2.2. What Are the Issues?
Intersections of gender and academic leadership have been of interest to feminist scholars since at least the 1990s [9
] and continue to be so [11
]. Issues typically highlighted in these texts and elsewhere include the under-representation of women in senior positions, debates over women’s leadership styles, contradictory expectations attached to images of “leader” and “women”, and organizational structures and cultures that disadvantage women. The notion that women and men fundamentally differ in their leadership styles has been criticized and debunked [12
] but has arguably entered the realm of common sense and taken-for-granted knowledge.
There have also been many feminist arguments that it is not “fixing” women but changing the organizational context that is required [17
]. Bird, for example, described universities as “incongruous, gendered bureaucratic structures” [18
] (p. 202), while Benschop and Brouns, citing a Dutch proverb, remarked that “adding women to unchanged academic structures and cultures is like mopping with the tap on” [19
] (p. 207). Grummell et al. [20
] argued that “care-free” managers, i.e., those without caring responsibilities outside work, men more often than women, obtain unfair career advantages. Emphasizing the organizational context raises questions about the way in which leadership is often conceptualized as an attribute of individuals and something that can be learned or “developed”.
In this context, writers such as Deem [21
], Bird [18
], and others have pointed to ways in which universities differ from other complex organizations. Academics adhere to a range of disciplinary affiliations, which may compete with their institutional identification. In many cases, term limits and turn-taking in middle-level management positions are expected, adding extra pressure on incumbents as they struggle to keep up their research or their creative practice profiles so that their overall career does not suffer unduly.
] put forth a useful model of contemporary universities in which three paradigms can be seen at work, not independently but as overlays (a palimpsest). The first and oldest is scholarly tradition, often taking the form of a vocation. As the living repositories of knowledge, academics expect they will have a great deal of autonomy and a strong voice in governance, which can put them at odds with administrators and managers, who represent the second (bureaucratic) and third (corporate) institutional forms. Chairs may see themselves as scholars or practitioners with vocations, but their formal position makes them responsible for enforcing others’ conformity to the bureaucratic and corporate requirements of the day, as well as for displaying their own conformity, as they too will be accountable to their senior managers.
As Moodie [23
] pointed out, there are potentially competing institutional hierarchies, one based on displays of excellence in research and teaching (moving through ranks to full professor or equivalent) and another related to increasing managerial responsibilities (chair, dean, vice-president, etc.). While in some jurisdictions, full professors are expected to undertake managerial roles, in others (including Canada) the two hierarchies are only loosely connected. Moodie contrasted the intensive scrutiny of meritorious performance that informs promotions through the ranks with the relatively informal, amateurish, and collegial process of appointing or electing a head of department or school.
We should also note additional aspects of academia that may influence the work of managers or leaders. There are many types of postsecondary institutions, within and across countries. Similar titles (e.g., head of department, head of school, director) in different institutions and educational systems do not always refer to the same levels of responsibility. Some chairs have a great deal of budgetary oversight, while others have very little, with financial decisions made at more senior levels. Even within a single institution, individual units, such as departments or faculties, contrast greatly in size and complexity. Finally, disciplinary affiliations make a difference to the ethos and expectations of a particular unit.
Given so much variation, we agree with Fox-Kirk [5
] that context is key and that an individual achieving success as a leader in one setting may flounder in another. In the generally masculinist culture of universities, women leaders might be expected to face obstacles. One such obstacle may be the clash between social expectations for “women” and for “leaders” that means performing as one or the other, risks rejection, for example being too aggressive for a woman or too conciliatory for a leader [24
]. Women leaders are thought to practice self-surveillance and self-discipline to manage such contradictory expectations [12
Not only are expectations likely to be contradictory, but there is some evidence that women (and minoritized academics more generally) may more often be appointed into turbulent settings, sometimes with insufficient preparation or local knowledge—the so-called “glass cliff” [29
]. The glass cliff has been discussed in several publications on women in academic leadership [30
] and appears in personal narratives and popular accounts, if not always by name [32
]. Along the same lines, Read and Kehm note that women vice-chancellors in Germany are more likely to be appointed or elected when a situation requires “cleaning up” [36
] (p. 824).
Conversely, the incongruence may be diminished in certain environments and subfields. Griffiths found that women in middle management in a traditional research-oriented “old” university in the UK told “stories of exclusion and lack of support” [37
] (p. 81). In contrast, in a “new” university, a former faith-based teacher training college that had become a university and where women were better represented in leadership roles, they spoke positively about role models, training, and mentoring. Wroblewski [38
] presented a case study of a small Austrian university of art where government and institutional policy produced gains for a range of women’s equity issues, including, but not confined to, leadership. Yet adding more women may not automatically change the culture, which may have deep disciplinary or institutional roots, as Priola [26
] discovered in her study of a UK business school.
2.3. New Directions
Chronic difficulties in approaching questions of women in academic leadership include the tendency to essentialize women; the associated over-generalization that cuts across cultures and countries; the assumption that there is a best leadership practice that can be divorced from its context; the individualization of leadership qualities; and a fascination with women in senior roles that has occluded the importance of middle or lower middle management. Recent scholarship, however, has taken some new turns: a broadened geographical compass; a more post-structuralist theoretical stance; a concern with the “intra-actions” [39
] of gender and the neoliberal aspects of academe; and greater attention to ways in which gender intersects with other attributes, including generation, in impacting on leadership performances and others’ responses.
First, while much of the literature on women and academic leadership continues to originate in the US, UK, and Australia, we can now find a broader focus, including studies of European [15
], Asian [24
], and African [45
] countries, and comparisons of women’s academic leadership across nations [11
]. Looking across country contexts, Morley and Crossouard [24
] point to women leaders’ ambivalence about their positions, associations with loss rather than gain, and unhealthy workloads. In some sites, there are additional challenges not featured in Western research, such as corruption and favoritism. A particularly interesting study is Kuzhabekova and Almukhambetova’s investigation of women leaders in universities in Kazakhstan. The authors situated their results in the tensions among three often contradictory cultures, “traditional, Soviet, and Westernized neo-liberal” [44
] (p. 183), all of which have some impact on contemporary expectations around gender.
Several scholars have considered what other countries might learn from Sweden, where a legislative and social commitment to gender equity has altered the profile of “manager–academics” [21
], creating what Peterson [31
] calls “demographic feminization”. O’Connor and Goransson [50
] found that Swedish senior managers avoid gender stereotypes about leadership styles and prefer to cite individual variations. Peterson [31
] believes that academic management is actually dropping in status in Sweden, in part because of the work overload, and with the drop in status, men are abandoning these positions and leaving them to women.
Second, poststructuralist approaches have reframed the idea of leadership as an attribute to suggest instead that it is “performed” and thus constantly in flux. This idea parallels the notion that gender itself is “an ongoing interactive accomplishment” [52
]. Haake explains that leadership is not what a person is
, but “something that is done or constructed discursively” [40
] (p. 292). Consequently, “conflicts and contradictions abound, multiple identities merge and overlap” [53
] (p. 633). At a given moment, ways of acting draw from the discourses, or circulating sets of ideas, available. Identities, including a leader identity, are “unstable, contingent and precarious” [26
] (p. 22). This approach departs radically from the idea of “women’s ways of leadership”, as it allows performances of masculinity by females and of femininity by males instead of a predictable gender-based leadership style [27
] (p. 419). For example, in one article, senior women managers were described as wearing suits, signifying masculinity and authority, but softening the edges with “lighter colours, jewelry, scarves and designer shoes” [25
] (p. 421). In different environments, notably home and work, or even in different sites within the university, women leaders may “perform differently” in order to conform to varying social expectations [47
We can also complicate the (simultaneous) performativity of gender and leadership by questioning what else is going on—for example, do older women leaders tend to perform gender/leadership differently from younger ones? Here, we are thinking of Søndergaard’s description of discursive practices in Danish universities whereby individuals are “read” through “signs on their bodies” [54
] (p. 191). While younger women academics can be funny, lively and pretty, she claims, older ones have to find a different way to “do mature academic … femalewise” (pp. 197–198). Will older middle-managers be expected to respond in motherly ways to the needs of their colleagues—the emotional management work so often undertaken by women in their leadership performances [12
]? If so, might they risk the rebellion of the “children” against their “parents” [27
Third, many current publications situate gendered management in the context of neoliberal university practices, themselves understood as gendered. Höpfl, for example, described the heightened emphasis on competition of all kinds as “frenetic male posturing” [55
] (p. 40), while Thomas and Davies added that the academic job is now to be approached with “single-minded ruthlessness and competitive zeal” [56
] (p. 384). Leathwood [57
] noted that the pervasive emphasis on science and innovation as the fundamental challenge for nations and universities competing for “world-class” status operates with a hazy definition of what “science” includes, typically putting forward areas usually associated with men rather than alternatives, like eradicating violence against women. While, according to Leathwood, “passion” and “commitment” are acceptable statements for those implementing such agendas, “being emotional” remains forbidden, contributing to the positioning of “science” (and thus “world-class universities”) as objective, rational, and neutral (and with lingering masculine associations). Although there are instances of senior women managers doing well in the neoliberal environment [58
], most of the literature is less sanguine.
Of the assemblage of changes that have been identified in the contemporary university environment, managerialism (also known as new managerialism or New Public Management) seems to be the one most frequently highlighted in studies of women and leadership. Essentially, this tendency refers to a move away from a system based on rules to one “founded on performance management and measurement, key performance indicators and decentralized decision-making” [51
] (p. 521). While advantages in terms of efficiency and systematization have been identified, at its worst, “leadership might not mean much more than the management of a never-ending stream of new bureaucracies due to audits, evaluations, performance targets, multi-annual planning, and daily time-writing” [60
] (p. 200), i.e., Barcan’s [22
] bureaucratic layer of university work. Under these conditions, what looks like advances for women may simply mean an increase in “demanding administrative and pastoral duties” [51
] (p. 523), reflecting the lives of academic women more generally [61
Another ubiquitous feature of contemporary universities is the extensive use of new technologies, said to have altered the working day and made middle managers into “24/7” workers [62
]. Drake [33
] counted up the emails she sent to colleagues in nine months in her new job as a dean in Australia and found that there were 6269! It is not simply that there is more work, but that the individualism and personal responsibility built into neoliberal approaches encourage a sense of guilt and a perpetual drive to prove oneself worthy [64
], despite the fact that no academic (or academic leader) can ever be “good enough” [22
] (p. 90). Devine et al. used the phrase “elastic self” to describe the ways in which being an academic manager in Ireland requires “a relentless pursuit of working goals without boundaries in time, space, energy or emotion” [53
] (p. 632).
Drake referred to neoliberal managerialism as the generation of “more measurable outcomes with fewer resources” [65
] (p. 4). Prevailing concepts of leaderism mean that good leadership is expected to result in positive outcomes, but when the news is bad, the manager/leader has the responsibility for the misery of a working environment where resources may be even further reduced. As Drake [65
], Morley [3
] and others have pointed out, there is an emotional or affective cost to all of this responsibility, or put differently, leaders operate in an “affective economy” [24
]. For Ahmed, affects are social constructions rather than individual feelings and the affective economy refers to the circulation of these affects, which may include rationality as well as more obvious emotions such as pride or shame [24
]. In Morley and Crossouard’s study [24
], women leaders spoke of the “affective burden” which dealing with conflict and negativity among former peers placed upon them.
In cases where the academic manager becomes a scapegoat for ills beyond her control or even for mistakes she has made, the result can be symbolic violence [67
] and enormous pain. No wonder women looking at leadership may be more likely to equate it with loss than advancement [24
]. Drake’s description of the deanship as provoking “great emotional conflict the like of which I have never before experienced” [33
] (p. 161) is hardly an advertisement for the pleasures of the job. Technology allowed reams of bullying emails to appear on her computer, while the institution merely suggested she should learn to adjust to the “cut and thrust of industrial relations” [65
]. This type of response has elsewhere been called institutional betrayal, when an institution, rather than remediating a situation, reinforces it [69
]. What is clear in these cases is that the individualism that is a feature of neoliberalism (and leaderism), whether it leads to praise or blame, skirts around the structurally problematic features of a situation, such as inadequate resources or enforced redundancies, in favour of blaming the leader.
As part of the turn to corporate values in universities [22
], academe operates under a search for efficiencies, which increasingly means much of the teaching and the research assistance is done by individuals on short-term contracts who can be paid much less than regular faculty [academic staff] and denied job security and benefits [70
]. Because this tendency coincides with more women and racialized individuals entering the academic labour market, the new proletariat overrepresents these groups [71
]. While there is a growing literature on the plight of precarious academics, managing a department or faculty under those conditions presents challenges yet to be examined.
A fourth trend in recent literature is an awareness that the category of “women” and therefore, “women leaders” should not be essentialized. Studies from a range of countries, as described above, move us toward greater appreciation of differences as well as similarities among women’s leadership experiences. Even within a country or institutional context, writers increasingly recognize that “there are always cross-cutting dimensions (intersections) such as race, social class, or having a disability, which operate together in any situation and can shift for a person over time” [74
]. In many countries, including Canada, gains to date for women in accessing leadership positions have gone mainly to white women, while women from minoritized and racialized groups are still fighting for recognition in academe more generally [75
]. Accounts of minoritized women in leadership positions are somewhat more prevalent in the United States [76
]; however, they are largely disconnected from the international literature and difficult to generalize from, given specific features of the US higher education scene, such as the existence of historically Black universities. Notable also is Fitzgerald’s [13
] integration of Indigenous academic women’s perspectives into her study of women leaders in Australian and New Zealand universities. Henry’s [79
] narrative stands out as a thoughtful analysis of her experiences in three institutions as an African-Canadian woman, with special attention paid to her term as department chair in a Canadian university where both gender and race influenced the responses of others to her decisions and self-presentation.
Generational differences, which of course also reflect societal changes over time, are of particular interest in this article. David [80
] compared perspectives of feminist scholars from different eras. Bagilhole and White [81
] considered the interplay between gender and generation, its impact on academic careers, and its variation across country contexts. Several authors [64
] have raised the question of whether younger women academics who have come of age in the neoliberal university might respond differently to those who have experienced, and then lost, an alternative academic culture. Generally speaking, these researchers have found that newer academics search for ways to establish an academic identity—more difficult for those without a permanent contract—but also retain a critical view of aspects of contemporary academe such as precarity and managerialism.
Less often explored are generational variations among women academic leaders. Burkinshaw and White [17
] contrasted a senior group of women academic managers with a junior one. The former group occupied very senior positions in the UK and generally agreed that they had to learn how to deploy masculine styles of behavior if they were not to be sidelined. The junior women were taking part in a leadership development course in Australia. These women—who had at least considered leadership positions, thus signing up for the course—were unenthusiastic about a future in academic leadership. They were already experiencing stress and overload and were ambivalent, at best, about taking on more of it, a finding paralleling Peterson’s Swedish study [31
] and the idea of lower middle management resembling a revolving door [1
2.4. What is Missing?
At least two neglected elements jump out at us from this review of literature: first, Canada is barely represented; and second, the interplay of structural features and the gendered experiences of individuals in middle management are underexplored. While there have been many Canadian studies and discussions about academics and gender (see, for example, [74
]), there has not been an equivalent focus on gender and academic leadership. Perhaps unappreciated by readers elsewhere is that while there are similarities between Canada and the United States (for example, the tenure system and the professorial ranks), there are also many points of divergence, among them the greater likelihood of working in a unionized environment, the lack of a central government department of education (as provinces are responsible for education), and the better social welfare provision of health and maternity benefits in Canada [88
]. Canada also differs from most of the countries that have introduced national research assessment exercises. Provincial responsibility for higher education means that there cannot be a nation-wide policy such as Britain’s Research Excellence Framework or Australia’s Excellence in Research for Australia. It may not be a coincidence that comparative studies have found Canadian academics to be more “satisfied” than those in most other countries [91
], although the presentation of results without gender divisions may obscure women’s lower levels of satisfaction [90
]. Nevertheless, it is arguable that the repeated assessments associated with tenure, promotion, and annual performance reviews do much of the same work of raising anxiety, harnessing affect, and incentivizing performance and performativity [64
There is, of course, relevant Canadian literature on women in academic management, some of which is written by one of us [1
]), but often this is contained in conference papers, theses, bulletins, magazines, or reports that are unlikely to circulate outside of the country. A report commissioned to look at the gender gap in academe concluded that (1) women’s progress in Canadian universities is uneven by discipline and rank; (2) the higher the rank, the lower the percentage of women in comparison to men; (3) the Canadian profile is similar to that of other economically-advanced nations; and (4) there is a paucity of Canadian data [93
] (pp. xv–xvi).
A few Canadian studies have suggested, consistent with the glass cliff metaphor, that women in high-level positions, such as university presidents, are at greater risk than men of termination or early departure [94
]. Lavigne [95
] identified a pattern of non-reappointment for women deans and racialized deans. A recent newspaper report [35
] described the situation of Angelique EagleWoman, who, after moving from the United States to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to become dean of law at Lakehead University, resigned after less than two years, alleging systemic discrimination against her as an Indigenous woman. She was quoted as stating, “I have felt constantly challenged by a lack of funding, a hostile environment, and other negative actions directed at me as an Indigenous woman. It has reached a point that I am under such mental and emotional stress that it is untenable for me to stay”.
A second area of neglect is middle management/leadership. For clarity, we note that there are many books and articles that have discussed the work of department heads, often offering advice, but what we are considering is writing concerned with women or gender. There might be good reasons to make more careful distinctions between what Thompson [58
] calls “top” and “middle” women. Her research indicated that women in middle management positions emphasize problems, while those in more senior positions appear more successful and more comfortable with “discourses of neo-liberalism” [58
] (p. 405). Studies by Kloot [96
] and Haake [40
] also suggest that women middle managers, such as heads of department, are particularly vulnerable. Of three women appointed to that position as part of an equity initiative in an Australian business faculty, all left before the end of their term [96
]. In Haake’s longitudinal Swedish study, male and female department heads spoke very similarly at the start of their terms, but four years later, their perspectives diverged, with most of the women (but not the men) talking about interpersonal problems, the impact of gender, and the time-consuming aspects of their work [40
While the broader literature frequently points to the difficulties of this particular middle-level position [88
], sandwiched between desires of colleagues and dictates of upper management [23
], there seems to be a further twist to the experiences of women in these roles. It may be that those who emerge relatively unscathed are the ones who become Thompson’s “top women”, while the others return, thankfully, to their faculty roles, disillusioned with leadership [1
]. Certainly, there are examples of women who believe they have achieved success in their leadership roles [30
]. In Ireland, O’Connor [59
] found senior women academic leaders emphasizing the advantages of their roles; yet they too were also looking forward to ending their managerial assignments.
In the remainder of this article, we draw on our own experiences with middle management (leadership) in the Canadian context to illustrate and question some of the tendencies in the literature. While clearly generalization is limited, our effort is not meant to apply to many situations but to provide a heuristic consideration of some of the subtleties of experience that can be unearthed through narrative. There are some explorations of individual experience of middle management (usually chairs or deans and usually women) that provide some guidance, such as Kolodny’s [100
] discussion of her days as a female dean of arts in the US battling an invisible disability; Jansen’s [34
] account of being a Black male dean in a formerly all-white university in South Africa; Drake’s [33
] story of her trial by fire as a new dean in a new country, Australia; Bagilhole and White’s [81
] collection of academic career narratives of women across generations and nations; Henry’s [79
] observations on being a Black woman department chair in an atmosphere of dysconscious racism in Canada [101
]; Faircloth’s [102
] narrative of her efforts to achieve “authentic leadership” as an American Indian department chair; and Sandra’s [27
] discussion of a Canadian chair coping with a critical incident. Common to these accounts is the exhausting emotional labour described by the narrators [12
], raising the question of what exactly constitutes the workload in middle management positions.