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Academic journeys and gendered stories: careers in UK higher education

By Arwen Raddon


Chapter 2 from the publication "Gender inequity in academic profession and higher education access: Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States", edited by the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, 2006.UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have gone through a series of major changes over the last few decades. Different authors have asked what changes such as widening participation, changing management and audit practices, and relationships with the world of work mean for academic careers and the university. One notable change has been the continuing growth in the number of women working and studying in UK higher education. It could be argued that we are now seeing the incremental improvement in the gender balance that will inevitably result from women's greater representation in the academy. As Walsh remarks, it was thought that bringing more women into academia would change the balance of power in HE. However, while women are here in numbers, they tend to dominate the lower ranks of the universities. In terms of academic jobs and structure, women make up 40% of academics in the UK, but only around 14% of the top professorial positions. If we examine the culture of higher education in the UK, this tends to both reflect and maintain the relative positions of women and men in the academy. Feminist research continues to play a vital role in highlighting the impact of gender and other power relations in academic careers, despite the wider view of academic meritocracy. And while the number of women working in HE continues to grow, women can still face major challenges and deeply embedded social practices. Elsewhere I have explored some of the micro practices that sustain the male-biased discourse of the successful academic who is focused, aggressive, puts their academic career before everything else, probably doesn't have a family (or has a non-career-minded partner that cares for the children), and has a very planned, linear career pathway. As such, the "silhouette" of the academic, or what we expect the academic to be, look or act like, remains heavily gendered. The fact that the majority of women working in HE continue to dominate the lower "ranks" in many ways reflects the persistence of this gendered silhouette. As Marchbank notes, "it is not so much that discrimination is overt, nor even sneakily covert, but that it is culturally so strong that it appears nonexistent". As such, experiences that are deeply gendered come to be seen as natural, rather than being recognized as something that requires reflection, critique, challenge and transformation. This paperdraws on interviews with a small group of women and men academics in the UK to explore how gender can be seen to shape individual career journeys. This includes a focus on journeys into HE, developing a career and more specific gendered tensions experienced in the academy. The paper concludes that there are a number of areas of experience that are shared by both these women and men within their academic careers. However, it is highlighted that certain aspects of the academic journey remain particularly gendered. It is vital to explore the areas in which there are specifically gendered experiences in order to counter their acceptance as natural or simply "the way it is around here." [Taken from the Introduction

Publisher: Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University
Year: 2006
OAI identifier:

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