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Gender in the Neoliberalised Global Academy:
The affective economy of woman and leadership in South Asia
Not that long ago very few people had careers and not many more had the opportunity for one.
As recently as the 1960s, only 4% of British school leavers went to university and the vast majority of them were male. It wasn’t much different anywhere else in the world, indeed for the most part it was a whole lot worse.
No university degree = no professional identity = no career.
What chance therefore, for women not only having a career but rising to a leadership position? Most women would have more chance winning the lottery.
That started to change during the 1990s and has gathered pace since 2000. This is not the place to explore the globalising forces behind this revolution, not least those driving the massification of further and higher education for women especially. But the article under discussion is largely framed within these gendered revolutionary conditions, and not just in the West, but in this instant, South Asia.
But before we delve into the article and the research informing it, just allow me to raise three salient questions for you to mull over.
1. When we talk of leaders and leadership, what images come to your mind?
2. When we talk of university academics, what images come to your mind?
3. When we talk of power in South Asia, what images come to your mind?
Yes, over the past three decades we have certainly undergone a very welcome global revolution regarding the expansion and opening up of opportunities for the higher education and professional advancement of women, just don’t imagine this revolution is equally spread around the world and welcomed by all men.
There remain deeply rooted forces - cultural, gendered, economic – which individually and together act as a resistance to the empowerment of women, especially in those countries yet to experience a full challenge to male power.
But first to the context for this study – higher education. Because if any profession is seen as both a liberalising force in society yet still rooted in gendered dynamics, it is academia. And none of this is helped by having universities subject to neoliberalism.
‘HE has been both the agent of neoliberal reform and also its object. While HE plays a central role in the reproduction of elite power in contemporary capitalism, it has also been heavily neoliberalised itself. Neoliberalism is characterised by four central processes of change in the political economy of capitalism: privatisation, deregulation, financialisation, and globalisation. [under these discursive conditions] Competitive individualism and profit rather than collective social responsibility are encouraged, with each individual responsible and required to behave in particular ways; that is, as economic, rational actors.’ (p. 151)
Much of the research on leadership as practice and concept has suggested various models of leadership, often designating them in some hierarchy of desirability. For example, it is now common-place to have ‘situational/distributed leadership’ presented as the best approach for contemporary leaders. Of course, this is nice to know but it ignores two issues:
1. How does one’s identity mix impact on leadership possibilities and practices?
2. How does the organisational culture determine which leadership styles are privileged and which are not?
Put it another way, if your typical neoliberal organisation is dominated by a competitive, silo-mentality whereby leadership is used as a force to ensure compliance to performative working conditions, and that organisation has been historically dominated by men and/or culturally dominated by masculinism, then what type of leader/leadership emerges? [i]
Answer: it will be male and masculinist. To expect it to be otherwise would be incredibly naïve.
Which raises another question: Are women naïve? Do those women aspiring to leadership positions in, say, universities, imagine all they need do is get a doctorate and then work damned hard at writing, research, publications and getting excellent student feedback?
‘The focus [in HE] on the charismatic leader, or indeed the rhetoric of ‘distributed leadership’ can disguise the gendering, corporatisation and massive values shift taking place in the global academy. Yet our research indicates that many academics, especially women, see through the disguise. They are uncomfortable about entering leadership positions that require their compliance with neoliberalism’s competitive logics, which demand a focus on an auditable surface of signifiers and indicators and their demonstration of aggressive, competitive dispositions and skills in the globalised, commercialised and commodified knowledge economy.’ (P. 152)
So no, women aspiring leaders are not naïve, at least according to this study. Which is good to know because if they were then they would end up steam-rollered by the masculinist neoliberalism which now defines much of international education and certainly university leadership positions.
Key Question and Context: As universities globally become neoliberalist – performative, competitive and corporatized – how is this impacting on women’s engagement with leadership in HE in South Asia? Noting that India soon to be the largest HE sector globally, has 3% female Vice Chancellors.
Method: Larger British Council-funded study which included 30 semi-structured interviews (19 women and 11 men) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The interviews explored participants’ views on women’s under-representation in leadership, what makes leadership attractive/unattractive to women, what enables/supports women to enter leadership positions and personal experiences of being enable/impeded from entering leadership.
This is one of those academic articles, which while being densely packed and informed by theory and related research, is rich in its own empirical data. Below is just a selection:
1. All participants but especially the women, had more to say about the distractions rather than the attractions of leadership.
2. The majority of the female participants associated leadership with an unhealthily heavy workload, vulnerability to accusations of bribery and corruption, and the affective burden of having to deal with conflict and negativity from colleagues in highly competitive professional cultures.
3. While the concept of neoliberalism was not named as such, the values, practices and functionalities associated with it (e.g. global competitiveness, performativity and particular types of masculinities) were frequently cited as distractions.
4. The intensification and bureaucratisation of HE were seen as major barriers for many women.
5. Women academics wishing to remain research active were deterred from seeking senior leadership positions.
6. Leadership was seen as an ‘unhappy realm’, and as onerous, unhealthy and injurious to women especially. There was an anticipation of hurt, injury and danger within leadership posts.
7. Many participants recognised the intersecting demands of the neoliberal academy and those of their patriarchal societies as major impediments to women’s access and success in public life.
8. HE institutions were seen as reflecting and reinforcing macro-level patriarchal practices and priorities.
9. The conjuncture of patriarchy and neoliberal competition also meant that authority, power and leadership were constructed together with a particular type of masculinity that is aggressive and ruthless.
10. A potent symbolic order was recognised to exist in which women must never overtake or lead men – men must, therefore, always lead.
11. Male leaders were believed to appoint in their own image, or to clone themselves in order to protect long-term patriarchal interests.
12. Some men were seen to recast themselves as the injured parties whenever women appear to be succeeding. Successful women diminished men’s ego.
13. Women often felt they had the additional burden of being ‘the other’ resulting in them having to endless prove themselves.
14. Many of the participants noted that the rightful occupants of senior leadership posts were seen as men, with women viewed as imposters and strangers. This gave rise to women feeling a sense of not belonging.
15. Women reported being subject to sexual harassment by male students and the threat of violence from jealous men.
16. Selection processes for senior universities posts was largely based on political connections and allegiances rather than merit and competence, which disadvantaged women’s career trajectories.
A lot has been written over the past decade or so about the ‘post-feminist’ era. If you believe that to be the case then I strongly suggest you read this article. Sure, women around the world have made remarkable progress in public life and at every level, but this is in spite of most men, not because of them. And in spite of entrenched patriarchal/masculinist attitudes and systems in a good many countries, not least those in South Asia.
No wonder then, that a good many women, including those participating in this study, wonder whether the job is worth the candle.
But it is not only gender attitudes which hold women back from leadership in academia, or indeed anywhere else; it is the neoliberal economy, which has wrecked a good many organisations and careers and continues to do so under the guise of ‘efficiency’ and ‘profitability’.
As I write in a forthcoming book [ii] masculinist neoliberalism has not helped global HE it has nigh on destroyed it. The avid competitiveness inherent in such cultures and systems is the last thing humanity needs from its universities as we head into a very chaotic and potentially existentially threatening 21st century. Rather, what we need, and desperately, is global collaboration between our institutes of higher learning and research.
This article is just one of many studies drawing attention to the problems. In which case, I leave you with the authors’ final question to ponder:
‘How can the neoliberal agenda and its consequential individualising competitiveness ever be interrupted and disrupted if the majority of leaders in the global academy are those who sign up to its value system?’
[i] Whitehead, S.M. (2014) ‘Masculinities in Management: Hidden, Invisible and Persistent’ in Kumra, S,. Simpson, R. and Burke, R.J. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organisations. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
[ii] Whitehead, S. and O'Connor, P. (2022 - forthcoming) Creating A Totally Inclusive University. Routledge.
Stephen’s latest book ‘Total Inclusivity At Work’ is available for pre-order HERE.
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