Gender, Universities

Women, Service, and Universities

Saturday, 11th November 2017

from Nov. 11, 2017

Some specifics in this article about a report on womens’ experience in universities. Some of the comments add to the discussion, for a change, rather than being the usual cesspool of uninformed and uncharitable opinion.

One thing that strikes me about this report is how far universities are behind some corporations in figuring out how to make life bearable for their employees. This might be because of the historically conservative nature of university bureaucracies, and their rootedness in a quasi-religious “mission” of education. Women bear the brunt of this, because the conservative and quasi-religious character of universities never included them in the first place. There is also a growth of service requirement that comes with the growth of administration – more administrators do not mean less work for faculty, but more work, since each office must justify its mission, and that requires input from those who bear the primary mission of the university, the faculty. Women (as well as non-whites) bear the brunt of this, in part because of the requirement of diversity. So, as this report says, the combination of historical patterns of family care, along with heavy service loads, means a disproportional weight on women.

I’m struck by this as someone who was on almost 20 committees last year (not including student thesis committees, of which there were several), and who was doing all sorts of stuff over and above a standard faculty load. I know it is worse for some women. More importantly, I know it’s worse because contributions are weighted differently. A task that might count as research in one place counts as service in another, for someone else. Women who have a high sense of quality are told that they “make things harder than they need to be” by striving for that quality.

So there’s no win here – either do something good (and it’s all on your back, but if it succeeds the university will be happy to take credit for it and proclaim loudly how much it supported you the whole time, even if it didn’t), or you try to balance your life, don’t do something as good as possible, and are regarded by others as a slacker, as mediocre, as deadwood. You have time that you can arrange yourself, for the most part – but then people assume you’re “off” when you’re at home or when the university is not in session. I’m not sure why it is so hard to understand that a faculty member does not get paid in the summer, and therefore shouldn’t be working, but in fact usually is working. Is anyone else expected to work without getting paid? All faculty face this, but it remains worse for women because there are those in the university itself who tend to discount their work.

UC Irvine’s response to this is disheartening. They point to all the strides they have taken. That’s fine, but the point here is the experience of the people in the system, not the administrative moves that have been made. Some administrators operate like some politicians – they regard themselves as the reasonable people, in place to govern a system rationally, and they regard all other people as having interests that taint their reasonability. And so, faculty are self-interested, which means they shouldn’t really be listened to, or if they are listened to, the listening is done to try to confirm already decided upon courses of action or intuitions. For both administrators and politicians, the system is basically sound, and just needs a few tweaks at the edges. The message from faculty (and from constituents, to the politicians) is that the system bears the marks of all its past injustices. It carries them forward, unquestioned, because they are part of the background assumptions of things. If women raise issues in the university, the background for their experience is a university built around the work of men, in which women are necessarily oddballs, interlopers, foreigners. The history remains with us, and those who are furthest from the structures that history gave us are the most likely to feel its alienating effects.

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