Sunday, 22 May 2011

Making things work if you're female

I've been thinking a great deal of late about how to make my complicated life work better. I have to find a balance between doing DH (which I love) and doing a lot of what we in the UK call management (and in the US you'd call admin or service) which, oddly enough, I also rather enjoy. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable when I read tweets about all the cool things that other people in DH are doing, or worse when I read them from conferences that I should be at, that are directly related to my research; yet I know I don't have time to take part. Conversely I know that what I am doing in terms of management is necessary to make UCLDH, my department and indeed the university run- and when it goes well it's extremely satisfying.

So when I read this article about how too much service wrecks women's careers I felt a kind of horror. I am an Associate Professor (Reader in UK terms); I do a lot of service and admin; I know I'm at the point when my research is in danger of suffering. I do very much want to be a full professor, but have I blown it already? It makes me feel anxious and trapped-if only someone had told me this years ago. How na├»ve I was: I have always assumed that all the work I do for the university would be recognised when it comes to promotion. I do still have faith in UCL’s ethical, Benthamite way of doing things, but I'm shaken by this study’s conclusions.

Balancing different demands of research and management is a huge dilemma for anyone, and I know from having talked to senior male mentors in my university that it's been a problem for them. But they are full professors. Why should this afflict women so much more seriously? I can only feel it's because we are acculturated to being kind, helpful, communitarian, thoughtful and to say yes when asked to do things by men in positions of power. This study suggests that most men do not feel the kind of compunction that most women feel when it comes to protecting their time for research and saying no when asked to do something that uses up this time. The logic of this is that I must, forthwith, stop doing all the admin that I do, resign from committees immediately and hide myself away to produce ever greater volumes of research outputs (as we so delightfully call them here). The logic further suggests that, whether or not I immediately ditch my role as acting Head of Department, (Department Chair) I should advise all my female colleagues who are earlier in their careers to refuse to take on any significant admin roles unless and until they have such a heavyweight track record that they are a full professor; otherwise they risk career blight in comparison to male colleagues.

There are obvious problems with this-not least that I don't want to. Running UCLDH is all part of my passion for my field, and as you become a more senior researcher you have to run your own group, surely- unless of course I adopt the pure humanities mode, and simply write heaps of those single author monographs that seem so important, for reasons that continue to escape me. If I did that, I'm sure I'd die of loneliness, since discussing DH with my brilliant colleagues is part of what makes doing research so exciting. Beyond this, my role as Vice Dean Research (Associate Dean) also stems from my interest in the whole area of research, policy and development at UCL and beyond. In my own research I believe in working with users and people outside academia; thus thinking about how we can collaborate with and engage the public in what we do is all part of what I love about being VDR. Now being HoD is different: I've yet to find much to love about it. But I'm doing it because I was asked to by people I respect, who have done a great many things to help me and UCLDH in the past; and because someone has to do it. I don't want to let down people I like and respect and with whom I enjoy working in these various admin roles. I've been given so much support and encouragement that if this is payback time, so be it. Perhaps a male researcher would say no: I'd think him an ungrateful b*stard if he did, but perhaps that's just because I'm female and socialised that way.

There's another problem: some people wonder whether fewer women get promoted because the committees are made up of senior people and (you can see where this is going) such people are usually male because fewer women get promoted. It seems a reductive, circular problem. Thus if women refuse to take up management roles such as being HoD or Dean because they need to concentrate on research, the whole university management becomes overwhelmingly male; how can that be a good thing? Then again if fewer women get promoted because they do service roles instead of research, we have the same problem.

There has to be a way out of this, and in my view it's so simple it's amazing nobody has thought of it before. Why not stop being so obsessed by sheer amounts of research as the sine qua non of promotion? If we recognise that women tend to produce fewer publications because they are doing admin and committee work, when promotion cases are being assessed those doing so need to expect to see somewhat shorter lists of publications and grants from women if (and only if) these are balanced by significant lists of admin jobs well done. Or, (and this is really radical) we could accept that this might affect community-minded men too. Why is that so hard? I mean of course you should only be a full prof if you have made a very significant contribution to your field. But why do we take this 'nevermind the quality feel the width’ attitude? (I could say something about women not being quite as anxious as men about the length of things, preferring instead to value effective function, but that would be a bit obvious perhaps.) Then again when we are discussing function, what is wrong with valuing people for making an organisation work? If mid-career people refuse to do admin until we are senior profs, it's going to leave the senior profs a lot less time to do their research-given the admin load they'll have to carry.

Meanwhile, it appears that women must still do as our foremothers advised: if made an apparently attractive offer, think careful about its sincerity and whether it will lead to a definite, welcome, commitment. Remeber, you could end up over-worked, unhappy and exploited, while making it possible for men to enjoy greater success, happiness and status. For fear of breach of promise of various kinds, if in doubt women must, it appears, still say no.