Australian universities have attempted to redress the overwhelming male dominance in the professoriate and in university leadership by framing the need for diversity as an economic imperative guided by performance and merit. Although women comprise just over half the academic staff in Australia, their representation dramatically decreases as they reach senior lecturer level, with only twenty-five per cent of all university vice-chancellors women.
What might look like progress, at first glance, actually falls short of many institutions’ gender equity goals. Women not only tend to over represent at the lower levels of academia but are also more likely to occupy fixed-term, or sessional contracts. Moreover, women’s scholarly contributions continue to go poorly recognised, judged against male norms and practices, making it difficult for women to gain promotion to senior academic and leadership positions.
Women not only tend to over represent at the lower levels of academia but are also more likely to occupy fixed-term, or sessional contracts.
In this way gender equality in higher education and the improved representation of women in leadership becomes what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant defines as a form of ‘cruel optimism’; a relational dynamic between individuals and a desired object that is harmful and an ‘obstacle to your flourishing’.
Berlant’s research explores the fantasy of ‘the good life’ and its perseverance in neoliberal times, and she uses this object of ‘the good life’—that of upward mobility, economic security, and political and social equality—to illustrate why people remain attached to such fragile fantasies.
This notion of ‘the good life’ shares some striking similarities with contemporary academia, such as the desire by academics to be deemed proficient in the work they do, have research published, be promoted, receive praise and recognition in teaching, and for service to our communities. These aspirations create a type of ‘cruel optimism’ in that not all types of bodies, academic activities and knowledges are considered meritorious in the measured university.
Not all optimistic relations are inherently cruel but according to Berlant “they become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially”.
The ‘academic good life’ can be understood as a fantasy discourse, and our investment in it creates order and control. The optimism that we have in the ‘academic good life’ is distinctively cruel because it does not disband the gender binary, but rather, maintains it. Despite equal opportunity and diversity policies, institutional policy continues to privilege the ideal academic as someone who is white, male, able bodied, middle class, and heterosexual, and works full-time hours.
The optimism that we have in the ‘academic good life’ is distinctively cruel because it does not disband the gender binary, but rather, maintains it.
Berlant’s focus is on the present and how looking at the everyday allows us to understand what she calls the ‘crisis of ordinariness’, or the state by which we live, which enables a deconstruction of our cruel attachments.
According to the theory, a belief that equity and diversity will eventually prevail enables, or perhaps even encourages, women in academia to disregard much of the everyday sexism and misogyny in the workplace, in the misplaced belief that things will just get better. For Berlant optimism is a formal structural feeling: as such, it allows day-to-day life to be liveable.
So how then, is it that certain gender equity measures in the contemporary, neoliberal, new managerialist university turn every day academic practices into an ongoing ‘crisis of ordinariness’? And how do these conditions exert pressure on academics in different ways?
Fantasies of the academic ‘good life’ are increasingly bound up in publishing practices, and academics’ trust in the outmoded impossibility of the linear academic career trajectory of assistant lecturer, to professor and then senior executive. Competitive grants, awards and fellowship applications often include equity clauses that imply all candidates are on a level playing field, when in fact women’s capabilities continue to be measured and evaluated in relation to male norms, participation, and achievements.
Women’s capabilities continue to be measured and evaluated in relation to male norms, participation, and achievements.
Women’s presence thus instigates a disturbance of the status quo. This hyper-visibility of academic women in terms of ‘doing’ gender equity often puts a stranglehold on female candidates, and results in women remaining largely invisible as academic leaders and respected knowledge producers.
Our faith in this gender equity-good life fantasy allows us to endure day-to-day life but it means that women often put up with gendered micro politics, discrimination and harassment. This is not to say that mainstream equity and diversity policies are all bad or that they do not significantly improve workplace inclusion and reduce discrimination, but that we must become more aware of the individualising and gendered nature of these policies and measures, and the way they make women liable for their own success or failure.
We must be critical of gendered notions of merit and achievement, and place the impetus back onto institutions to implement policies, practices and cultures that create sustainable gender change.
You may also be interested in Sharon Bell’s blog, ‘Why so few, or how so many? Women academics in Australian universities.’