Gender, Posts, Positions, Pay and Promotion: A Roundtable Discussion

At the International Medieval Congress at Leeds there was a roundtable on the evening of Monday 1st July on Gender, Posts, Positions, Pay and Promotion chaired by Liz McAvoy.

Liz McAvoy suggested I might like to contribute to this roundtable after I posted a message to the MedFem list asking about the technicalities of a British citizen applying for a job at an American university.  I joined the search for work late in life and was having no luck in applications to British universities (however apprporiate I may think my application was).  My lack of success in this search, however, means that I cannot justify the expense of attending the Leeds IMC but I still wanted to make a contribution to the discussion.  What I have to say is predicated on my personal experience, but I would like to make some comments that I hope may have a wider relevance, or at least provoke some general discussion.


I was recently at the Nuns’ Literacies conference in Antwerp – an amazing collection of scholars and women! – and realised it was time I admitted something I’ve really known for some time: I am not going to get a ‘proper job’ – a full time post in a university.  I have a Ph.D. from a good university, I have published a monograph and edited a collection of essays, I have years of teaching experience – but my cv as a whole just doesn’t look right.

While I was writing my Ph.D. at Southampton, I was teaching classes in Continuing Education for my local university, Essex.  It was work I enjoyed:  I had a high degree of autonomy, creating my own courses and teaching material – literature and medieval studies, usually with a feminist approach – that interested me and allowed me to share my knowledge and enthusiasm with my students.  I felt that I was doing worthwhile work – encouraging students, often middle-aged women with children going to university, to realise their own potential.  There was no pressure to prepare them for exams, but it was gratifying if a student who had had no academic qualifications felt able to continue through an access course to a university degree.  There were also those who already had degrees who enjoyed the intellectual stimulation.  It was education for its own sake – a value I had been brought up with and never felt the need to question.

I continued teaching part-time in Continuing Education after I received my Ph.D in 2004.  The teaching was fulfilling and I earned enough to pay for research trips and attend conferences, while having the time to both continue research and writing, and look after my home and garden.  I seemed to have achieved that often hoped for but rarely achieved prize: a good work/life balance!  I was, of course, in a fortunate position being able to afford to do this work – I did not earn a living but was supported financially by my husband.  This might not seem a feminist position –  but as far as we were concerned it was a joint enterprise.  Without my support, emotional as much as practical, my husband probably wouldn’t have been able to earn as well as he did, and make his own contribution to the world of commerce.  But just a year after I completed my Ph.D., the department at Essex was closed down – it wasn’t making money.  The bottom line dictated that it wasn’t successful.  I used the time to complete my book, but when my husband was made redundant I realised I needed a job – a proper job.

My cv didn’t make for easy reading: try completing a job application where the form insists that all breaks in employment – i.e. paid employment (the only kind that counts) has to be accounted for.  Can you really justify spending ten years looking after one child, even if he did have health problems?  Age discrimination, like gender discrimination, has been made illegal, but it is nearly impossible to make a job application without revealing how old you are.  The continuing bias against older women is, it seems to me, part of the general ethos within our society.  I am not claiming that the world I grew up in was some kind of golden age – attending a girls‘ high school where I was able to take Latin A level and then getting a partial grant to go to one of the top universities in the country – made me incredibly privileged.  And maybe this is one of the reasons I found it difficult to adapt to a society that didn’t appreciate my talents of (sometimes, admittedly, old-fashioned) scholarship or my vocation to teaching.

I had been in and out of universities for years, pursuing my own interests and switching fields.  I went to the States to study for an MA in 1979, leaving a Britain that was changing rapidly under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.  I was a Teaching Assistant Scholar at a small private university in Massachusetts and was surprised, and appalled, to hear students discuss the value of their university education by comparing how much it cost to be at university and how much they could expect to earn with a degree, with how much they could earn if they went into work straight from high school.  It had never occurred to me to consider education as a commodity.  I returned to England to find many of the values that had disturbed me in the States being adopted here – in particular the use of economic value as the prime means of judging most things, including people’s contribution to society and work.  I did another MA at Essex University, by which time I was married with a small child.  As part of the MA – in ‘Women Writing’ which covered feminist theory as well as literature by women – I took a course in history from which one observation has always remained with me: if a woman is working in a factory making sliced white bread she is contributing to the economy; if she bakes a loaf of wholesome bread at home she is not, and her work does not count.

Some of the values that disturbed me could be characterised as traditionally masculine: competitiveness, individualism, self-assertion to the point of aggression at times, judgment based on achievement.  These values have been accepted so completely that they colour our language, often without our noticing it.  Consider some of the language contained in the material sent for consideration prior to this roundtable; [Sexual discrimination in science]: ‘women rule themselves out of the race’ we need a ‘proven track record’ and are ‘operating in a transfer market’: what game is this: Premier league football?  It is accepted that competency is a preferable trait to likeability; excellence, being a ‘star’, prolific publications and leadership are the qualities that are valued.  The language is the language of games, of competition.  Success is allied to power.

A few mornings ago I heard Digby Jones on Radio 4’s Today programme refer to the ‘skilled product out of the education system’: I think he was referring to young people.  If education has become the factory for ‘skilled product’, what are teachers?  Job applications  for university posts now are as interested in the ability of applicants to attract funding as evidence of scholarly research or teaching vocation.  A recently retired and highly respected female academic mentioned to me in a recent email that ‘Universities these days are run as businesses (the first point our current VC made to us when he came to visit the Faculty of Humanities), the emphasis has shifted from actual achievement to earnings and status.’  My own brother is CEO as well as V-C of a UK university.  In a society where everything is commodified, where everything has a monetary value and the whole value system is predicated on economics, there is no place for a middle-aged woman with an old-fashioned scholarly approach to research and a genuine teaching vocation.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider the boys’ game we are playing, and the rule we are abiding by.  If the measurement of success in this game is economic, what are the values it is promoting?  Is the only kind of person who is successful one who has embraced traditionally masculine values of individual achievement, competitiveness and assertion (to the point of aggression even)?

I am of course not suggesting for a moment that women should be confined to the traditional ‘feminine’ roles of childcare and homemaking, but it might be worth reconsidering the value of those roles.  Is making that loaf of homemade bread really such a worthless thing to do?  This is a question that one of our foremothers – Virginia Woolf – asked (although she herself was denied ‘real’ motherhood).  She wrote in Three Guineas:

 In other words, sir, I take you to mean that the world as it is at present is divided into two services; one the public and the other the private.  In one world the sons of educated men work as civil servants, judges, soldiers and are paid for that work; in the other world, the daughters of educated men work as wives, mothers, daughters – but are they not paid for that work?  Is the work of a mother, of a wife, of a daughter, worth nothing to the nation in solid cash? That fact, if it be a fact, is so astonishing that we must confirm it by appealing once more the the impeccable Whitaker [the Almanac].  Let us turn to his pages again.  We may turn them, and turn them again.  It seems incredible, yet it seems undeniable.  Among all those offices there is no such office as a mother’s; among all those salaries there is no such salary as a mother’s.  The work of an archbishop is worth £15,000 a year to the State; the work of a judge is worth £5,000 a year; the work of a permanent secretary is worth £3,000 a year; the work of an army captain, of a sea captain, of a sergeant of dragoons, of a policeman, of a postman – all these works are worth paying out of the taxes, but wives and mothers and daughters who work all day and every day, without whose work the State would collapse and fall to pieces, without whose work your sons, sir, would cease to exist, are paid nothing whatever. Can it be possible?

[Three Guineas, Penguin 1977, p. 63]


That was written in 1938, twenty years after the end of one world war and at the eve of another (it started with a consideration of the question ‘How are we to prevent war?’).  Women – wives, daughters and mothers – may now be working in the public sphere (as judges if not archbishops), but is that the only solution?  Can we not be more radical and question that very division of worlds?  Ask whether the work of an army captain is really still worth more to the state that that of a mother or other carer of our children?  When will women be able to write on their cvs with pride that they spent ten years looking after their children, instead of trying to hide the fact by smudging dates?

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