Part of series: UCU Teach Out

Should we (still) be fixing the women?


~1,600 words


Last modified: March 9th, 12,018 HE

I’m not a woman, I’m not scared of a leadership role, but I sure as Hell don’t want a leadership role at Lancaster.

Audience member

Dr Paula Burkinshaw, of the Leeds University Business School, was originally scheduled to deliver her talk on-campus before moving to the Gregson Centre in solidarity with the strikers. The topic was her research on gendered leadership cultures.

We started with a brief word from Cat Smith MP, who announced her support for the strikes and lamented that she had been unable to make it to the picket line thusfar, but would endeavour to do so. She acknowledged that nobody goes into academia to make bagloads of money and stressed the importance of standing up for one’s rights. It was announced that she, too, had cancelled a planned speaking engagement on campus in solidarity with the strikes. Popping back into the room, she announced that she had never crossed a picket line in [her] life, and [she] wasn’t going to start now.

Dr Burkinshaw then took to the stage. She began with her observation, from her experience of university management positions, that leaders in universities are generally men, or behaving in masculine ways. Her research began when she started asking herself why this was. She never tended to see images, when she was a student, of female VCs, for example, and so for her Ph.D. (at Lancaster, no less) she decided to interview as many as she could find. She then stressed that, whilst discussing a topic such as this one can’t get away from mentioning the word feminism, she was not anti-men. She expressed some disappointment at the substantial gender disparity in the room—it was by far the most imbalanced Teach Out event so far—wondering if it may have been because the original on-campus talk was predominantly advertised to womens’ groups.

Dr Burkinshaw asked for members of the audience to say why they had come to the talk, even if it was just because it’s the Gregson and it’s to do with industrial action. The first audience member, a woman in her 60s, gave her reason as the fact that she struggle[s] with men saying that they’re feminists, and men saying they experience sexism. Good to know that my worst expectations about some of the audience could be confirmed so early on, but I still fail to see why that would be a motivation to attend this talk in particular, especially considering it was so measured and balanced. The second respondent was more promising: she had heard [Dr Burkinshaw] speak years ago about women VCs and was interested to see how things had changed since.

The structure of the talk revolved around three of Dr Burkinshaw’s recently-published papers: Fixing the Women or Fixing Universities: Women in HE Leadership; Gendered performance of leadership; and Networking and gender equality in academic leadership. Before this, however, Dr Burkinshaw’s Ph.D. work was discussed.

During the time of her Ph.D. work, some 12 % of VCs were woman, who also held around the same proportion of professorships. That has now roughly doubled, to 35 (out of 136) VCs. Originally, Dr Burkinshaw noted, this minority of women VCs were largely in non-Russell group (i.e. prestigious) universities—nowadays there were a handful (though she acknowledged that we probably won’t mention Bath), but they were still in the minority.

We then moved onto the gender pay gap reporting that has been mandated for all organisations in the UK employing over a certain number of people. The deadline is in a month, but some universities have published their information already. For example, the University of Southampton reports a 17.4 % gender pay gap. She clarified that this was a case of women being paid less than men, but accepted that it could be the other way round in other industries. A couple of questions were asked, largely comprising of the common criticisms of the gender pay gap argument, and Dr Burkinshaw allowed that gender pay gap calculations were imperfect. Of particular interest, she noted, was the suggestion that professors tend to negotiate their own salaries, and the follow-on suggestion that men might be better at that then women. She recounted her surprise, during her interviewing of female VCs, at finding that very few of them said that they negotiated their salaries. One reason for that, she suggested, was to be found in the VC who told her she just felt so grateful to get the job.

Here, Dr Burkinshaw mentioned the Norwegian government’s gender-neutral 40% quota for board memberships, and the UK’s own 30nbsp;% Club (of which the University of Lancaster is apparently a rather quiet member). The figures of 40 and 30 % were, Dr Burkinshaw suggested, rather arbitrary, given that 51 % of people are women, and a woman in the audience who had been sitting beside me in an increasing state of indignance spoke out about her dislike of the focus on meaningless targets, rather than their governing values.

Dr Burkinshaw talk, which was increasingly beginning to resemble more of a reverie, touched briefly on the idea of bias, about which she conceded Mary Beard to be an insightful commentator, before touching equally briefly on the idea of some sort of burgeoning women’s revolution, noting that obviously we have a lot of hashtags at the moment that are relevant for this, which made me chuckle. To the people claiming that things were approaching a tipping point, she quoted Cynthia Enloe: how many tipping points have we had?

After a further meander, during which Dr Burkinshaw wondered if women should be happy that men have come on board, or do we interpret that as women can’t handle it and men need to come and help us out, we returned to the original topic of the talk. This was, as per the title, the question of whether, after noticing the dearth of women in leadership roles within academica, we should be talking about how to fix the women, or how to fix the universities. She lamented that we don’t really have a model of how women can be successful; we just have templates that make them men. A comment from the audience expressed support for Dr Burkinshaw’s use of masculinities rather than masculinity, recognising that there is a full spectrum of possibilities. For instance, he said, he had been applying for an extension to his sabbatical leave to spend more time with his newborn child. He was advised not to mention the child motivation, but decided to keep it in order to challenge the notion of a single type of masculinity. As far as I could tell from his story, he received the extension. The lack of men within higher education taking paternity leave was cited as an example of this apparent community of practice of hegemonic masculinity.

At this point, another questioner asked Dr Burkinshaw whether her research took into account any sort of intersectionality, claiming that the model of the traditional VC is an affluent white person, as well as being a male. Dr Burkinshaw replied that she did not want to generalise or essentialise, and that she fully appreciated that the story she was telling was primarily concerned with the gender disparity within VCs. She considered the question-asker’s characterisation of the traditional VC interesting, noting that many of the female VCs whom she had interviewed were from her generation, and had thus been through the grammar school system, allowing many of them to make it to where they were from originally working-class backgrounds. It looks like I wasn’t just chatting shit when I sang the praises of the tripartite educational system a couple years ago, after all.

This led onto Dr Burkinshaw’s research into the impact of generational differences. Younger women, she claimed, were broadly unimpressed with their leadership models and were resisting leadership ambitions. A woman in the audience concurred—she was a newly-employed academic and was already struggling with the workload. I’m not not going for leadership positions because I think there’ll be a bunch of scary men staring at me, she said. She considered it important to talk about things like childcare, stating women have children, we are pregnant for nine months; even if we have supportive partners, we still walk around with a big belly for nine months. She concluded: I don’t think with this workload I can last 30 years.

A guy in the audience responded: I’m not a woman, I’m not scared of a leadership role, but I sure as Hell don’t want a leadership role at Lancaster. He said he would want a leadership role within the UCU, so perhaps we should consider what it is about the University of Lancaster in particular that so turns women (and, evidently, non-women too) away from leadership. Another woman weighed in with the idea that there were many examples of successful leadership from women that didn’t amount to official titles. Maybe, she posited, feminine leadership may be more fuzzy and cooperative like this.

At this point, as we had already gone on for almost twice the allotted time, the organiser suggested a move to the pub for further discussion, Dr Burkinshaw’s slides having been exhausted long ago. I had to be getting off, so made my way out. I thought about how this was the seventh such event that had failed to provide much in the way of answers to the (admittedly interesting) problems it had identified, and I wondered if maybe the solutions were reserved for the post-talk pub discussions, lubricated by pints. I shall have to stick around next week to find out.