From the Nordwit reading group

The Tampere Nordwit team has an on-going reading group on gender in research and innovation. The participants have varied as the work situations and affiliations have changed. However, the group has continuously consisted of 5-6 participants, including the ‘core’ Nordwit members and associates: one doctoral student, one post doc and several senior researchers. The readings have been selected collectively to serve the interests of the participants, and they have covered classics, new texts, texts that have contributed to our conceptual and methodological understanding. Typically, each of the group gatherings discusses two articles that the participants have read beforehand.

In the spring 2020, we read, among others, the article ‘Sheep with five legs’ (Gender practices in the construction of academic excellence, Organization 2011) by Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop, the latter also a member of the Nordwit International Scientific Advisory Board. The article has been widely acknowledged in the research literature and is one of the ‘classics’ for us.

It examines the recruitment of professors in the Netherlands by analyzing recruitment documents and the interviews of members of recruitment committees. It demonstrates convincingly how recruitment practices are gendered and social constructions embedded within social contexts and cultural and political struggles, and how those practices produce gender inequality in a number of ways. This happens although the universities all aim for excellence through the objective measuring of merits, and the recruitments of ‘sheep with five legs’, candidates that are excellent in all academic respects. As the Dutch university system, similarly to the Finnish one, has a restricted number of professor posts, the recruitment processes and the members of the recruitment committees have significant power over the highest ranks of the academy.  Simultaneously they also have an effect on gender equality in the academy. The study states that women candidates are disadvantaged, for example, as excellence becomes produced in social networks and merits are not properties of individual candidates, and as there is an unarticulated ‘likeability’ aspect related to individuals’ personal and embodied characteristics. The latter then links to survival in academia rather than the excellence criteria in committee members’ accounts and is thoroughly gendered and contradictory. Although universities seldom get professors who are excellent in all areas of professorships, women professors still need to be the ‘sheep with five legs’, the ones who have it all. These are very relevant observations for our analysis of the Finnish interviews. The past ten years have not dated this article at all.

Another text, discussed in the reading group, was Cecile Thun’s recent ‘Excellent and gender equal? Academic motherhood and “gender blindness” in Norwegian academia’ in GWO (2020, 27). The article recognizes a new standard in academia, ‘inclusive excellence’, which consists of both competing globally for talent (discussed in terms of excellence in the ‘Sheep with five legs’ article) and advancing gender equality.  It is based on interviews with 24 women academics at the University of Oslo, and it examines gendered ‘blind spots’ in academic work, and the legitimization of gender inequality in the discourse of excellence and gender equality. It complements van den Brink and Benschop’s results and finds that academic women still experience being underestimated by colleagues and students in the greedy academy of neoliberal economies. Nevertheless, gender inequality remains a ‘blind spot’ in the academic community. Thun further notes that academic mothers experience double standards in parenthood, as motherhood and fatherhood are regarded differently in academia. She points out that both academic work and motherhood are greedy as they require limitless time and needs. The political aim of the inclusivity and gender equality are becoming even harder to achieve in the context of excellence as long as gendering processes in academic work and in academic parenting remain ‘blind spots’ in academia and in the evaluation of academic merits.

Both articles pay attention to the persistent gender inequalities in academia. Thun’s article further raises a question about the gendering interplay between academic and parenting/care work. It is this gendering interplay that needs to be analysed more carefully. Nordic countries have provided relatively good support for parenting as well as childcare services for decades. Parenting has been possible for those working in research and innovation, however, not without disadvantage to women. Thun suggests that it is the research and innovation institutions that would need to articulate their blind spots and make the interplay more gender equal.

Van den Brink, M., Benschop, Y. (2011) ‘Gender practices in the construction of academic excellence: Sheep with five legs’, Organization 19(4): 507-524.

Thun, Cecilie (2020) ‘Excellent and gender equal? Academic motherhood and “gender blindness” in Norwegian academia’, GWO 27(2): 166-180.

Marja Vehviläinen

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