Norm breaking in academia

2014-11-21 08:11

Men in the gender equality world and racialised people in academia are two non-normative groups, yet the consequences of their norm breaking are completely opposite. One group is rewarded, the other marginalised. This was one of the topics discussed at the Swedish national gender equality conference for universities and university colleges.

‘Experiences’ was the theme when this year’s gender equality conference for higher education institutions was held at Linköping University 18–19 November. Another common denominator during the first day of the conference was that the seminars focused on various forms of norm breaking: living with Tourette’s syndrome, being a man in the gender equality world and being racialised in academia.

Racialised alibis for gender equality

‘Who feels at home in academia?’ is the question upon which Fataneh Farahani’s research is based. Farahani, reader (docent) at the Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies at Stockholm University, has studied the whiteness norm in higher education. At the conference she described how a racialised person in academia is treated differently in various ways.

‘For example, the racialised person is often assigned the role of educating his or her workmates about racial matters – and is expected to always be thankful for this opportunity. The situation is similar for women knowledgeable about gender as they are generally expected to share their knowledge in this area with their colleagues, in many cases from scratch.’

The field of gender studies is not spared from discrimination, said Farahani. The notion of what an authentic gender expert is supposed to be like includes a whole range of irrelevant factors, not least related to whiteness, which leads to marginalisation of those who are racialised. One example is that the scholarly authority of racialised researchers is more narrowly linked to their respective research fields, whereas their white colleagues are assigned broader expertise.

Another common phenomenon is that racialised scholars are in demand for various collaborations as a way to avoid a completely normative group composition – they are given the role of alibis.

‘We men only have privileges’

The contrast became strikingly evident in the panel discussion on ‘being a man in the gender equality world’. As men in a very female-dominated field, these individuals are also norm breakers. However, their experiences seem to differ significantly from Farahani’s description. Moderator Lars Jalmert, professor emeritus at Stockholm University, Fredrik Bondestam (left) from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg, and Tomas Wetterberg, Östergötland County Administrative Board (left), had to quickly reformulate the theme of their discussion: The questions is not which advantages and disadvantages we have but how we should relate to the fact that we only have privileges, Bondestam concluded.

For example, how should a man who is fighting for equality and everybody’s equal value relate to the fact that his words often are assigned more weight than those of his female colleagues?

Wetterberg said that the answer depends on the context. When he is called in as an expert to teach laypeople about gender equality, he sees no problem in using all of his authority to convey important knowledge as effectively as possible. However, it would be very problematic if he was given disproportionate space in a discussion with female colleagues.

Similar to the racialised scholars whom Farahani had talked about, the men in the panel had personally experienced being invited to participate in projects more because of their gender than their knowledge. But the purpose of their inclusion is in those cases clearly expressed.

‘It’s not uncommon that I as a man get to serve as some kind of battering ram for a group,’ said Bondestam. ‘But when it happens, it’s something we talk about openly in the group.’

Bureaucratisation of gender equality issues

At one of the afternoon sessions, Malin Rönnblom, reader in political science and senior lecturer in gender studies at Umeå University, talked about her research where she has analysed the gender equality concept in Swedish higher education. She said that the focus in the gender equality work has changed from the structure to the individual, which has made it more reactive: structures are dealt with proactively, whereas a focus on the individual implies implementation of measures when somebody has been discriminated against.

The concept of intersectionality is clearly linked to structures yet has followed the transition to the more individualised focus, said Rönnblom. Today the concept is commonly used in discussions about discrimination of individuals. Rönnblom also talked about the bureaucratisation of many gender equality issues, as they have been introduced in the gender equality work in the form of checklists and audits.

‘Nothing wrong in ticking things off a list,’ she said. ‘But when that’s all you do, it’s a problem.’

Another clear difference compared with previous decades is what Rönnblom calls ‘the willingness to be led’. It is striking how gender equality staff and many managers consistently stress that something is ‘a management issue’ or ‘has to be approved higher up’, she said. The widespread belief of the past that change can come from below seems to have vanished.

In 2015 the Swedish national gender equality conference for universities and university colleges will be arranged at Uppsala University.

Author Anders Nilsson. Translation: Debbie Axlid
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