Are you being served?

by Helen Lees

When I was a PhD student struggling to make sense of a higher education environment that rendered me at the bottom of its pile in terms of status, I thought well, if I get a job in a university then I will be someone. I will have started a career. It felt like a happy scenario.

Prior to that, after quite a few years in a “what shall I do with my life?” wilderness I had stumbled on work that I could do; for which I was suited and which gave me a sense of meaning and joy. I had read an academic article in the library when training to be a teacher and I knew immediately and exactly what I wanted for my contribution to the world. I wanted to become an academic. I would do a PhD and then write, write, write (and teach). My vision forward was clear. So I sucked up the bad bits of being a Phd student with my eyes on the prize.

You know, the PhD was quite hard work. So were the subsequent two monographs in two years and the setting up of the journal, the papers, the funding applications and so on. I did it all because I thought it would be worth it. For the sake of others and for making a difference to their lives. But to do this properly you need continuity and support…

Watch out for gender issues

Oh, how naïve. Firstly I am a woman, so the odds on my turning a PhD into a (paid) full time, long term career as a public servant of thought, publication and teaching are, in fact, slim. Albeit possible, the chances are sadly less likely than if I inhabited a male body. Weird but true: my genitalia disable me as an academic of value. It’s 2013 and that is still true. But it’s just about the mind in higher education you say? No it isn’t. Not yet and the rate of progress is too slow as a recent Canadian report on professorial promotions for women suggests. What’s being tried just ain’t enough. As if we need to be told, higher education is and remains stupidly, stubbornly dysfunctional in its relationship to women in its midst. Women are still tainted by sexisms which fail to treat their mental capacities fairly. Implicit bias, open bias, covert bias and blatant networking to exclude, serve to mean that women’s work and thought is sidelined, ignored, cited less, “presumed incompetent” and belittled. Men do better in a highly competitive domain. What’s happening right now through official schemes to address this isn’t nearly enough.

Did I experience a belittling of my work as an academic in the first three years of employment – post PhD – in higher education (2010-2013)? Alas, dear reader, I did. Not from everyone because some male colleagues were and are amazingly supportive, but from too many men I received a sort of drip drip snub. Was I not being male enough? All the schemes in the world (Concordat, Badge of Excellence, Athena Swan, the law…) did not help to stop me feel slightly bewildered. Why was he getting on so much better than me? Why is his work paid attention and taken seriously whilst mine is passed over as a “novelty”? Why is his work put into the REF and mine not? Why are they discussing his work in the meeting and never mine? Do I exist? Why does he have solid networks whilst I struggle to fit in? Why am I, as an employee, described as “in and out”? Is he better than me? Why does he have a permanent job and an office, a laptop, an ipad and responsibilities and I – and all these other women – linger on precarious short term contracts, dependent on funding, often infantalised into serving professorial staff and not much more unless we turn our face away and become difficult and, shall I say, “entrepreneurial”?

Mysteries which increasing levels of research on bias against women’s thought and inclusion on equal terms in higher education begins to unravel. Given I was a woman on a research contract I never stood a equity or fairly tendered respect as a general rule – it became the exception. That PhD student self I had back then thought research would be a viable pathway to make my desired contribution to knowledge and the world. Dear dear silly little me. I had no idea how difficult that would be to make true given my gender.

But sexism aside, perhaps my status as an early career researcher on a contract might help because I am to be supported – we are told – to create a flourishing career? So I can contribute this talent I have, this latent potential?  So says the Concordat and Vitae for example. They are set up to help me in the early stages and in a researcher role, so I’ll be all right! After all, the European Commission has identified that without researcher personnel to develop the knowledge economy the future looks a little troubled. So, making sure researchers flourish, feel included, happy, find meaning and develop to do research and make their vital contributions is a big priority. But this is idealistic.

Those in power forget (do they?) to factor in that in any institution without proper democratic structures someone has to be the kicking horse. Is it likely to be the early career researcher on a contract? Perfect. Cheap minds on seats to serve the ambitions of permanent colleagues. At an interpersonal level, let’s make sure the contract researchers don’t matter much because then that means we “permanents” matter more than them. Let’s get the early career researcher down in the dust somehow in exchange for a reference or another research post. Another research post that also is likely another contract because, once you get branded as a contract researcher and have spent your time serving the egotistic hierarchies of a department where permanent colleagues get the career support, you have nothing to show on your CV in the way of teaching and supervision and no-one values a researcher anyway. They are the new “house-wife”  or the easily “expendable factor” when the gaming begins. This is the reality. Something’s got to give.

So forget your contribution to society dear researcher (especially female but not exclusively because men on contracts suffer too). Because of the contract you have signed, the last nine months of it will be easily spent filling out random (all different format) online job application forms in any free time you may have; taking tremendous amounts of time (that could have been spent on research or, crikey, with your family or friends) and you may or may not get another post. Of course you could have taken that redeployment in the face of redundancy by accepting the junior level project post in the social work department, but you have academic pride and a sense of your own value? Oh dear dear. You expect a viable, recognizable career pathway? What silliness. They were right to not bother about you after all because you are clearly too stupid to work in higher education. And, by the way, we are right to patronize and ignore you whatever direction you turn because that stops you making even more complaints which are really bad form, dear. Oh, and by the way, we wish you would shut up. We have a university to run.

Helen Lees