Soft Subjects: gender, emotional labour and micro-aggressions in the neo-liberal university.

By the Gender Studies Collective.

Universities have always been ‘a man’s world.’ However, the marketization of universities has arguably led to an intensification of the privileging of dominant forms of masculinity which have hugely impacted PhD students’ experiences in the form of emotional labour and micro-aggressions. Our work is consistently belittled, overlooked and treated as “frivolous” or “soft.” However, it must be noted that women and non-binary PhD students’ experiences of gender within the neo-liberal university always intersect with other axes of oppression such as race, disability, religion, sexuality and class. We could never do justice to such varied experiences in such a short space and so can only attempt to cover a few general points that we as a group – within the Gender Studies Collective – felt were reflective of our experiences.

Emotional labour:

We define emotional labour as work that society does not deem to be valuable; emotionally exhausting or upsetting actions, which are ‘necessary for the effective function of specific organizational and society at large.’ Feminist scholars have long argued that women carry out the majority of emotional labour due to societal associations between femininity, nurturing, empathy and support. Scholars have noted the links between the marketization of universities and ‘changing emotional labour requirements’, with academics often facing an expectation to be ‘nice’ rather than ‘simply professional.’ Consequently, for PhD students who teach undergraduates, much of our emotional labour takes place over email or within our office hours. Within a growing ‘culture of complaint’, it is not uncommon for students to complain about their essay grade to seminar tutors. As women, it can often feel that we are expected to ‘soften the blow’ of bad grades in ways that may not be expected of our male counterparts; students often ‘reject’ grades and ‘demand’ us to ‘explain’ our feedback further. For example, one male student sent a bullet-point list of all the reasons why he felt that his seminar tutor (GTA – graduate teaching assistant/seminar tutor) was ‘wrong’ in her analysis of his work. Another asked if he could ‘get some time with’ a female GTA during the holidays (when he was ‘available’) to discuss his bad mark. Thus, unpaid emotional labour can often feel ‘expected’ of us in the form of ‘soothing’ disgruntled students.

Emotional labour can also become the responsibility and somewhat chore for women of colour who are sought by minority students for support or guidance, merely due to their skin complexion. In a recent study by Mattocks and Briscoe-Palmer (2016), it was discussed for the need of BME students to be supported by people similar to themselves. Bhopal (2014) speaks on the importance of ‘insiders’ and ‘gate-keepers’ for the advancement within HE.A similar pattern is reflected towards GTAs from minority groups (women, BME, disability, etc) that students flock to GTAs that represent them. This in itself is not a problem, however GTAs are neither trained nor should be expected to take on the responsibility of emotional labour via tokenism especially if you are the singular representative of that intersection. Such a circumstance is rarely acknowledged by the powers that be and therefore goes unsupported placing additional labour on female GTAs especially women of colour.


Gender is not viewed as a ‘marketable’ subject within the neo-liberal university. Thus, many political science undergraduates will only learn a ‘brief introduction’ to gender and feminist theory, often relegated to a week about ‘the feminist thought’ on a topic, despite the wide variety of intersecting theories within feminist theory. In one module, feminist and post-colonial theories were merged into a singular lecture, contributing to the conceptualization of such topics as simplistic, unimportant and ‘othered.’ Indeed, for GTAs who research subjects which are positioned as ‘soft’ – such as gender, the body or social media – our work is continually trivialized and belittled. For example, one GTA overheard a male academic telling his colleagues that “he had to step in” to write a feminist paper because “the women couldn’t do it.” Likewise, when one GTA told a male academic that she was studying the body and social media, he laughed and said “I didn’t realize that you were being serious”, reinforcing the notion that some sites are worth cultural investigation whilst others are ‘trash.’ This attitude seeps into our classrooms and can have a serious impact on our experiences of teaching; GTAs noted that when they bring up gender as an example within a seminar, male students will visibly roll their eyes or sigh. Another suggested that she is ‘scared’ of citing gender as an example in the classroom for fear that she will be perceived as ‘talking about her work too much’, believing that this would not be an issue for her male colleagues.

Women of colour in a dominant white male privileged arena often require a continual justification dialogue on the credibility of positioning not only as a GTA but as a doctoral researcher in general. Due the lack of visible researchers of colour in political science, women of colour are faced with ignorance, arrogance and of course privilege narrative directed from cohorts of political science students, which reflect the makeup of the political arena, who find the power dynamics of being taught by a black women somewhat alien and unfitting for their education. The continued questioning of “where are you from?”, “no, where are you really from?” becomes tiresome after the 10th and 11th time. As well as the shock and in some cases look of disgust when female GTAs reveal their research topics, specifically on gender. For example, when introducing their research interest, a GTA had a student mutter “well that makes sense”, belittling the importance of gendered politics. Another GTA has previously encountered extremely racist and Marxist viewpoints on the validity of black and ethnic minority students gaining a place at the same university as them (white British middle class male). His concrete understanding and rigid narrative summarized how black students do not have to achieve the same grades to get gain a place, and I quote “they are privileged”. Little, if any, support is offered or given surrounding the emotional labor strain often placed upon GTAs of colour who face similar battles of hegemonic structures within the classroom. GTAs dare not mention it as a concern or upset to anyone due to fears of reputational damage and hindrance on career developments.

However, such aggression also come into play when women study topics which are typically reserved “for men”, such as technology. One PhD student noted that in her field – technology – she is persistently subject to the assumption that she won’t understand quite basic forms of encryption, despite this being her main field of research. She often experiences men (both those within IT and those with very limited experience within IT) “explaining” how these systems work. In one instance, the male friend of a housemate sweepingly told her, in a conversation about internet privacy and encryption, that “nobody at the table could speak with any authority on the subject bar what they had seen on a few Facebook posts.” This was despite the fact that the topic was her research area that she has been invested in for several years.

Overall, it can often feel that we will never be recognized as “truly part of” the academy and that our research is less “serious” than our male counterparts studying “real” issues such as security, economics or technology. When we study “proper” topics, it is assumed that we are incapable of carrying out in-depth research or that we have “missed” areas in our work. For many of us, despite the growing necessity for diverse research, our day-to-day experiences of academia can feel incredibly exhausting and frustrating. Our hope in writing this piece is that women and non-binary individuals may see their experiences reflected in this piece and that we can raise awareness of the current culture in academia in an attempt to move solidarity from theory to practice.

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