Early career women academics: a case study of working lives in a gendered institution
This study was informed by my interest in a set of inter-related policy concerns about the academic profession in South Africa. Academic staff in South African universities remain predominantly white and male at senior levels, the pace of demographic change has been slow, and not enough young people are choosing academic careers and being retained in academic jobs. Women, and black women in particular, are significantly under-represented in the professoriate. The imperatives for change in South African higher education in the post-apartheid era have been linked both to social justice demands for a more equitable, representative and transformed system, as well as global pressures for more accountable, productive and competitive universities. Despite progressive policy frameworks, South African universities retain highly gendered and racialised institutional cultures, which create constraints for academic staff in building academic careers. However, policy has limitations, and deeper exploration is needed to understand gender inequity. There is a dearth of research on the working lives of academics in the South African academy, in particular on the experiences of early career academics and women in the early career. This study explored the working lives of a small group of early career academic women in one faculty at one institution through narrative research, informed by the following research questions: • How does gender impact on academic working lives, career development choices and professional identities of selected early career academic women? • How do early career academic women understand, experience and mediate gendered institutional environments and how does this affect their professional functioning and agency? • What does this reveal about why gender inequalities persist in universities? This study used a combination of feminist theorisation about organisations and the capability approach as a framework for analysis. Institutions are gendered in multi-dimensional ways and this impacts profoundly on academic lives and career trajectories. Gendered institutions affect the everyday experiences of academic women. Gender is implicated in the way institutions are structured and how they operate. Job structures, expectations and workloads are gendered. Gendered everyday interactions (which can be both overt and invisible) and individuals’ own gendered socialisation, influence how women navigate academic working lives. All these factors affect how early career academic women form professional academic identities and what kinds of career trajectories they follow. While academic careers emerge as multi-dimensional, systems of recognition are relatively one-dimensional. Experiences are diverse – some academics are able to successfully navigate institutions and achieve well-being- while others struggle to achieve a sense of stability. The capability approach offered a normative social justice framing of the data, allowing for an exploration of individual experiences. It highlighted valued aspects of working lives, explored constraints and enabling factors, and ultimately arrived at a set of contextual and multi-dimensional valued capability dimensions. From the narratives and engagement with other capability sets, five capability dimensions emerged, based on the valued and aspirational functionings of the nine participants: • navigation: to be able to navigate academic life successfully; • recognition: to be able to be recognised and valued for one’s academic work; • autonomy: to be able to achieve professional autonomy; • affiliation: to be able to participate in social and professional networks; and • aspiration: to be able to aspire to a professional academic career. The usefulness of these five dimensions is that they provide a way of understanding what kinds of careers early career academic women want, and therefore suggest ways in which institutions can reduce institutional barriers and enhance opportunities for career development and well-being.