Mahat, Marian (Ed). Women Thriving in Academia (2021) Bingley: Emerald
Claire Sedgwick, University of Derby
Women Thriving in Academia, edited by Marian Mahat, offers a collection of reflections on the state of academia for women, as well as a discussion of the various strategies women in academia can employ to succeed. As part of a series on ‘Surviving and Thriving in Academia’, the book leans towards a message of empowerment, with Mahat claiming that ‘all you need to do is transform yourself into the academic you want to be — it is a journey of self-discovery’ (p.12). However, the testimonies from academic women in the volume suggest that an individual’s transformation can only go so far without structural changes. This is not always explicitly recognised in the book itself which, while acknowledging the existence of sexism within academia, often focuses on individualistic solutions.
The first part of the book testifies to the challenges women academics face, as well as outlining some of the strategies they have used to overcome these challenges. In Chin Eh Loh’s chapter on making tenure, she describes her experience of navigating an academic career alongside parenting. Eh Loh clearly articulates the importance of fostering connections with others, whilst also understanding your own goals. The importance of collegiality is also stressed in Zukiswa Mthimunye-Kekana’s chapter on being a woman of colour in academia. Mthimunye-Kekana describes her experience as a Black female academic and the ‘the conscious effort to hyper perform merely to belong and be perceived as legitimate’ (p.43). This highlights one of the key dilemmas faced by women in academia broadly, and women of colour in particular: the need to hyper perform — that is, to not only fulfil the duties of your role, but to go above and beyond to be perceived as competent — is an additional barrier to progress. Mahat et al (p.63) rightly argue that ‘leadership should include a diversity of female voices to reflect the society in which it serves’. However, as Mthimunye-Kekana’s account demonstrates, often the path for leadership is harder for women of colour because of the work they need to expend to be viewed as legitimate in the first place.
Throughout the first part of the book, imperatives that women should ‘say yes’ (p.71) sit alongside the recognition that it is harder for women to thrive in an academic culture that often underestimates their contribution. This is highlighted in Emily Yarrow’s chapter in part two of the book on the power of networks in the gendered academy. Yarrow is clear that her chapter is not about ‘“fixing the women”’, but instead it ‘highlight[s] the deeply engrained nature of gender inequality in academia’ (p.90). However, what is striking about the book as a whole is how much emphasis is placed on what women can do to thrive, with very little discussion of why women might need this advice in the first place. This is a dilemma discussed in Lin Goodwin’s chapter where she notes that she is ‘asked about leadership from a woman’s perspective’ but that this is not a question ‘typically posed of men’ (p,80), since male leadership is assumed as the norm. Furthermore, as Pauline M. Ross argues in her chapter on education focused academics, often women in leadership roles risk falling off the ‘glass cliff’ after being given a job with a ‘high risk of failure’ (p.122). When women in these jobs do fail, this is then used as evidence that women are not suited to leadership roles.
The book is not necessarily advocating for a feminist solution. In fact, feminism is rarely explicitly mentioned. However, Kate Carruthers Thomas’ chapter does engage with some of the debates around the potential for feminist action to be utilised within universities. She uses the example of the xCHANGE festival she organised for International Women’s Day to highlight how feminist events within the university often end up being commodified, with universities keen to present themselves as progressive, even if this is not reflected in the day-to-day experiences of the women who work there. As Carruthers Thomas argues, these events also tend to be organised and attended by women, so that gender equality is perceived as ‘“women’s business”’ (p.142), rather than a shared goal that men and women should be striving towards. However, Carruthers Thomas does conclude that xCHANGE festival was successful in allowing a diverse range of staff and students to get involved, even if ‘more sustained structural shifts’ are needed in the long run.
The final chapter of Women Thriving in Academia ends with key advice for women aiming to navigate the academy, including ‘negotiat[ing] the unwritten rules’ (p.173), ‘collegiality’, ‘personal care and development’ and the imperative to ‘be gentle with yourself’ (p.174). These are all excellent pieces of advice, but what struck me about Women Thriving in Academia is the extent to which this advice to women in the academy is, for the most part, removed from calls for structural change. In her closing chapter Mahat notes that Women Thriving in Academia ‘was not borne out of strong ideological feminist ideas or with grandeur aims to change the system’ (p.168). However, this lack of specific engagement with feminist ideas, and the general emphasis on individual solutions to structural problems risks reinforcing the neoliberal attitudes towards higher education that are often the reason that books such as this need to be written in the first place. Arguably, more attention needs to be paid not to what individual women can do to fit within a system not designed for them, but instead to ways in which the system itself can be transformed.
Key Words: Academia, Leadership, Careers, Neoliberalism, Empowerment
Claire Sedgwick is an Impact Officer and Researcher at the University of Derby. Her monograph Feminist Media: From the Second Wave to the Digital Age was published in 2020 and her current research is on stand- up comedy race, class and gender.