Data analysis and discussion are based on the two main categories selected for this paper. In different ways, the analysis of both categories reveals how the discourses of these two women can exemplify the reproduction of the male norm. Simultaneously, these discourses can contribute to reinforcing the lack of gender awareness in HEIs.
2.1.1. Rationale of a Professional Trajectory
Concerning the professional trajectory of these women rectors in Portugal, both described their path in a very similar way, emphasising the importance of obtaining good marks, the right qualifications, and the capacity to engage in management roles. They started their careers after finishing a first degree (an old bachelor of five years), since both were outstanding students in their field of expertise (one in Education and the other in Physics). Then, both went abroad to obtain a PhD (both in the United Kingdom). When they returned to Portugal, they were highly engaged with their academic careers (especially with teaching and research duties), being able to progress in their careers to the top. After obtaining full professor positions, both become vice rectors and finally rectors.
The two rectors had a typical trajectory in the institution: “(…) [they] started as assistants, [they] obtained the PhD, become professors, published, [they] (…) had a normal professional career, [they] (…) [and] were both full professors when (…) become vice rectors”.
The description of the two women’s professional trajectories is rationalised as gender-neutral. The experiences of these women leaders reveal the types of behaviours, mainly centred in career performance, that were rewarded as they ascended to leadership positions, assuming them as equal for women and men. In this sense, their discourses are linked to the idea of a disembodied worker [25
] that seems to be inherent in almost all of the descriptions of their professional trajectories. The expression “normal professional career” reveals how these women perceive their careers as aligned with the male norm and with the notion of academic meritocracy. When referring to another woman rector, one interviewee sustained:
“[She] has always been a very prestigious person. She received a doctorate from University XYZ and developed research in XX field, which was a prestigious area in the university. She was vice-chair of the Scientific Council, and had been vice rector for four years”.
In line with other previous studies [8
], to be a full professor and be associated and identified as a prestigious researcher is an important condition to be able to ascend to top positions. However, other studies also reveal how informal career paths are equally important to ascend in the career path, highlighting, for instance, the relevance of the inclusion in the right networks or the role of mentors [8
], which were not equally valued in these women’s discourses.
Their descriptions are associated with a linear and providential career path that is quite similar to the dominant job description that is associated with a male whose life is centred around his full-time job. It is quite interesting that although both of the women in the study were married, they did not talk about the difficulties in dealing with work–family balance. Instead, the main difficulties were identified as being gender-neutral “technical issues” that were easily suppressed with specific training:
“The main difficulties were learning new things, like making a strategic plan. I am from a time when there was no such culture. The greatest difficulty is learning what a person does not know and has to learn. It was about having the technique, the instrument, and knowing what to do. What I needed was a result of not having training to be a rector. The first thing I did was to go to a European program for the training of rectors, and it was excellent”.
“[The] Obstacles and difficulties [that] we all have ... are general whether we are men or women. I confess that as a woman I never felt any difficulty”.
Probably these women may have found mechanisms to conciliate work and family, using diverse strategies such as having the support of other family members or by hiring other women for work and services. To a great extent, this description is associated with the particular historical and cultural characteristics of the country. There is a high tradition for women, mainly due to economic reasons, of having high levels of participation rates in the labour market [50
], with teaching being particularly considered as an adequate profession for women.
Furthermore, the way that these women assume that they did not plan nor did they even want to become leaders may transmit the idea that if women are good enough, they become more visible and are “naturally” invited to assume leadership positions. The following quotations reveal how these women assume that their route was unplanned and almost accidental.
“At the time, when the previous rector approached me, I said: ‘For God’s sake, no!’ Nothing was further from my personal goals. I was a researcher in X at that time and dedicated with all my heart and soul to research. I liked what I did. It was X, I was publishing, and that was what I wanted. But, this career also helped me later having recognition by my peers”.
“The previous rector invited me to be his vice rector. Then, when there were six months left to the end of his mandate, he was invited to be Minister of Education and he appointed me to substitute him. I was in the position for six months, and then started preparing the elections because I didn’t want to be a rector”.
These quotations demonstrate that the assumption of leadership roles was not a “natural” process. These women acknowledged the importance of their mentors, which reveals the relevance of the gendered organisational structure and the links between leadership and positional power [8
]. These quotations also reveal that to ascend to top positions, questions of “who self-identifies, and is identified by existing power elites, as having leadership legitimacy” (Louise, 2013a: 6) [10
] are determinant, demonstrating that the progress in the career ladder is not only dependent on performance, but also on having specific individual characteristics. These quotations actually demonstrate that, in some specific organisational circumstances, there are other personal characteristics (such as socio-economic background or socio-cultural capital), which can be more relevant than gender in electing those who have leadership legitimacy.
“I do not know the other universities so well, but I think that here, in addition to the opening spirit, eventually our personalities in our journey also had some influence. For example, I have always been chosen by others for positions. I think people had the idea that I was very transversal. I have good relations with everyone!”
The idea of the disembodied worker and male norm of academic work is assumed in such a way in these discourses that, in fact, it seems that their position as tokens [51
] is counterproductive, since they are presented as an example that women can reach top positions as long as they are willing to.
“I believe that we are going to have more women rectors in the future. If we already had some, why shouldn’t we have more?”
Although these women did not plan to become rectors, their descriptions of the route to the top are strongly identified with the male norm. The portrayal of their career is defined as rational, meritocratic, and sustained as a total dedication to work. To a great extent, these descriptions reproduce the idea that in order to be identified as eligible for the position, women need to demonstrate having these masculine characteristics. In turn, this perspective blames women for not being able to reach leadership positions [10
], and legitimises actions that are based on “fixing the women” [52
], or even worse, supporting the idea that the only thing that needs to be fixed is society, removing the responsibility of institutions to promote equal opportunities. The Portuguese case exemplifies that this is not necessarily true, considering that despite the changes in national laws promoting gender equality in society, and the high participation of women in HE, it was only in 2001 that the first woman rector was elected, and since then, only six more in the whole country have achieved this position.
The notion of a hero leader is embodied in their discourses, adding to the traditional male hero discourse the capacity they demonstrated to win in a men’s world and with men’s norms. To a great extent, these discourses incentivise other women to follow the same example and overcome themselves to be extraordinary in their personal, familial, and work life. The ideal type of an academic woman as an excellent teacher, an outstanding researcher, and an excellent mother and wife is ruling women’s behaviour in Portuguese academia, leading to heavy workloads and high levels of stress and feelings of not belonging. The same trends of women feeling overwhelmed in academia have also been acknowledged in other contexts [53
]. Using life history and ethnographic methods, Gornall and Salisbury (2012) [54
] revealed the existence of a ‘hyperprofessional’ academic, meaning that academics make strong efforts to maximise the levels of productivity, working harder and longer even when they are not explicitly asked to. The new academic work environment based on auditing and monitoring is internalised by academics who “become more demanding and rigorous with themselves than any other employer could be” (39: 6). This hyperprofessionalism, which is aligned with the increasing use of new technologies, does not allow delimiting space and time outside of the academic environment, turning academic work into non-stop work. Academics’ self-discipline results from the internalisation of the dominant performativity culture, leading academics to blame themselves for not being “good enough”. Feldamn and Sandoval (2018: 214) [55
] suggest that: “Neoliberal academia (…) promotes a meritocratic ideology of individual achievement that frames success and failure as purely personal ‘achievements’, which encourages a competitive ethos and chronic self-criticism”. This is particularly true for women, since the gender dominant structure and culture impose more constraints on career advancement that are not acknowledged by those who do not have gender awareness. Simultaneously, as women are so tired and overworked in their individual engagement with their career, it becomes exceedingly challenging to realise the role that organisational culture can play in this. In this sense, the discourses of these rectors reinforce the persistence of the image of a disembodied worker, and can contribute to women who are not able to reach top positions blaming themselves in an individualist perspective, which can have consequences for their psychological well-being.
In addition to how they rationalise their route to the top, it is also important to reflect on the women’s narratives about their experience as rectors by exploring the ways that these narratives are associated with gender stereotypes.
2.1.2. Leadership and Gender Roles
The analysis of this second dimension intends to understand how the interviewed women created narratives about their performance as leaders, and if and how these narratives were related with gender.
Findings revealed that when identifying the major characteristics that were needed to be able to assume a leadership position, the majority of people in these positions tend to identify gender-neutral characteristics. For these women, what seemed more determinant was their willingness to assume “greedy work” [11
“I would say to be a little crazy… Of course, to have the ambition to do the best for the university. There is also a great deal of ambition in this. Willingness to do things differently and to do more. (…) To have the ability to be reasonable, to ask the right questions (instead of finding answers) and then realise where you can find answers”.
These findings confirm previous studies revealing the existence of a dominant perspective of academia as gender-neutral in Portuguese HEIs, revealing a lack of gender awareness [11
“On the other hand, this is a modern university where the community itself, as far as I know and can assess it, was never discriminatory; at least I never felt any kind of discrimination for being a woman. Neither negative, nor positive”.
However, one of them actually recognised specific situations in academia that she identified as potentially leading to gender discrimination.
“However, I also know that there is a lot of machismo and there are certain areas of knowledge that are still male-dominated. In most of the evaluation panels, engineering, mathematics, etc., these are made up of men. As much as I believe in the objectivity of these panels, I cannot consider that the objectivity in evaluation is total”.
The dominant discourse was, instead, one that associated discriminatory episodes with women’s attitudes and with other general processes in society, especially with the division of labour in the workplace.
“Women are less willing to accept management posts and leadership positions; sometimes because they have more burdens outside of the profession than men. The government of the house is still in the hands of the women, like the education of the children. Adding to this, women don’t like to publicly expose their image”.
As a result, the suggestions these women proposed to eliminate discrimination were mainly associated with the perspective of fixing women [52
“Women also have an obligation to try to be rectors. They have nothing to feel discriminated against, they have to fight against it (...) To break the glass ceiling also demands that women have no glue on their feet and try to get up there. The phenomenon of glue on the feet means that there is a need to stimulate female participation at various levels”.
“It is often the women who put themselves in this position and think: ‘Oh, I am a woman ...’ and that inhibits them. They have a preconception of their non-acceptance”.
Actually, assuming that women do not want to develop leadership positions, another important question remains: why should women desire or aspire to enter HE leadership at a time when it is so problematic even to be able to demonstrate their capacity to fit within an excellence and performativity culture? At a time when academics are already feeling exhausted with their teaching, research, and social roles, why would women chose to be more involved in leadership roles that are widely acknowledged as being exhausting work? Which motivations underlie these women to apply for positions in which they are not specifically interested?
The analysis of the ways that women rectors rationalise their performance as rectors reveals some nuances in the male norm neutral discourses analysed in the narratives on career pathways.
Probably because these women developed their roles at a time when collegiality was still the dominant culture in Portuguese universities, their discourses are not entirely based on the cult of the person, and on the cultural ideology that the leader on her/his own can determine the success of transformation processes within HEIs.
“You have to be able to communicate and enjoy communicating with everyone: from students to colleagues to non-academic staff, and to realise that within an institution [that is] most constituted by human capital, there are idiosyncrasies, and the university is not a company. The only asset [that] HEIs have is the people”.
“Men tend to follow a more logical reason and we have an intuitive reason, and this has happened a lot in my professional life. I can sense what is going to happen and make decisions based on this and only then start trying to rationalise them”.
The way that these women describe their performance in the position, based on their communication skills and in continuous search for collective consensus, is an expression of a transformational leadership style that is far from what is identified in the neoliberal university assuming the “ideal leader” as based on individual agency. These women embody a democratic, collaborative leadership style which, at the present, depends ultimately on the person(ality) of the rector in office, as the new legislation imposes a very much top–down decision-making process. Furthermore, their leadership style is usually assumed as being more aligned with femininity [57
]. In this sense, the adoption of this type of leadership can, in fact, be seen as a strategy for these women to feel more “fit” or comfortable in the position. Although these women did not demonstrate high levels of gender awareness, their description of their daily activities reveals how they were “doing gender”, trying to continuously self-negotiate a balance between feminine and masculine traits.
Nevertheless, although they differentiate from the dominant male norm in these specific aspects, these may be recognised as minor and acceptable deviations from the norm, in large part because management norms in the last years have also included more traditional feminine traits known under the general term of “soft skills”.
“In Portugal, there is still a very strong presence of bias. There is still the notion that women’s leadership is not the same. People think [that] women can only lead behind the scenes. The female leadership style is often different from the male one, and it is a mistake for women to try to perform like a man. You should not ignore your own characteristics. People do not rule; people lead in a consensual way. You only lead if you can. At the time when this support and this credit disappears, the person cannot lead”.
The balance between feminine and masculine leadership style was also evidenced on the references to their bodies. The following quotation is a good example of the way women played the gender game in order to be able to succeed.
“It was painful to be always publicly exposed. I only realised that now because I am thinking how good it is that I can go in jeans and do not need to go to the hairdresser. Men do not need to go to the barbershop. If they go with less well-arranged hair, no one notices, and if I do, it will be highly visible”.
To sum up, it is possible to say that there are nuances in the male norm hero discourses of women rectors’ leadership styles. These women identify their leadership role as more aligned with feminine stereotypes such as communication skills and some physical traits or specifics as being “extra” careful with their (public) image. However, despite sustaining the discourses about their performance on communication and interaction, nothing is revealed about the emotional side of dealing with conflict, anxiety, morale, disappointment, or resistance while influencing other colleagues, which other studies have identified as being present in leaders–followers relations [1