33 SES 06 A, Gender and Leadership in Education
Contemporary universities privilege speed, precarity, competition, and performativity, operating through modes of accelerationism, work intensification and productivity which produces academic subjectivities rooted in self-commodification. Such values and practices are antithetical to ethical feminist leadership which, like the concept of quiet activism (Pottinger, 2017), centres care, relationality, creativity, and collaboration. This paper engages these contestations through three fruitful questions:
- Can quiet activism effectively challenge current leadership modes and inform the rethinking of feminist leadership?
- In what ways does feminist materialism and critical realism help us theoretically reconceptualize feminist leadership?
- How do narrative approaches provide methodological insights in understanding empirical instances of feminist leadership as quiet activism?
In rethinking leadership as feminist praxis orientated towards that which is quiet, slow, and under the radar, we aspire to work against the damaging conditions of instrumentality and individuality that shape our lives and academia.
Feminist critiques of higher education emphasise the ‘re-masculinisation of the university’, the valorisation of the stereotypically masculine (Thornton, 2013: 3) and the ‘virility culture’ of competitive individualism (Morley, 2016: 5), which marginalises the affective and caring dimensions of academic life (Hey and Leathwoood, 2009). It produces academia as a place of risk by positioning the ‘feminist academic’ as ‘inherently problematic’ in the ‘corporatized and commercialised neoliberal university’ (Taylor and Lahad, 2018, 5–6). For feminists like us, whose primary roles involves leadership responsibilities (we are, respectively, Director of Research and Head of Department), navigating and negotiating our way through neoliberal technologies (institutionally framed as ‘the real world’) is frustrating and exhausting. Feminist leadership scholars have noted women leaders’ ambiguous position (Acker, 2012) and, insidiously, that the idea of a good leader is often synonymous with normative masculinity, and maleness is ‘seen as a resource and femaleness as a form of negative equity’ (Morley, 2013: 123).
However, in our roles we often use what Montez Lopez and O’ Connor (2018) call ‘stealth power’ – subterranean ways of working which, in small, quiet and slow but undoubtedly effective ways contest how power gets done in the minutiae of educational life and shifts structural possibilities through ongoing feminist micropractices. We favour feminist praxis and quiet activism as more productive ways of engaging colleagues through our leadership. In rethinking academic practices in rigorous but democratic, collaborative and affirmative ways we wish to contribute towards improving institutional cultures and lives (Taylor, 2020).
Hence, we develop a theorisation of feminist leadership as quiet activism through two theoretical frameworks. The first is feminist materialism, which focuses on the materialities of things, bodies, objects and spaces and how the human is co-constituted in and by their relations with matter (Taylor and Ivinson 2013). Barad’s (2007) agential realism is the analytical frame to enable exploration of feminist leadership as a material-discursive matter of practice-ings entailing world-things-bodies and how these natural-cultural entanglements produce meanings, generate differentiations, and articulate new modes of educational mattering.
The second, critical realism, facilitates a systematic conceptualisation of the contradictory mechanisms constituting the societal, organisational, ideational, cultural, personal-embodied and material world that forms the rich structural terrain: the context of and matter for agencies towards quiet activism (Archer, 2007; Bhaskar, 2010; Case, 2013; Clegg, 2006; Dannermark, 2019). Critical realism encourages articulation of the complex emergent structural powers apparent in our leadership narratives, drawing attention to the complex impact of materially and structurally differentiated phenomena (e.g. an institutional policy, the actual and imagined views of a manager, a concept, an emotion, a set of accepted relationships and forms of communication) and how these interact with our efforts. Finally, a critical realism focuses on mechanisms present but not active or visible that might enhance the outcomes of quiet activism.
The paper puts the theories of feminist materialism and critical realism to work through narrative vignettes of our own leadership practices to retheorise feminist leadership as quiet activism. We draw on first-person narrative vignettes – in particular the leadership practices to implement a national research evaluation exercise (the REF) at institutional department level and critical incidents that illustrate how the absence and presence of structural and agential mechanisms facilitate or undermine acts towards effective quiet activism relating to the broader work of a department. These narrative vignettes generated in response to critical incidences after discussions with one another illuminate issues we have encountered in our feminist research and departmental leadership. In our presentation we present two each (chosen from five generated by each of us) and analyse how and why we have more or less successfully enacted alternative modes of quiet feminist activism in our leadership practices. The theoretical frameworks help us identify what might have been more effective ways of enacting our leadership roles and strategies for illustrating their value to institutions and wider society. Using a narrative methodology in relation with the theories of feminist materialism and critical realism helps provide compelling evidence for the need for a retheorization, for the ways in which the concept of quiet activism interpreted through materialist feminist and critical realist frameworks could help us to think and do feminist leadership differently, and how that might make a difference in the educational worlds we inhabit. The narrative vignettes provide insights into our conception of leadership and help us to improve our sense of what non-hierarchical, embodied practice looks like. As rich, personal accounts they help illuminate how leadership is activated in webs of relations, many of them materially embedded within institutional settings (policies, longstanding practices, brochures, websites, emotional responses) which support or inhibit our efforts. They show how the personal and the relational, and the feminist values embedded in leadership practices, help us navigate the tensions in higher education between structures of accountability, national and international research imperatives, widening student access, supporting national and international staff, competition and league tables, as well as the personal and affective dimensions. As empirical instances, our narrative vignettes speak out from their specificities to illuminate some of the broader problems and micropolitics that enhance or constrain our capacities as feminist leaders.
This presentation thinks forward to consider how feminist academics in higher education might embrace different ways of feminist being, doing and thinking as a means to contest the shrunken containments of the neoliberal university (Bozalek et al. 2017; Hartman and Darab 2012). The conclusions pose feminist leadership as quiet activism as a way of garnering efforts for working towards more sustainable educational practices that don’t wear us out, wear us down and reproduce a toxic masculine culture. Our conclusions explore how feminist leadership as quiet activism can make a difference by taking small, care-full and response-able steps towards attending to social justice for all on the planet, not just humans (Ulmer 2017) and to enhancing epistemic justice for more inclusive ends. The conclusions are shaped by Isabelle Stengers’ (2018) hope for modes of feminist ethics and practices which (a) recognise the value of ‘other’ ways of knowing; (b) places social values as central to processes of knowledge and knowing; and (c) figures knowledge as a situated politics of engagement. Taking Stengers (2005: 188) as an inspiration, our conclusions consider how recasting feminist leadership as quiet activism works as a ‘pragmatic ethos’ which shifts ethics away from general principles to specific acts of ‘tak[ing] the time to open your imagination and consider this particular occasion’, because ‘paying attention as best you can’ is the most valuable thing to do. We pose feminist leadership as quiet activism as a more responsible and response-able way of doing leadership in the academy because it involves an active taking into account plurality, different and heterogeneous multilogics, and reframes educational inquiry as a curious and involved ‘creation of situations that allow… new things to be learned’ (Stengers, 2018: 61). This paper contributes to feminist leadership studies and the field of educational leadership more broadly.
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