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Home arrow Sociology arrow Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences and Challenges


Rachel Thwaites and Amy Pressland

‘There is now significant debate as to whether universities are in crisis, in demise, or merely being restructured to meet the needs of knowledge- based economies’ (Blackmore 2002: 419). Written almost 15 years ago, Blackmore’s statement still holds true for universities around the globe today. Globalisation is no longer a future possibility (or threat); it is the current status quo. The global educational marketplace, coupled with the now de facto neoliberal style of management in higher education (HE); the influx of ever-evolving new technologies in pedagogy; and increasingly mobile, agentic and demanding HE students, have all contributed to a dramatic change in how universities are run, experienced and perceived around the world. The ‘traditional’ university has had to keep up with these changes and as such has changed as a consequence. No longer are universities uniquely places for lengthy contemplation of theory in quiet library enclaves, or in-depth philosophical debate (Deem 1998); now as young people enter HE they are immediately bombarded with questions about their employability plans, their career-enhancing extra-curricular activities, and how specific course modules will help them get the job they

R. Thwaites (H)

Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, Kent, UK A. Pressland

DB Cargo UK, Doncaster, Yorkshire, UK © The Author(s) 2017

R. Thwaites, A. Pressland (eds.), Being an Early Career Feminist Academic, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-54325-7_15

want, with less and less time spent on academic study. Students, as ‘user- payers’ are also now allowed to dictate how their universities are run, but not simply through membership in unions as was once the primary channel of student-management interactions; now the national and university- specific surveys (such as the National Student Survey [NSS] in the United Kingdom) which pepper every module and element of university life give students the opportunities to ‘rate’ the ‘service’ they are paying for, which in turn contributes to how universities are ranked nationally and globally.

Equally, academic staff are under increasing pressure to produce; to teach more exciting and ‘rateable’ modules, to publish world-leading articles, to attract multi-million-pound funding grants, to engage and collaborate with local communities, to disseminate their research to fellow academics and lay audiences, to be ‘au fait’ with multiple social media platforms and to provide round-the-clock pastoral care for sometimes very troubled young people. Furthermore, universities themselves are under far greater scrutiny from governments, funders and the public. The new corporate-managerialist environment (Johansson and Sliwa 2014; Lafferty and Fleming 2000) in universities provides a response, of sorts, to some of the external pressures now facing HE institutions. Equally, the neoliberal style of university management has provoked and embedded diverse and multifaceted pressures on academic staff and students alike.

The consequence of this shift in governance has had widespread consequences globally, to which the contributors of this collection attest. The corporatisation of HE institutions has put gender equity under threat again ‘despite seemingly equity-oriented discourses’ abounding across different sectors in society (Blackmore 2002: 420). Johansson and Sliwa (2014) argue that such ‘equality initiatives’ hide instances of inequality, rather than making them more apparent. Given that women tend to occupy the lower end of the academic workforce in larger numbers, the change in managerial style has led to much greater job insecurity—the precarity that many of our contributors describe. Short-term contracts at the beginning of one’s academic career are now commonplace and have a profound effect on later development due to the inability to build a research profile, the lack of continuity in the delivery of teaching activities and the constant worry about ‘the next job’. The insecurity around work is also due to the increased monitoring activities which are integral to a corporate-style of university management. Now, more than ever, academic staff are under intense scrutiny to produce and provide evidence for every aspect of their work, leaving little time to actually ‘do’ their jobs effectively.

Our contributors also describe how this precarity impacts not only one’s academic career, but also one’s personal life outside of academia and general well-being. Early career academics are putting their personal lives on hold—buying a house, having children—partly due to the insecurity of their working lives and the burdensome workloads which they carry. In many ways early career female academics could be said to be supporting universities as the foot soldiers of HE institutions, akin to the way in which feminists in the 1960s and 1970s described frustrated housewives as supporting the economy by providing a happy and healthy home and hearth for their salaried husbands. Given the strength of the testimonies provided in this collection, it is time we recognise the work done by early career (female) academics in universities globally. Moreover, the threat to gender equality is being held at bay, to an extent, by early career feminists who are critiquing, challenging and supporting one another; protesting, writing, teaching and existing in an environment which seeks to impose again the patriarchal hand of control over academics. The work of women in this book, and more widely, should be applauded.

As the chapters of this book show, being a feminist does add another layer of complexity in managing these concerning changes. One must navigate the complex practical and affective realities of holding onto a politics which demands transformation, equality, power-sharing and collectivity while also, to some extent at least, playing the neoliberal game. One’s feminist and scholarly identity can seem to be at odds both as a researcher and teacher. The demands of the contemporary university, and its inequalities, can be hard to bear when one is looking for a space to work together for a better world. Yet, it is exactly this conflict, inequality and set of demands which can encourage feminist early careers to push for change, call out inequity and make a real difference to the institution, their own lives and the lives of their colleagues. We do not wish to be naive: this effort is serious and needs to be collective rather than solitary, but as our chapters show we need not despair at the state of higher education currently and our efforts at change are not in vain.

Our contributors have provided fascinating, insightful, honest and detailed accounts from personal, empirical and theoretical perspectives of how early career feminist academics are experiencing the academy globally. As Blackmore (2002: 421) states, ‘[u]niversities themselves have always presented possibilities and problems for women’. It would seem from the chapters in this collection that universities continue to provide feminists with opportunities to resist and challenge the patriarchal structures under which they work and have studied. However, if we take the final chapter’s Manifesta, composed by the Res-Sisters collective, we could argue that universities are also positive sites for feminists to continue to push the feminist agenda into the mainstream through creative, subtle and effective methods. Rather than feel dismayed at some of the examples of discrimination and sexism detailed in the pages of this book, we would like to encourage readers to be empowered by the stories here, to recognise their own stories and to use this collective consciousness to keep moving forward step by step. Indeed, as Blackmore (2002) argues, women in academia have been, and need to continue to be ‘cultural change agents’ in order to question dominant values and cultures that pervade universities globally. As feminists before us—and now with our colleagues across career stages—it is we who will create change through our research, teaching, engagement, interactions and activism, making it all the more gratifying as a result.

We hope that this collection will give rise to greater debate within academia about its own culture and the position, most especially, of early career academics, as well as the potential for change that feminism holds. In collaborating with our contributors to bring this book to fruition we feel a space has been opened up for change, to give people a sense of not being alone in their struggles but part of a more visible and vocal community, and a growing and continuing global conversation. The book speaks, most critically, to the need for collective change across the sector and the necessity for this change to begin now.


Blackmore, J. (2002). Globalisation and the restructuring of higher education for new knowledge economies: New dangers or old habits troubling gender equity work in universities. Higher Education Quarterly, 56(4), 419-441.

Deem, R. (1998). New manageralism’ and higher education: The management of performances and cultures in universities in the United Kingdom. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 5(1), 47-70.

Johansson, M., & Sliwa, M. (2014). Gender, foreigness and academia: An intersectional analysis of the experiences of Foreign women academics in UK business schools. Gender, Work and Organisation, 21(1), 18-36.

Lafferty, c., & Fleming, J. (2000). The restructuring of academic work in Australia: Power, management and gender. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21 (2), 257-267 (51, 331-340).

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