Women in the academy: Ambiguities, uncertainty and precarity’

Authors: Ashencaen Crabtree, S.

Start date: 14 December 2018

Women are flocking to universities in higher numbers than ever before, both as students and as academics. The success of girls at school (although often problematised in drawing unfavourable comparisons with the progress of boys) has been equally replicated by their successes in tertiary education in the Global North. It would seem natural therefore to assume that these successes are duly reflected by female academics working in Higher Education. However, the higher rates of women entering the academy takes place at a time when universities are going through rapid changes, morphing into new entities that offer different work contexts, ethos and procedures than those once identified with traditional academic life, where male academics greatly proliferated and profited.

These kinds of changes have been identified in the new model of the ‘corporate’ university. Such transitions have been particularly noted in respect of Higher Education in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US, to mention but some. These may be seen to form part of a wider global trend, where perceived successful models are almost automatically replicated through the processes of isomorphic convergence. Problems that may arise in the new paradigm or model, such as the corporatisation of university life, are therefore spread across regions through replication. A postcolonial critique can be brought to bear where changes in Western tertiary education, such as the UK or the US, begin to colonise HE spaces in other countries. This may carry important implications for women working and studying in diverse settings.

The social context of corporatised universities are, in turn, accepted by many as merely a normalised feature of a pervasive neo-liberal political landscape. Yet neo-liberalism and unfettered capitalism are also associated with growing precarity in populations (including among the professional classes) together with reduced financial investment in public services; a growing not shrinking divide in affluence across groups; with increasing imbalances in terms of assets and access to resources and opportunities.

The loss of public faith in political solutions and Enlightenment ideals can be seen in the rise of the politics of identity and emotion, typified by the results of the EU Referendum in the UK and presidential elections in the US. Racism, xenophobia and sexism (often depicted in extreme forms) along with contempt for human diversity, human rights, and global, ecological wellbeing are the hallmarks of an identified Alt-right discourse that seem not only to have gained a resurgence but appear to be currently flourishing in some societies and taking central stage in the political and civic space, pushing other voices to the margins. Women, however, are at the fore in strongly challenging these disturbing destructive trends, which carry a particular brand of oppressive patriarchy, earning it the sobriquet of ‘toxic masculinity’. This keynote lecture will explore the impact of changes within the academy upon women, both as academics and as students. In so doing the context of current neo-liberalism and the rise of the politics of exclusion and oppression will be considered as providing the regressive socio-political backdrop against which women continue to struggle to gain recognition and equality. The goals of gender parity for resources, opportunities and reward form the basis of women’s prevailing quest for social justice supported by their calls for a renaissance of the Enlightenment belief in the superior status of reason over emotion and bigotry.

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