„I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.“
– Virginia Woolf

Is there room for any women other than the "exceptional woman", let alone women with children, in the new hyper-stratified university?

A few weeks ago the prize-winning French economist Thomas Piketty was interviewed for the Financial Times for the regular ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview profiles which typically include a copy of the bill inserted into the text. However on this occasion it was not the very modest bill which aroused my attention (Piketty insisted, presumably to save time from his working day, on eating at a local café) but rather the overall account of his working days. He told the journalist that to be an academic one really needed to be buried away writing or in the library from 9am to 7pm each day. He also referred in passing to the enjoyable family life he had, as a 50-something French academic. This included a second wife along with two daughters from his first marriage, ‘the girls’. These unremarkable facts somehow got stored in my feminist brain, especially the idea of being totally alone and able to work uninterrupted for up to 10 hours a day. As an academic I could hardly disagree, this is indeed what is required to do the job properly, as a feminist I thought that this working day surely relied on high levels of unseen support to shop, cook, and attend to the various aspects of domestic administration so that bills are paid, food is bought, clothes are collected from the dry cleaners, parents nights are attended and so on. In this case one might guess that Piketty leaves his home at 8am and returns at 8pm, and has perhaps done so throughout his entire working life.

Meanwhile I was also reading, as it happened, the biography of another French academic Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. Derrida died aged 74 in 2004, he was generally hailed as a friend to feminism, but as his biographer described, his wife Marguerite (a psychoanalyst) looked after everything for the duration of their long marriage which included bringing up two sons, indeed Derrida had never once entered his local bank, he did not even know where it was. His wife obviously created a beautiful home which provided hospitality to many visiting scholars from across the world many of whom seemed to stay for weeks at a time. Even when on vacation Derrida expressed the need for time alone to work for several hours each morning followed by swimming and relaxation.

Given that women still bear the brunt of responsibility for running households and organising the school schedules of children and so on, the question I was asking myself was how can women academics ever hope to achieve success in their working lives when this kind of pattern is seen as not just normal but entirely unremarkable, especially in a sector deemed by and large to be well-disposed towards working parents? Deciding not to have children, and having a partner who is also an academic or at least very familiar with these kinds of schedules would seem like the obvious answer. But to concede to this demand would be to comply with some of the most retrogressive aspects of our sexually divided society. And university faculties need to be able to demonstrate to young people, male and female, that women can be just as inspiring teachers and researchers, and be able to live as enjoyable a domestic life as their male counterparts. If we do not actively endorse this principle then we may as well go back to how it was when I first went to university myself in 1969, with the assumption that the figure of the professor is male. In short female academics ought to be able to demonstrate to enthusiastic young women that it is possible to succeed and to have children. Otherwise feminism has failed.

Fifteen years ago, on the occasion of Stuart Hall’s retirement from the Open University I was invited to give a short talk as part of a day conference to mark the event. Where Stuart had been charting the move from Thatcherism to Blairism as part of a forming of a new right politics, what we now call neoliberalism, and where he saw the signs of this across the public sector including higher education under the guise of the ‘new managerialism’ I was at the time pre-occupied with how the new audit culture, and with what was then called the Research Assessment Exercise (now REF) impacted on young women in the academy who were trying to combine a career with motherhood. The RAE/REF introduced a rankings system whereby departments are measured and funds distributed according to the quality of the publications produced over a period of time by faculty. Alongside this there are other criteria that have to be met, including getting the research into the public realm and creating a rich research ‘environment’. In my talk I outlined the timelines for a ‘normal’ academic career through to post-doctoral research awards (perhaps aged 27) and then perhaps to a series of temporary posts (around the age of 28-33) leading, if all goes well and books and publications appear on time and grant applications are completed and the awards flow in, to a full time job perhaps aged 35. As it happens this is exactly the age I myself first was offered a full time job after 5 years of temporary jobs. Indeed earlier on aged 30 I had been lucky enough to get a full time post but it meant commuting weekly, a round trip of 200 miles, and I had a young child and a family life back home in Birmingham, so after a year I had to resign and return, with much anxiety, to the rounds of temporary posts until I was eventually offered another job nearer to home. It was precisely this kind of dilemma I remember discussing at the OU event, it may seem banal but the ideal career track in the academy especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life. And if the young woman was to follow this pathway and plan the right time to have a child, then when would this right time be? The first few years of full time work (34-38) are marked by all kinds of expectations, and so it may be that just before getting to 40 having children could be embarked upon.

In the book Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall I unpicked these fine details of RAE culture with an additional question uppermost in my mind. It was not so much the fairly minimum exclusion clauses for maternity or career interruptions, permitted by the Research Assessment Exercise, more the whole new vocabulary which had not just descended upon the world of the universities so much so that it had become literally part of everyday life, entering all of our professional conversations and our day to day vocabularies. It felt as though we had become to define ourselves in these very terms. ‘Am I a 3 or a 4?’ Since then and in the last decade other academics have dissected this dispositif of ‘excellence’ . They have described how this means not just fulfilling endless benchmarks against a grid of criteria which include leadership and achievement in teaching, administration and management (ie setting up new degrees) and in research, scholarship and publication, but also keeping a strict diary of everything that happens, all events attended, all papers given, all targets met with students, all the citations, radio slots etc, these too should be noted to be duly referred to in all annual performance reviews which in turn are connected to promotions and pay increments. The self-promotional rhetoric which now wraps its way round academic self-description has also become what Wendy Brown, in her recent book Undoing the Demos describes as a normative aspect of this new political rationality. Indeed it is a mark of self-responsibilisation to assume this boasting kind of stance. It is not just the number of books written but the ranking of the journal or publisher, it is not just the grants awarded but the prestige of the funding body, and so on. There is a requirement to be exceptional, and I would argue that only a truly exceptional young woman, one who was also lucky in her life-planning with a partner could have children and could survive this new style of university governmentality without falling apart.

The point of these various instruments which shape the working environment is to introduce higher levels of competition in the expectation that this triggers economic growth, innovation and a more entrepreneurial outlook. But what they also do is pathologise failure, if one is not excellent then one can only be at best mediocre and at worst bad at ones job. Again for young women these benchmarking strategies are all the more pernicious since they add yet more layers to the already many varieties of self-admonishment which target female insecurities, if only to be able to offer implausible ‘solutions’ available through the consumer culture. Through their teenage years girls are constantly encouraged to be ‘perfect’ and this gives rise to the pernicious culture of self-beratement.

Apart from the more obvious feminist strategies which would involve trying to find collaborative ways of countering the excellence regime in the university, there are perhaps other ways of resisting these forces. For over a decade for example, while my daughter was at school, I myself stayed in a near to the bottom of the ranks former polytechnic, where I could pace myself, do research on my own terms and enjoy the teaching. As it happened this time in a non-elite ‘new university’ worked out well, and I never regretted being there. Alternately one could insist that the right to go-slow for particular periods of the working life need not mean the defeatism of the ‘mommy track’. Indeed if Richard Sennett is right when he claims that the modern work regime has a corrosive effect on the individual, then for women embracing the idea of ordinariness may be good for the soul, while letting go of the drive to succeed, or to get the perfect ‘balance’ in life and work, could mean inventing new ways of thinking about work which replaces the logic of the talent led economy with the more commonplace idea of a ‘good job well done’. Often I have thought surely it should be enough to spend a morning teaching, an afternoon doing supervisions and some marking of essays and then go home and switch off and enjoy the children or indeed grandchildren, and help with home-work rather than feeling the need to return late night to the computer and to the completion of yet another peer–reviewed journal article.

This article originally was published at openDemocracy’s 50.50 on August 10th 2015.