On the need for collective action and sustained attention

On the need for collective action and sustained attention

Katherine Twamley

I have benefited enormously from the work of women in social science who have come before me. Feminist social scientists created a space for feminist research, a bedrock of scholarship to build on, of course, but also a more literal sense of place for my generation. Since completing my PhD in 2011, I have worked in research units which, have been either set up by feminist social scientists, or have been dominated by them. To my shame, I had not realised how fortunate I had been to work in these spaces until I read Maria Do Pereira’s recent book on women and gender studies in the UK and Portugal [1].  Do Pereira’s ethnographic account charts the various challenges that feminist and gender studies scholars face in the contemporary academy: from a lack of respect and credulity accorded to their scholarship, to hostile supervisors and colleagues who marginalise them and their teaching and research. As I read her book, I was able to reassess my own experience, and to realise that I have been consistently surrounded with supportive colleagues who are interested in, and respect my work.

The recent ‘hoax’ wherein fake articles were submitted to mostly gender and sociology journals is further evidence of the precarious position that feminist social scientific research holds. These articles were written in an effort to ‘prove’ that feminist and social science research, in particular qualitative research, is unworthy and unacademic. The project has been eloquently critiqued by others [2], but even the attempt to discredit can bring despondency to early career researchers. To be able to recall some of the brightest minds I have come across who have shared my interests and questions is so reassuring and motivating.

Nonetheless, while these women have set an example for the kind of work and collegiality that my contemporaries and I would aspire to, the academy has progressed in ways quite incongruous to the flourishing of feminist research. As we all know – some more than others – there is increased precarity and inequality within universities, reflecting the general situation across various fields of work beyond the academy. As I sometimes sit on interview panels for early career positions in our department, I am aghast at  the range of things we ask of new entrants and how many of them have achieved them. Many have held several positions across the UK and sometimes abroad. They have multiple publications, sometimes books, funding, teaching, public engagement… And still no permanency – many achieve these things at great cost to their personal and family life, and I am under no illusion that some others just cannot achieve them because they have caring responsibilities. In fact, over half of all teaching and research, conducted in UK universities, is undertaken by those on insecure or short-term contracts [3]. Many of these are women. Meanwhile, Ros Gill [4] recently wrote about how academics even in permanent positions talk about their lives with ‘extraordinarily violent metaphors:  going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating.’

In a chapter in a book I edited on sociologists discussing their careers, Ann Oakley looks back on her career wondering if, given the choice again, she would enter the academy. Drawing on Virginia Woolf, she writes:

“Traditional notions of a ‘career’ speak to and about a gender-segregated world of work, one in which financial value and personal satisfaction are assigned to the world outside the home. In 1938,  Virginia Woolf asked a question almost unknown at the time as to whether it is really such a good idea for women to become full members of a societ which carries the imprint of masculine world views. She identified the values driving higher education as those of status-seeking, competition and acquisitiveness, suggesting that these values breed qualities of self-satisfaction and aggression towards others. ‘Above all,’ she inquired, ‘where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?… (Woolf, 1938:240-1).” [5]

I return to these words time and again. Oakley challenges the reader to scrutinize the practices and ideals within which we work in higher education. At the Women in Social Science event, from which this essay emerges, I was provoked again to consider these words: A participant questioned what we as women can do about the uneven ‘burden’ of mentorship expected of women, and particularly minoritised women. It was a valid question, coming from a place of concern about the responsibilisation of women academics for the progression and development of other women academics. Yet, it struck me as the most unambitious kind of enquiry, one which accepts wholeheartedly the structures of the neoliberal university in which mentoring others – surely one of the joys of university life – is framed as an obstacle to personal career progression. Where is this procession of career progression leading us? Is the goal to be a ‘full professor’, or to create a dynamic joyful scholarly place of learning? The structures of university systems, informed by ‘masculine world views’, as Oakley puts it, push us to prioritise the former.

There are various everyday acts we can engage in to be supportive of our colleagues (not just academics) and students – Do Prereira [1] outlines some particularly helpful suggestions. But the ideals shaping university work require a deeper transformation if collaboration, mentorship and other collegial forms of work are to be rewarded, rather than best avoided or limited. I do not have the answer to how this necessary work can be done. As Les Back remarks ‘It is important to confront how difficult it is to act differently.’ [6] It will be easiest for those in permanent positions to make changes, and therefore part of what must be done is to fight against the casualisation of academic staff. My experience, though over a short career, is that collegiate places of work can be created through collective action and sustained attention.

1. Pereira, Maria do Mar (2017) Power, Knowledge and Feminist Scholarship. An Ethnography of Academia, London: Routledge.
2. Engber, Daniel, (2018) What the “Grievance Studies” Hoax Actually Reveals, The Slate, 8th October 2018.
3. Chakrabortty, A. & Weale, S. (2017) “Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay”The Guardian, 16th November, 2016.
4. Gill, Rosalind (2010) ‘Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of the neoliberal university’ in R. Ryan-Flood and R. Gill (eds.),Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections Abingdon: Routledge. pp.228–244.
5. Oakley, Ann (2015) ‘Imagining Social Science’ in Twamley K, Doidge M, Scott A (Eds) (2015) Sociologists’ Tales: Contemporary narratives on sociological thought and practice Bristol: Policy Press. Woolf, V. (1938, reprinted 1992 with A room of one’s own) Three guineas, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
6. Back, Les (2016) Taking and Giving Hope: a Response to Ros Gill’s “What Would Les Back Do? If Generosity Could Save Us… a Review of Les Back’s Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters (2016: Goldsmiths Press, 272 pp)” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society March 2018, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 111–125


Katherine Twamley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of Social Science at University College London. Her particular interests are around gender, love and intimacy, feminist practice, and family, with a geographical focus on India and the UK. Her work delves into micro-couple interactions through in-depth ethnographic and mixed methods research. She has recently completed a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship examining the intersections of love and gender equality amongst first-time parents in the UK.