Struggling to reclaim futures in the neoliberal university

12-13 November, along with a number of Nordwit colleagues, I participated in the Gender Studies Conference 2020, organised virtually by Tampere University and the Association for Gender Studies in Finland. The theme of the conference was Reclaiming Futures, and Nordwit coordinated, in collaboration with Maria Pietilä from NORDICORE, a four-part series of panels, titled Gendering research in and outside academia. In this blog post, I’ll reflect on what I heard at and learned from the conference, focusing on some of the challenges that scientific research and specifically feminist research currently faces.

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Meeting innovation – business as usual?

Last week Nordwit had its annual Centre meeting including its very own Scientific Advisory Board: Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, Hilda Rømer Christensen, Julia Nentwich, and Yvonne Benschop (who sadly couldn’t be there as she was involved in an assessment). Like many other events, this meeting over three days was held on Zoom, a facility to which we have all had to become used rather rapidly under covid conditions.

Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams have all become indispensable tools in our everyday interactional repertoire. They emblematize what N. Katherine Hayles calls ‘cognitive assemblages’ – the intra-action (in Karen Barad’s terms) of human and technology/machine which creates new forms of disciplinization. The somatic clues we use in face-to-face interactions to read what is going on in its broadest sense are greatly reduced when we use zoom. Peering at postage stamp views of each other, our interactions are slowed down – we can have discussions but they are not ‘lively’ in the conventional sense as zoomic disciplinization requires us to operate in sequential fashion. Simultaneously our bodies are coerced into a particular position vis-à-vis our computers, more restricted by the need to be available to that machine’s camera so as to be present to others. This also means that meetings need to be shorter to allow for respite from this bodily demeanor. Much has changed. We have adapted to this – but to what extent are we dealing with innovations here? We know relatively little as yet regarding how our meeting culture has changed or is changing as a function of covid – or whether/how long-term any such changes will be. There has certainly been much uptake of online meeting facilities – but will we desert them at the nearest opportunity? The joy of meeting in person when it happens remains intense. So the jury remains out.

Gabriele Griffin

Continuing complicity in crime?

Oili-Helena Ylijoki recently pondered in her recent Nordwit blog post what we are actually doing when we eagerly participate in funding competitions and continuously prepare research applications, thus putting our planned future achievements up for a critical evaluation. Are we simply crazy? Is it our moral responsibility as decent academics? Or are we good people, trying to offer employment opportunities for those whose precarious job contracts are about to end? There are also more painful questions, such as are we co-producing and maintaining the academic system, which may cause frustration, anger and burn-out, as well as hierarchies between the successful and those whose applications are not evaluated as ”outstanding”. 

Whether academics are ”like accomplices in crime” is a crucial question. Certainly involvement in the research funding game means some kind of support and acceptance of the system. However, involvement in the system can, at its best, result in fruitful research communities, which provide a lot of energy to concentrate on interesting matters. It is wise that we recognize what it means to simultaneously hold two positions which appear to be fully contradictory. And as Oili-Helena asks, ”what could be done otherwise”? I do not have good answers.

I prepared research applications for a very long time before I retired, and often failed to receive funding, but not every time. Although I’m not eager to confess this, I perhaps have exercised symbolic violence, as Lambros Roumbanis (2019) suggests, when I have convinced and pushed people to apply for funding. Receiving funding is a truly happy occasion, but sometimes success can even lead to guilt, as there are always other, brilliant applications, which did not receive funding. Still, working in a research community, in which various interests meet and contradict in a safe atmosphere, is always a wonderful experience. Within the funding game they provide empowering bubbles, where one can feel safe to present non-conventional ideas and reflections. Last week, for example, the Tampere team of Nordwit had an extremely fruitful discussion on what gender means to our interviewed women. What are we to think, when the interviewed women clearly state that gender makes no difference, while we, based on the same interviews, find as researchers that they talk about discriminative gendered practices in academic institutions. How do we do gender through not doing it and through downplaying gender? What kind of gender game do we then participate in? 

Päivi Korvajärvi

Roumbanis, L. 2019. “Symbolic violence in academic life: A study on how junior scholars are educated in the art of getting funded”, Minerva 57:2, 197-218.

FixIT digital: Action plans for gender balance in technology related innovation

We have just started a small project called FixIT digital that further develops our earlier action plan FixIT, in which we aimed to increase women’s participation in technology-related innovation. FixIT builds on the existing knowledge gathered and research conducted through Nordwit, particularly through interviewing women working across the ICT sector and employers in ICT organizations. In FixIT we developed a “package” of gender balance competence, introducing ten themes that would guide actors in the field of innovation to work for a better gender balance. FixIT digital aims to overcome some of the difficulties we faced in our action plan FixIT. It is important to highlight the difficulties we faced, since they tell us about gender equality issues in the field of technology-related innovation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post about challenges in doing action research in ICT work across sectors in rural Norway, we have found out that many companies are small and they do not allocate enough resources for promoting gender equality. Thus, our gender balance competence package was developed as an accessible tool for both individuals and companies with limited knowledge on gender and gender equality. In addition, we identified some concerns that gender equality work might be costly. Our package introduces a step-by-step application of gender equality principles that foregrounds the necessity of seeing and recognizing the imbalances that exist in the field.

Which brings us to FixIT digital.  This new project engages with two key challenges that we faced in implementing FixIT: the difficulty of reaching out to the innovation actors that belong to a varied group 1) with different meeting points; 2) when gender equality is the theme of the discussion. In order to meet these challenges, FixIT digital aims to;

  1. convert the earlier gender balance competence ‘package’ into an online format which would be designed to be interactive – whether as a quiz or a discussion forum.
  2. Include a group of innovation actors from public and private sectors as well as civil society to act as reference groups that can provide feedback on the digital version of the package, but also be used as a channel to reach diverse innovation actors.
  3.  mobilize innovation actors across sectors to attend a webinar where the online package will be introduced.

Gilda Seddighi

Celebrating diversity – the opportunities that new technologies offer for research

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

In late September we held an intensive PhD school in hybrid form (offline and online) on ‘Technologies Are Us: Feminist Perspectives of Posthuman Futures’ in collaboration with Bergen University. Under covid conditions technologies have rapidly become us in ways that we had not dreamt of even a year ago. Everybody zooms now – a year ago we did so very rarely. But technologies are us not just in terms of what we do, but also in terms of how we relate to them: the emotions they conjure up as we grapple with their (and our) in/sufficiencies. The shiny AI world of much related advertising bears little relation to the actual experience of technology and technologized events. These require much forethought, pre-planning and inter-relation in contexts of uneven playing fields. An Australian participant, for example, had to be present during her night to listen to some of our sessions. And the west coast of the US was just waking up as we were beginning to call it a day. Bodies and spaces were thus not always in sync. Global reach does not equal global synchronicity.

The real joy of the event were the wonderful and highly diverse PhD projects the students presented, often modified by covid’s inexorable reach. One participant, working on technology and sport, had had his heart set on the Olympics – not now happening as planned – as his fieldsite, and had to re-think. Another was working, artistically, on the concept of the interface. Interface as a space of translation between different media, different energies, different materials. She was producing complicated conceptual artefacts, speaking to the notion of the interface. But when will the next exhibition be? Yet another PhD student was working on sexbots which all seemed rather similar in her material, though a documentary shown on BBC3 in 2018, Sexbots and Us, reveals how in ‘niche’ markets of different kinds are already being created. For all PhDs the question of ‘relation’ – a key concept in feminist theory – was central: how do we relate to technology, how does technology relate to us? How are we disciplined by algorithmic structures – bodily, cognitively, psychologically? Jennifer Robertson’s (2018) Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation remains a useful corrective to some of our wilder fantasies. I thoroughly recommend it.

Gabriele Griffin

Playing the research funding game – complicity in crime?

Foto av George Becker från Pexels

The last days of September are hectic times in Finnish universities since the application deadline of the most important funding agency, the Academy of Finland, takes place then. A couple of days ago I participated in a zoom meeting. After two hours of intense discussion most of us were tired but busy to hurry to finalize application writing. One said, “Why must we always make these applications, this is crazy.” Another replied, “But nobody is actually forcing us, it is more a cultural thing that we somehow feel obliged to make applications. We could say no, not this year.” Then the third one commented, “Yes, but we do this because of junior researchers. We want to get funding in order to be able to employ them, to protect them from unemployment. We do this for others and for a good reason.”

This small conversation reminded me of one article that I had just read for a book chapter that I am writing with my colleague Lea Henriksson on polarization of early career building in academia. Lambros Roumbanis has attended university lectures in which established professors give advices to juniors on how to write successful research funding applications. Roumbanis argues that in doing this, the professors are exercising symbolic violence. Although their intentions may be benevolent aimed to help juniors to get ahead in their career trajectories, in fact they are complicit in sustaining and reinforcing the present funding regimes. They exercise subtle form of power by socializing early career academics into the practices of the competitive academic work ethos. This power is invisible both to themselves and to its victims since it is embedded in taken-for-granted assumptions of what it means to be a successful academic.

In a rather similar tone, Carole Leathwood and Barbara Read argued already some time ago that established academics are like accomplices in crime. Although many of them are highly critical of the current managerial and neo-liberal transformations, their views remain at the level of ideological critique. In practice, they comply with the research imperatives. According to them, this reveals senior academics’ own privileged and secure position and their complicity in the strengthening of the audit culture.

I just wonder how guilty we are of producing and maintaining the current research funding game and the resulting precarious workforce of project researchers, mostly women? What could be done otherwise?

Oili-Helena Ylijoki

Leathwood, C. & Read, B. 2013. “Research policy and academic performativity: compliance, contestation and complicity”, Studies in higher education 38:8, 1162-1174.

Roumbanis, L. 2019. “Symbolic violence in academic life: A study on how junior scholars are educated in the art of getting funded”, Minerva 57:2, 197-218.

Blows to our narcissism? Our PhD course on ‘Technologies are Us: Feminist Perspectives on Posthuman Futures’

Friday 18 Sept 2020 the news were full of a 20-year old Tesla car driver in Canada lying on his front seat asleep whilst his car drove along on autopilot at 150 km/h. What does this suggest? A naïve faith in (almost) autonomous cars, a ludic approach to life (and death?), plain stupidity, over-reacher syndrome, or…? Technologies are us – in so many ways…

Photo: Colourbox / Nina Bergheim Dahl

Week 39 of 2020 is the time of Nordwit’s second PhD course, entitled ‘Technologies are Us: Feminist Perspectives on Posthuman Futures’. In developing the course we were interested in how instantly questions of gender and technology led to questions of ethics. As Catherine Malabou in Morphing Intelligence (2019) suggests, ‘for the first time in a very long time, our society [is] expressing a deep and urgent need for philosophy.’ Malabou regards contemporary affective responses to artificial intelligence such as fear as misplaced – machines, even so-called self-learning ones, will not become our masters since they themselves are constructed by humans. What troubles her, and should trouble us, is their governance. This, for all the counterclaims made by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) company owners and directors, i.e. the question of governance, which relates to democracy, community, trust, is the key concern from Malabou’s perspective. Systematic consultation with cybercitizens to build an AI future which supports community is what Malabou advocates, and it is how we should meet the inevitability that technologies are us in the world of AI.

Gabriele Griffin

Workshop on gender equality in regional research and innovation

Photo by Digital Buggu from Pexels

Nordwit, in collaboration with the Tampere regional council, the Tampere Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, the Tampere University Gender Equality group, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, and the EU project Marie, arranged a zoom workshop focusing on the regional stakeholders’ opportunities to turn gender equality into a resource in research and innovation (R&I) on 27 August 2020.

The regional council which delivers EU structural and regional development funding, together with the ministries that guide its work, wanted to develop their own practices to promote gender equality at the level of concrete project planning and applications. Nordwit shared its research findings in the workshop and its planning.

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New Publication: What brings women into ehealth?: Women’s career trajectories in digital transformations in health care

Digital transformation of health care services is addressed world-wide in order to more efficiently meet the patients’ information and health care needs. However, little is known about the people working with this transformation, where two traditionally gendered fields meet; health care and IT. While work with digitalization generally is dominated by men, digitalization of health care services involves a large number of women. In a recent case study published at the 12th International Conference on eHealth we explore the career trajectories of women working with the digital transformation of eHealth services. The paper is written in a collaboration between Åsa Cajander, Hilde Corneliussen, Gunilla Myreteg and Kari Dyb.

The question we ask is: Who are the women in this eHealth project, and how did they come to working with this digital transformation?

The analysis shows that different types of trajectories brought the women into eHealth transformations: The first illustrating women who were pushed into working with eHealth by their job descriptions, the second showing women using eHealth as an escape route from something else, and the last trajectory showing how women stumbled across eHealth and decided to stay on. This has implications for the educational system, and points to the need for being able to study computer science later in life. It also calls for a better understanding of what drives women in transformation processes.

You find the publication available here:

Åsa Cajander

Inspirations from the EASST4S virPrague conference 2020

Nordwit (members) attended the EASST/4S virPrague conference Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and agency of STS in emerging worlds 18-21.8.2020,

The conference had nearly 600 panels, including the one of ours Old Academies and Emerging Worlds: Feminist Encounters in Changing STS Contexts (chair: Gabriele Griffin). Although we missed the informal meetings and connections between colleagues and friends in the magnificent Prague, the virPrague conference worked well and provided numerous interesting presentations and discussions, utmostly timely such as subplenaries STS Enters the Transnational Covidscape: The Political Ecologies and Inequalities of COVID-19 and Sustainable Academia, and the subplenaries on the main themes of the conference: The temporal fabric of technoscientific worlds, and Locating matters, all important both conceptually and politically.

Many of the panels were extremely inspiring for the study field of gendering research and innovation. One cannot give credit to all panels worth mentioning, as it was not possible to follow them all, and I pick up here just two of them.

EASST4S Prague

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