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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2004

Essays Capture Heart & Soul of Academic Women

Sharon Taylor-Henley

Women in the Canadian Academic Tundra: Challenging the Chill

Elena Hannah, Linda Paul & Swani Vethamany-Globus, eds. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002; 288 pp; hardcover $75 CA., paper $29.95 CA.
If you are interested in the experiences and feelings of women in academe across Canada, this book is an excellent collection of essays on the subject. Forty-eight contributors offer 45 stories that are rarely angry, periodically touching, and occasionally humorous. While the wide range of styles results in a somewhat varied work, the individual pieces are so brief the reader has an opportunity to put the book aside frequently and reflect upon the contents of each contribution before reading the next.

In the introduction the editors refer to the book as an "anthology of stories of academic women," and they offer a guideline to the themes of the narratives, identifying the corresponding authors. This can assist the reader who is interested only in one topical area, while potentially diverting others from a personal framework for interpretation. The editors have resisted the traditional approach of organizing the themes into sections and instead have opted to present the pieces alphabetically. This appears to be an indication that one issue, concern or theme should not hold a place of priority. The articles are concise, perhaps a subtle recognition that academic women may be too busy to read for extended periods of time in areas not directly related to their discipline or current research.

The largest portion of the book is devoted to the stories of part-timers. Part-time is broadly defined to include non-tenure track sessional or contractual staff. This is appropriate as the book was conceived during a series of panels on the circumstance of part-timers organized by one of the editors, Linda Paul, as a member of CAUT's Status of Women Committee, for CAUT's 1996 status of women conference in Halifax.

The frustration of their part-time employment status generated a determination and energy which the participants channelled into creating a book about their situation, and the collaboration that began at the conference was extended by a national call for contributions to this work. The stories of 14 women, some working for wages near or below the poverty level, or simultaneously holding two or three contracts with separate institutions ("roads scholars" as Stevi Stephens describes them), are all but inconceivable for those who are tenured full-timers for over a decade.

Low income or required travel, however, often appear as mere manifestations of the central problems of invisibility, subordination and lack of validation. Part-time faculty are unable to contribute to faculty or departmental decision-making about policy or curriculum. This is a source of chagrin for those who have worked in one institution for 20 years and more. Diane Huberman-Arnold's three-page article titled "A Wedding and Two Funerals" sums up this frustration very poignantly.

Huberman-Arnold also alerts the reader to another theme of the book: couples in academe. Couples in the same discipline have often found it impossible to obtain faculty positions in the same institution. Departmental rules about the hiring of married partners appear to make it dangerous to meet your partner in graduate school. When spouses collaborate successfully, it is suggested that academic women face discrimination most acutely when the couple chooses to have a child. Difficulties can also arise for couples from different disciplines.

Jeanette Lynes outlines discrepancies in the approaches of some hiring committees as they interview the female versus the male partner in an academic couple. Lynes observes that women are asked questions about their private lives and the plans of their partner while these questions are not asked of the men. A powerful contrast of gender experiences - the male in a business school and the female in science - is offered by Irene Wanke and Peter Bowal.

The incompatibility of the "academic clock" and the "biological clock" is identified and powerful questions for future collective agreements are raised. Are "parental leaves" sufficient protection for academics who delay families for a considerable period during graduate study? What types of family-friendly policies might be a more useful approach in the 21st century? Can the academic clock be forced to adjust to the biological clock and to newer societal norms? If parents choose time off or a lighter load when their children are young, should their careers be frozen or permanently impeded?

Seven stories, including two by editors Paul and Vethamany-Globus profile the difficulties of parenting and academic life. Lesley Harmon and Petra Remy offer the results of a 1993 survey of female and male faculty in Ontario to highlight the family/work conflicts experienced by academics. They note that the academic clock and the linear career path were patterned in a different era when the gender roles for both men and women were more strictly defined.

The eight stories of women in science are among the most powerful. These include discussions of the attitudes within the academy which discourage young women from entering the field (Joan Scott, Amy Rowat), the impediments to progress beyond the margins and the possibilities for both men and women to maintain careers for many years unsupported by the hard money of the university base budget (Anne Morgan, Vethamany-Globus).

A colleague once described this to me as the rose phenomenon. As long as the rose is in bloom and able to attract outside research funds which bring attention to the university, things move along well. Once the bloom is off the rose (maybe 20 years later), the faculty member can be let go with no compensation, or be diminished to sessional status without obligation on the part of the institution.

What feminists used to call "women in double jeopardy" is presented in this text as women doubly marginalised within the academy: aboriginal women and women of colour. A subtle but important suggestion is offered intimating that initiatives which require the hiring and participation of persons of a variety of backgrounds have not been coupled with sufficient equity reform to ensure that fair treatment is subsequently pursued on a continued basis. Vethamany-Globus has postulated that for immigrants and aboriginal peoples the ceilings of the academy may not be the "glass" ceilings women academics have long identified ... the ceilings for the doubly marginalised may in fact be "steel."

This book contains more than stories. There are some excellent analytical pieces. I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Bankier's characterization of "inequity taxes" to describe the additional outputs required of women and marginalized groups. The argument states that marginalized people pay a variety of taxes - group taxes just because they are members of a disadvantaged group, leading-edge taxes imposed on members of equity-seeking groups who are the forerunners in their work environment, and equity work taxes imposed on those who actively work for equity. She identifies corresponding subsidies to advantaged groups. This brief piece could be helpful to students or new faculty who are trying to make sense of the operation of the academy.

Dianne L. Common identifies a series of tensions that result from gender differences in approaches to university administration. She diagrams a thoughtful schema that presents her perceptions of the differences in the behavioural practices of male and female administrators. She argues that tensions arise because these two sets of behaviours are inconsistent with each other and result in dissimilar outcomes. This nicely researched piece offers interesting vignettes to illustrate many of her points.

An additional richness is added by the two contributions from women who have held both academic appointments and positions in which equity-seeking activities were the major tasks. Consultant Helen Breslauer, former senior researcher with the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and Shahrzad Mojab, former equity officer, draw on their experiences to describe gains, losses and future work to be done by feminists and anti-racists. The inclusion of contributions from students as well as joint faculty/student papers round out the series of more traditional

Women in the Canadian Academic Tundra covers a wide range of themes and topics and is an excellent east to west initiative. It is an enjoyable read that is at times emotionally demanding and is rich in insight, intelligence and wit.

Sharon Taylor-Henley is a professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba.