‘Ooops, I did it again!’: a few lines about gender and race in the academy


Gove seems to think writing lines for naughty students is a good idea. If so, I have to volunteer myself for some gentle chastisement.

  • I must not accuse people of being sexist
  • I must not accuse people of being racist

Even if they are.

Most of the time I can ignore it. Life’s too short. Their ‘ism’ does not make a material difference to my life. If I allowed myself to get angry, I would spend my entire life in a red-hot rage. More importantly, there are enough lovely, interesting and energizing people around to more than compensate for the irritations. My husband is a man. He’s ok. My nieces and nephews are mixed race. My sister (does it mater that she is in-law) is white.  As a funky fat black sister pointed out – some years ago in conversation,

Someone call you a monkey? / Don’t try to reason with them / Just ‘go mash it in guerrilla style’.

If I could say those words in patois I would.

I am genuinely amused by a female colleague who this week, during a departmental meeting, asked why in a predominately female department of education, there was only one woman on the Faculty Reading Group.

The Faculty Reading Group are charged with reading the ‘outputs’ of their colleagues and deciding its star rating. The star rating matters. It determines the department’s ability to contribute towards the University achieving its strategic ambition of becoming a research-intensive institution. A prescribed number of colleagues must publish work of the required star rating within an agreed period of time.  If your work is rated as 3* internationally excellent – you’re in! If your work is rated as anything less, 2* for instance, merely internationally significant – you’re out. The implications of this are obvious.

The question amused me because the answer seemed both complex and obvious. And while I like, respect the integrity of and certainly don’t wish to ruffle the feathers belonging to my white, male colleagues – especially the ones on the Faculty Reading Group – I offered my answer to the question with rather more spontaneity than was advisable.

Done it again.

  • I must not accuse people of being sexist
  • I must not accuse people of being racist

Even if they are not racist or sexist as such, but somehow manage to reproduce with perfect symmetry the racist and sexist inequalities that exists in all other aspects of public life.

But of course, race and gender have got nothing to do with it.

The reason why the Faculty Reading Group is an all male group in a mainly female department is because there are no women in the department who have published work of the required star rating that would enable them to be part of it. Everybody nodded in agreement when my female colleague asked her feisty, plucky question. They declared – the men – for the umpteenth time how right she was and how much they agreed with her. She declared, with smiling, feisty, plucky authority, that sexism had nothing to do with it. It might just be because – well – women just aren’t as good as the men; they don’t publish the right sort of thing.  They write about knitting and cake baking.

What happens everywhere does not happen here. The wider patterns of inequality are irrelevant. I’m arrogant enough to be surprised when people disagree with me. There are same discussions I’ve been having for decades. I really thought we – the women in the academy at least – got it. To summarise my slightly more considered response to an already answer question:

tumblr_lknkplDnXP1qivn7do1_500University women are about three times less likely to be professors than men when age and publication rate are taken into account.

Park 1992: 237

While black women are present in new universities as students in significant numbers, we are almost invisible in the higher and senior levels of the academe – a state that has persisted for at least 25 years. Recent figures suggest there are only 10 black women professors in the UK.              

Mirza 2009: 115

Having established that race and gender have got nothing to do with it, I thought it might be a good opportunity to re-read Louise Morley and Heidi Mirza. Perhaps I have misunderstood their research.

Power imbalances in the academy are both structural and played out in micropolitical struggles. Like many aspects of racial and gender oppression, bullying and sexual harassment at work, micropolitics can also be subtle elusive, volatile, difficult to capture, leaving individuals unsure of the validity of their readings of a situation. What appears trivial in a single instance acquires new significance when located with a wider analysis of power relations. The attribution of meaning and decoding of transactions, locations and language is an important component of micro politics.                                       

Morley 2003: 106

Anyway, I’ve written my naughty lines. I’ve learnt my lesson. I have to accept that sometimes, these things happen, I didn’t mean to do it. It was just one of those: ‘Ooops, I did it again!’ moments.

peace + love to you

Mirza, Heidi Safia (2009) Race, Gender and Educational Desire: why black women succeed and fail, London: Routledge

Morley, Louise  (2003) Quality and Power in Higher Education, London: Society for Research in Higher Education & Open University Press


One comment

  1. When the paradigm of ‘excellence’ is set by those who happen to possess more of the underlying characteristics associated with that paradigm (e.g., inclination to view certain forms of presentation as superior, rank dry quantification as inherently higher than rich empathetic narratives), then outsiders have a choice: either seek to adapt so as to conform more to expectations, or challenge the paradigm. But it is not easy, especially when it is not overtly about gender or race – the links are through perceptions and dispositions associated with the cultural and psychological traits of the majority group in positions of power; and those traits are connected with people’s socio-biological features.

    The paradigm must be challenged – so do it again.

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