A feminist critique of the neoliberal university

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti

What is the connection between the university strikes, transparency and male entitlement? 

Sixty universities across the UK went on strike for 8 working days over a range of issues including deteriorating pensions, increasing workloads, casualization of work and the gender pay gap.

The strikes are one example of the deleterious effects of the neoliberalization and marketization of universities, and by that I mean issues such as the commodification of education through student fees, increasing staff exploitation and the growing disparity between the pay received by people at the highest ranks, such as vice-chancellors, and people at the lowest pay scales, such as support staff, administrators and lecturers.

Since legislation was passed making it compulsory for large employers to be more transparent and disclose the gender pay gap, universities have had nowhere to hide but yet have not taken adequate measures to achieve equal pay.

This is part and parcel of a long story of inequalities within the ‘ivory tower’. Women are continuously silenced by hidden practices within universities, they are pushed into roles which require more student contact, with the underlying expectation being that they are more ‘nurturing’. We should read here, more exploitable.

Such practices, often seen even in institutions that managed to get what is often treated as the Athena Swan ‘stamp’ of gender equality, are routine and impact our society’s future. The effects are seen in the working lives of our sisters, mothers, daughters and female friends. As well as in the outcomes, content and scope of research. In general, men end up with more time for research, while women end up in lower ranking positions, with few becoming professors. One of the outcomes of this unequal distribution of labour is that in the majority of UK universities most professors are white men.

This situation raises questions about systemic and institutional failures to address existing inequalities in academia. Women have had enough of being silenced, whether this is done by men who won’t shut up, who dominate discussions, who mansplain, or by those who choose not to hear our struggle for justice.

Colleagues and myself have encountered numerous situations in which we are criticized for calling out practices that lack transparency and ultimately hide male privilege and its inherent male sense of entitlement, which is fundamental for maintaining prevailing practices of toxic masculinity at workplaces. The pay gap is only one of the issues we face everyday at universities.

Women continue to pay the reproductive tax

Women in all walks of life continue to pay the reproductive tax, that is to say that the negative impacts of having children on our careers still fall on us. But we are also expected to be the ‘good mother’, work and support our families. This is done through all kinds of social processes and guilt-provoking comments such as ‘don’t you feel bad for not being there for your son/daughter?’, ‘I couldn’t do what you do’, ‘Won’t you have another one?’ and so on.

In the book Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower (2013), Mary Mason and her co-authors reviewed a number of surveys about women’s careers, tracing thousands of graduate students over their careers. Their central question was ‘why so many women begin the climb but do not make it to the top of the Ivory Tower: full professors, deans, and presidents?’ Their answer was predictable: babies matter. However, while women’s careers were negatively affected by having a baby, men’s careers were not. Moreover, the stage at which women become parents matters, as Mason put it: 

‘The early years are the most decisive in determining who wins and who loses. Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. They receive little or no childbirth support from the university and often a great deal of discouragement from their mentors.’ 

In an article entitled ‘Gender inequality across the academic life course’, published in the journal Sociology Compass, Sarah Winslow and Shannon Davies showed that women in academia earn less money than their male counterparts, have less time to research, are expected to devote more time to teaching and have lower levels of scholarly productivity.  Academic careers presume an ideal (male) worker without caring or family responsibilities, disembodied from reproductive activities. 

While some men can refuse to take part in work that is not prestigious or well-rewarded within universities – such as administrative tasks, pastoral work and the apparently ‘voluntary’ parts of our job such as weekend attendance to open days – women often feel that they cannot refuse due to their subordinate and precarious positions.

Academic work generates demands that are often incompatible with family life. Yet, our ‘productivity’ is measured with the same scales. So while many women take leave to give birth, raise children, deal with household and family crises, we are still expected to operate a miracle and deal with our unrealistic and excessive workload allocations. The impacts are multiple and women face ingrained prejudices within institutions that remain dominated by men.

In our societies, many men are taught from an early age that they have an innate right to power. Boys are still described as tough, big and strong and treated as having a right to be angry, while girls are still expected to be gentle, pretty and obedient. Emotional and domestic labour are left for women, while men are expected to be protective and dominant. These messages are communicated through children’s books, television, gendered toys, adverts and the media. This is why we need more women to embrace and embody the concept that Sara Ahmed captured with the figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’. 

Being a feminist killjoy

The feminist killjoy complains. She is rightfully angry because of gendered inequalities and prejudices, and uses this anger to challenge and resist the status quo. So here it goes… when men refer to adult women as ‘girls’ – and I have seen this terminology used by male academics more than once – they are infantilizing women in a similar way to how slave masters infantilized male slaves by calling them ‘boys’. We might refer to each other as girls or use the expression ‘girl power’ if we so wish, if our status is not one of subordination, or domination, or unequal relation. Context matters when we use words. 

Let me tell you, being a lecturer is not the prestigious job that some people might image it to be. Our pay has gone down while our workloads have gone up. Our pensions are being gradually taken away from us. Many of us cannot afford to have our own places to live and are being paid on hourly paid contracts and contracts that do not allow union membership, silencing us by impeding us from dissenting and striking. 

Just as the wonderful postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak (1988) said of the subaltern: no, we cannot speak when the structures surrounding us impede our voices from being heard. These structures are not set up to do anything about what we say. We cannot speak, when the questions are asked by the dominant, the imperial, the master, who will not listen or understand the answer. 

We need an inclusive feminism for the 99% to smash the colonialist capitalist patriarchy that pushes women, black and ethnic minorities, those in subordinate roles and the weakest members of our societies into increasingly precarious work. When even in the ‘ivory tower’, our workloads are pushed to 96%, 98%, 100%, 110% and so on, the transparency of workload modellers and online managerial tools of workload allocation becomes insufficient to capture the barriers we face. Such allocations provide no leeway for things to go wrong, or for the messiness of family life.

When I am sick, or when my children are ill and I have to spend the night awake with them, my marking does not disappear. The deadline for my preparation for lectures does not get extended. The meetings with my students will still have to happen. I will just have even less time to fit everything in. It is the same with strikes. Our work doesn’t just disappear because we are on strike. Universities are not factories, even if sometimes we joke that we are turning into a ‘sausage factory’. In addition, we will still have our nursery fees to pay, our kids’ childcare costs, and living costs, but we will sacrifice our pay, as we don’t get paid when we strike, to try to have our voices heard. The strike fund doesn’t go far for those of us who are paying high rents, childcare and supporting dependents.

As an early career lecturer with two young children, I get home from work with the task of ensuring the children and fed, bathed, cared for and if I am lucky, I might have finished the housework and washing all their tiny clothes before 10pm so I can either fall asleep out of complete exhaustion or re-open my laptop to continue replying to student emails. That is because, since the marketization of universities, in many disciplines like mine, the staff-student ratio has become untenable. To the point that we will have dozens of personal tutees, run modules with over 250 students and the aftermath of all that can go wrong when we deal with such large groups. I will spare you the details.

Being a parent is not easy. Some of you will know what I mean. Time to decompress is scarce. So when my employer asks me to come in on Saturdays for open days and applicant days, so they can recruit even more students, I have to pay for childcare or negotiate favours with friends. Not only I lose my right to a family life, I also have to pay for it because many universities forget or still haven’t understood the concept of proving a crèche. The structures of universities today are costing people’s health. The neoliberal university and many workplaces in our #metoo era are submerged in the toxic masculinity that is blind to gender, class and racial inequalities.

Senior management act like ‘masters of the castle’ when they treat us like servants who should meet their demands. Their attitude of superiority, making serious decisions without consulting others (or consulting us post-facto to look like they have consulted us), dismissing the opinions, ideas, and feedback of others, taking from others but never giving back, expecting absolute compliance without complaint – all of these examples are part of what we call ‘male entitlement’. And this is not to say that there aren’t feminist, kind and reasonable people in universities, of course there are some. Many of our wonderful male colleagues would agree with this feminist critique of the neoliberal university. It also does not mean that inequalities have disappeared if a handful of white women climb to the top.

What can we do?

Be feminist killjoys, be angry, dissent, resist and say no. Universities need to be more proactive to stimulate understanding and knowledge about gendered challenges and strategies to deal with these. 

Institutions need policies that facilitate work-life balance for all. Confronting institutional racism, sexism and reconciling the competing demands that disproportionately affect women are challenging tasks that require systematic strategies at institutional, policy, legal and governmental levels to address the perpetuation of inequalities. 

One step that could be taken now is to begin to address the pay gap. Another would be to stop silencing women, educate and encourage everyone to avoid gender-blindness. Finally, and since women’s circumstances are often different to those of the ‘ideal male worker’, women in universities need to be granted more research time while the burdens of administrative and pastoral tasks need to be distributed more equally within universities.

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti is a British-Brazilian academic researching issues relating to power, control and violence with an interest in postcolonial theory, gender and inequality. Her book A Southern Criminology of Violence,Youth and Policing is set for publication with Routledge in 2020. She teaches Criminology at the University of Brighton and tweets via @roxycavalcanti.