The challenge of contesting structures that reproduce gender inequalities: the dual power of new managerialism and masculine norms in academic settings

Despite attempts to broaden access to higher education in the UK through widening participation policies from the 1990s onwards and more recent national and local prioritising of gender equality in institutional strategic planning via initiatives such as the Athena SWAN charter, radical gender change in numerical and cultural terms is allusive. This paper proposes that universities, in the context of accelerated change, remain ‘conservative’ organisations with regards to working norms and career progression. Increasingly research and higher education institutions have multiple demands laid on them – demands for scientific excellence, demands for organisational innovation, the need to respond to student needs – and gender equality is but one amongst many competing demands that require action and reflection. It is important to understand how multiple demands can reinforce or undermine each other in terms of organisational activities and change. Drawing on empirical and action research in a UK higher education institution, this paper explores managerialism and concepts of excellence and meritocracy through a gender-lens. Excellence can be defined as: high mobility; excellent networks; high citations and; high levels of research funding. The quantitative measurement of performance through instruments like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) recognise and foreground particular kinds of activities at the expense of others. In addition to these aspects, the highly competitive environment in academia may exacerbate inequality as research shows that women are less likely to put themselves forward in competitive contexts and are less likely than men to consider themselves as ‘excellent’. Masculine norms of career and working thrive in the environment of increasing competition and recurring research, teaching and administrative performance indicator measurements: women who adhere to masculine norms can succeed, but real change is sidestepped. The lack of meaningful structural change acts as a barrier to gender equality in the academy. The paper concludes by offering some examples and recommendations on how this issue can be addressed.