training in how to teach and some very poor role models. Now I speak to ECAs who feel that they have virtually no time to read widely because of the time spent on filling in forms, feeding the ever hungry virtual learning environment with information for students and ensuring that they have written enough for the next research assessment exercise and have at least tried – and probably failed with a 3%-10% range of success – to net a research grant as well as ensuring that the research they have done is making the right kind of impact. In this regard times have changed. There is more structure, but a wider-range of skills is needed. I felt a failure as an academic because I wasn’t very good at sitting on my own in front of a blank sheet of paper generating ideas for a book or a paper. I liked working with other people, and spent a lot of time – probably too much – on committees, organizing study groups and conferences, editing working papers and sitting on editorial boards, writing book reviews etc. All of these things took much longer in the 1980s and into the 90s in the pre email, pre internet days, but they were seen as a legitimate aspects of being an academic and they did help me to develop a wide range of skills which were in turn increasingly valued as part of the promotion process.  No more, as with students only focusing on work which ‘counts’ for assessment so ECAs increasingly, although with some very notable exceptions, feel that they must focus on writing, teaching, research and research impact as they are not given recognition for time spent on general academic citizenship.

Is there strength in numbers?
My memories of being an ECA are threaded through with feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence – what is now called ‘imposter syndrome’, back then it was yet another problem which had no name – to coin Betty Friedan’s famous phrase. Empirical research was seen as secondary to theory and only boys could really do theory. I am told that imposter syndrome is rife amongst ECAs now, but I also find that they are exhausted and angry at the sheer amount of work and lack of support and recognition from more senior staff. They feel that they have done everything right and should have a ‘proper’ academic job and if they have one that they should be doing more then just ‘surviving’.  I certainly don’t want to detract from the pressure that colleagues are under to meet the growing requirements of the role, but I do think that we all need to analyze rather than individualize the situation.  One major difference between my experience and now is that back then there were so few of us – feminists in sociology – that you could know almost everyone and really feel part of something beyond your own thesis, teaching or struggle to find a job. It was an intergenerational network, which included PhD students and Professors all trying to ensure that women, women’s issues and feminist perspectives were included in teaching and research. Yes, sometimes we were in competition with each other for jobs, but as most of the jobs still went to men it was a matter for solidarity. The only time I had a problem with a competitor was when a male colleague – also on a temporary contract – came to my house the night before the interviews, for a permanent position, to tell me that ‘the job was rightfully his’! Now, as a result of expansion in the sector there are many more ECAs in marginal and precarious positions and that makes the problem feel a whole lot worse.

My survival as a sociologist, and an academic, has in large part been due to the network of women who met initially at the BSA/ESRC (then SSRC) Postgraduate Summer School, on Feminist Theory, in 1978 and then via the BSA Women’s Caucus, Sexual Divisions Study Group and Equality of the Sexes Committee. There is no doubt that, when I found myself working outside of the academy between 1983 and 1986 this network enabled me to feel that I still belonged to the feminist sociological community, and to some extent to the wider sociological community as well. Another major difference was the collective enterprise of ensuring that teaching and research on women, gender and sexuality was included and recognized. This did mean that those of us on temporary contracts often took on the development and teaching of Women’s Studies courses and programmes, as well as supporting women students, acting as sexual harassment advisors etc. etc.  Of course this was neither fair nor appropriate, but doing feminism in the academy did feel good! Now most sociology courses have questions of gender and sexuality threaded through them and many academic sociologists at senior and even leadership and management levels are women that degree of solidarity may seem unnecessary, but I would suggest that vigilance is still necessary when it comes to ensuring that the Academy takes women, feminism and questions of gender seriously and this vigilance should not all fall on the shoulders of ECA women. In the same vein, responsibility for BAME issues currently tends to be seen as the responsibility of the very small number of BAME academics [5]; a situation that needs to change.

While I hold the, often unpopular, position that some evaluation is necessary in Universities, both in order to show the public value which public funding enables in our Universities and to ensure that we never again have a situation where there is little transparency and the assumed reputation of a minority of academics (usually men) ensures their power. Assessment processes have increased transparency and focused attention on actual achievements enshrined in the CV. However, the extreme pressures being exerted by University Executives as they attempt to climb the, usually impossibly, greasy pole of the World Rankings and to attain higher and yet higher scores in the REF, are out of proportion to the potential rewards. A big dose of realism is necessary. Assumptions that in sociology, and indeed in the Social Sciences and Humanities in general, all staff must have outputs of 3* and preferably 4* quality published in the ‘so call’ best journals is entirely unrealistic, as are many of the expectations about research funding give the amount available and the pressures on it. A competition in which most people fail is a deadly thing. I had thought that the move away from selection to greater staff inclusivity for REF 2021 was a good move, but it seems that internal competition is intensifying in relation to which academics will have the most outputs submitted and this likely to be hitting ECAs the hardest and increasing the likelihood of more teaching only posts, potentially making it impossible for some of the best young academics to undertake research.

Universities need to engender conversations internally and externally and at all levels of the institution about their purpose both academically and civically, what kind of places they are to work and study in. Vice Chancellors, if they haven’t already, need to take a long hard look at themselves and their institution and question whether increased pressure really increases productivity. Yes, encouragement to do the best work you can is a good thing if properly supported, but setting colleagues against each other will waste their energy and damage both teaching and research.

We have all absorbed, to a greater or lesser extent, the culture of individualism over recent decades. As sociologists we know this and that we can’t, at the same time, rail against the neo liberal University, and have only individualistic expectations. We need to work across the academic generations, and with middle and senior management, to engender solidarity and make common cause, as well as ensuring that we all have the supportive networks that we need both inside and outside of the University. We, and especially senior academics, need to a think about how to make Universities good places to begin a career and especially good places for women and BAME academics to work and study, because if it is then it will be a good place for everyone. This is not simply about being nicer to each other and doing a bit more mentoring, but about having constructively critical conversations and plans. This may sound naïve, even hopeless, but we need to stop talking about ‘The University’ and blaming them up there and work together to make it ‘Our University’. If we don’t we will be cogs in a wheel rather then its designers – time to reinvent it!

[1] Scott, S. and Porter, M. (1983) On the Bottom Rung: A discussion of Women’s Work in Sociology, Women’s Studies International Forum Volume 6, Issue 2, 211-221
[2] Scott, S. (1985) ‘The Personable and the Powerful: Gender and Status in Sociological Research’ in Bell, C. & Roberts, H. (Eds) Social Researching: Problems, Politics & Practice RKP: London
[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time, The Experiment: New York
[4] Gavron, H. (1966) The Captive Wife: Conflict of Housebound Mothers, RKP: London
[5] Bhopal, K. (2015) The Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics: A comparative study of the unequal academy, Routledge: London

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Marta Kask at the Academy of Social sciences for her help in organizing the Women and Social science event, and to all the women who have supported me throughout my life as a sociologist.


Sue Scott is now a Visiting Professor at Newcastle and Helsinki Universities. Her research interests are in gender and sexuality. She has worked at a number of UK Universities in roles from Research associate to PVC for Research. She is currently president of the European Sociological Association and a founding editor of Discover Society.