Nobody is safe in debate on gender in the academy
It is unfair that female academics still have to fight for their space in institutions of higher learning
Patriarchy and misogyny are a sad reality of our universities
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Iread an article in a section of the media that effectively described the woes of female workers in the academy. The authors, Dr Duncan Omanga and Dr Caroline Mose, did a good job to expose the plight of the female dons in the academy, the gender stereotypes and misogyny that female dons in the academy have to undergo as they labour in the male dominated space.
While it was not overtly stated, I sensed that the all important sub-text was that patriarchy and misogyny are a sad reality of our wider social experience, but should not be blatantly manifest in the academy; that the academy is the paragon of the liberal spirit of our modern times in which the triumph of brain over brawn is at the heart of the social experience. Indeed, I thought we could even see this as ‘dirt’, in the sense that the concept has been used by anthropologist Mary Douglas: a matter out of place. But I think this dirt is pervasively spread out in all social institutions, even the church, and it is a problem to both men and women. It is just part of what Judith Butler has termed the ‘gender trouble’. It is everywhere and it hurts everyone.
I also think that the inevitably social nature of the university context is such that it is not just a place to produce, disseminate and store knowledge but also an active site for the production and consumption of gender identities. Theoretical abstractions and formula could be the motor that run the engine of the university, but production, transmission and consumption of knowledge involves close interaction within and among the sexes — they are no longer two.
The intimacy of the knowledge industry and the challenges it poses to gender relations is an issue that has always been here, since the days of Plato’s academy. We all know about the famous platonic love that Plato prescribed for gender relations in the academy. I believe that Plato’s prescription was based on the obvious fact then that the entry of women into the public sphere of the academy that required close teamwork and long hours of inter-sex cooperation needed a reconfiguration of gender relations. Indeed the logical end of his thinking was that the academy was essentially asexual, a neuter space of intellectual intercourse and fermentation. But in our modern social experience of human rights, where we now even talk of sexual identity and orientation, it is a lot more complicated. We are not just to cope with how male and female dons relate to each other but how each relates to the ‘third sex’.
Moreover, the classic man and woman categories no longer have clearly marked scripts that inform their performance. For instance, we are no longer sure whether masculine identity in the academy is secure without a PHD down in your CV. We are no longer certain about the ranking of masculinities and femininities in the context of academic ranks and disciplinary distinction. For instance, a male Master’s holder in sociology is no longer sure how to perform his masculine identity before a male colleague from Physical Chemistry, or how to perform his masculinity before a female professor from that department of Physics.
I laud the authors for delving into the meat of this ‘social problem’ and, drawing on feminist theoretical concepts and first-hand experience. But I also want to argue that this problem is wider and it, maybe, has a lot more to do with the discursive space of the university and its impact on the construction, performance and consumption of gender identities: masculinities, femininities and the queer (I have actually noted that in the Western academy the challenge is currently a lot more manifest in the straight-queer relations). The social problems are surface appearances of the discursive practice. It is not an academic paper so I stay away from Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall, even though I am indebted to some of their concepts in my argument, particularly the discursive practices of identity (Hall) and the mechanics of power in everyday life (Foucault). I am also not even empowered enough to go into the nuances of neo-feminist theorists of people like Angela Mcrobbie, but I have heard, and partly bought into, one of their core arguments; that in our age of liberalism the problem that women face in the public sphere is not that of patriarchal oppression but the fact that they are suddenly presented to situations where they are perceived as equal to men and are expected to compete at the same level with them.
By joining the academy, women literally take up Plato’s challenge; they are perceived as workers whose toolbox has nothing but their brain. The small matter of biological difference is treated as a non-issue. Let me leave this point here because we know that this has not been the case. Let me return to Foucault.
The authors also mentioned — but did not extend — a case where a male lecturer ‘disciplined and punished’ his students that failed to recognise his correct academic title by deducting five marks from their assignments. This, in my reading, presents the male don as not sure about the potency of the power that is abstractly vested in the PHD, and which perhaps overlaps his sense of masculinity, and needs to have it inscribed behind his name by all students on all their assignments. He wants to see his power embodied and displayed. But in the process, his power is vulnerable to the bodies of the students, the hands and pens that may or may not inscribe the PHD power on the top page of the assignment.
He has the power to punish them, but what about his colleagues that decline to name and hail his title? I want to believe all I said here is that this matter of gender relations in the academy sits in a complex web of other discourses of identity and power and in their cross-cutting domains, nobody is safe.
The intimacy of the knowledge industry and the challenges it poses to gender relations is an issue that has always been here, since the days of Plato’s academy. We all know about the famous platonic love that Plato prescribed for gender relations in the academy” Dr Solomon Waliaula
Dr Solomon Waliaula is a Senior Lecturer, Literature and Cultural Studies at Maasai Mara University. He was recently an Alexander Von Humboldt Postdoc Fellow at the University of Mainz, Germany