Feminist Early Career Academics: Conflicting Identities?

Higher Education has traditionally been a male-dominated institution globally, as our contributors will show in the chapters of this collection. Historically, universities have been the preserve of men in terms of the numbers of male students and members of faculty, as well as the macho culture which has pervaded the hallowed halls of HE institutions (Savigny 2014). Malcolm Bradbury satirised this culture in his now infamous The History Man, a novel written in 1975, ostensibly set at a leading 1960s campus university in the United Kingdom. In Bradbury’s account, the leading character, Howard Kirk, is an ambitiously ruthless sociologist who produces numerous displays of overt misogyny, bolstering the patriarchal academic hierarchy. Although fictitious, it could be argued that elements of The History Man are painfully close to reality in its portrayal of the macho culture present in many HE institutions.

Conversely, in the past four decades there has been exponential growth in the number of women attending HE as undergraduate students.1 In many parts of Europe, North and South America, and parts of Asia, women outnumber men in terms of enrolment to university. However, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, as soon as we consider PhD graduates and researchers working in HE, men occupy a significantly larger percentage of the academic space than women (UNESCO 2014). Furthermore, the situation worsens the higher up the university management chain one goes (Savigny 2014). Indeed, in the United Kingdom women account for 45% of academics at universities; however, they occupy only 20% of professorships. At the highest rank in universities, only 14% of vice-chancellors are women (HESA 2015). The hallowed council chambers have long been decorated with portraits of white, greying men, and although one of the oldest institutions in the United Kingdom, Oxford University, appointed its first ever female vice-chancellor recently, the record of women’s advancement in this most senior and prestigious position is woefully poor.

The junior female academic thus faces an uphill battle in terms of career aspirations. Being a ‘feminist’ early career academic adds a further layer of complexity: maintaining one’s feminist identity and politics within what has traditionally been a very male-dominated institution where few women reach the most senior positions, and within an increasingly marke- tising academy, where students are viewed as ‘customers’, may sit uneasily with a politics of ‘equality for all’, collectivity, caring, and transformatory politics. Feminist values and practices can provide a means of working through some of these challenges, but may also bring complications as different ideologies collide. Some of these complications will be explored in this book.

As feminist researchers and teachers ourselves, we feel that the impact of trying to live out a feminist politics that involves another set of priorities that affect the way we think about the everyday and overarching experience of an academic career. This political outlook can lead to transformative events but can also create difficulties in a non-feminist department or a research climate that does not take gender seriously.

We have both come from a Women’s Studies centre, where we completed our respective PhDs. In this ‘safe’ environment, feminism was taken as the guiding force for our individual and collective endeavours both in our postgraduate projects and beyond the walls of HE through activism. Although there were varying interpretations and ways in which students and staff embodied their feminist selves, the political climate of the centre meant that our collective identity was ‘feminist’ and embraced all bifurcations of feminism. It was only upon leaving this feminist bubble that we became cognisant of how ‘unsafe’ non-feminist HE institutions can be for early career feminist academics. Since completing our PhDs we have been employed as Research Fellows and Lecturers at ‘good’ universities in the United Kingdom. However, our journeys to this point have been neither linear nor simple, which mirrors some of our contributors’ stories of gaining post-PhD employment. Moreover, we struggle to grapple on a daily basis with some of the themes of this book (i.e., our feminist identities, how to live out our feminist politics in the classroom, finding spaces to do feminist work, and so on).

It is important to highlight that this book is written and edited by feminists; however, not every chapter is specifically ‘about’ feminists. In conceptualising the idea for this book we decided that we wanted to give space to a range of early career scholars who self-identify as feminist and who see gender as the most important category for analysis. In this way this collection of empirical, personal, and theoretically driven pieces take a feminist ‘approach’. As mentioned earlier, we are cognisant of the existence of numerous ways in which to ‘be’ feminist and live out our feminism. Academically speaking, despite numerous explorations (Harding 1986, 1987; Scraton and Flintoff 2002; Humphries and Truman 1994; Ramazanglu and Holland 2002; Bryman 2008), there has been no consensus on a singular, distinctive method of feminist inquiry. Ramazanoglu and Holland (2002: 13) state, ‘feminist methodology is one set of approaches to the problems of producing justifiable knowledge of gender relations ... [and] always entails some theory of power.’ Feminist methodology, as an academic area of research, began in response to feminist researchers challenging existing methods—which created exclusively masculine knowledge—and thus critiquing existing understandings of gendered social relations (Ramazanoglu and Holland 2002; Stanley 2013). There are a myriad of feminist methodologies and debates about what these entail, however, in this collection our contributors use feminism as a guiding concept in research, providing a framework in which to operate. That is to say, the stimulus, research design, analysis, and theoretical framework for conducting research as a feminist are distinctive and driven from each author’s feminist identity.

Much has been written about the often subjective nature of feminist research; Stanley (2013) argues that this is a strength of the field as it engenders the ability to understand peoples’ lived realities. Harding (1987) goes further to suggest that as feminists our standpoint provides a privileged position from which to investigate, understand, and analyse the lives of women. Stanley (2013) describes this as the ‘power’ that feminists have in interviewing women. Although we do not aver that this is universally the case, our contributors are arguably in a privileged position in terms of being able to provide detailed accounts and insights into their experiences of HE as early career feminist academics. However, they occupy less privileged positions within the academy more widely. We therefore seek to think of the interactions between power, feminist research, and feminist researchers themselves as complex and not to approach them naively (Taylor 1996: 121).

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