Feminisation, of power and resistance, in Manchester

An activist who wants to be known as TP has sent us another article on the new management culture now prevailing in higher education.

Iron FistThe recent events unfolding at Manchester Metropolitan University – victimisation of trade union activists, autonomous and international campaigns of solidarity, limited victories – open a window onto a changing landscape of the education system today, and onto some significant changes in capitalism itself. Gender-neutral accounts of power and resistance can serve to keep a focus on the contradiction between highly paid bureaucrats running the university as a business operation and staff in the university forced to defend their interests collectively and in alliance with broader working-class struggles against privatisation. However this focus can also prevent us from seeing how women’s labour is harnessed to reinforce exploitation, and how the specific contribution of feminist movements also provides a critique of capitalism today. An important aspect of the neoliberal transformation of capitalism obscured in reports of the events so far has been the mutation in power relations marked by the partial and contradictory ‘feminisation’ of management, and perhaps of the alternative.

There has been a shift in managerial strategy at MMU since 2005 with the arrival of the current Vice-Chancellor John Brooks from Wolverhampton. The regime of Sandra Burslem as VC (from 1997 to 2005) was marked by some initiatives that enabled women’s studies to develop at the university. Carol Ann Duffy (first feminist Poet Laureate) was appointed lecturer in 1996, for example, and her work was supported by Burslem through a number of public events. Other senior appointments of women to professorial and managerial positions during that time were thought by some in the university to have changed the ethos of the place to something more open, perhaps stereotypically ‘feminine’. It was tempting to see this as some respite at least from the more brutal legacy of Ken Green, first VC and previous head of what was previously Manchester Polytechnic. (Green, the highest-paid UK VC when he retired, earned 35 times more than cleaners in his university.) However, this period under the management of a woman more middle-class (born in Shanghai as daughter of Britain’s ambassador to China) then her predecessor and successor – men keener to claim working-class roots when it seemed to suit their interests in their battles with colleagues – reveals contradictions in a broader shift in organisations run for profit.

Soft power

Inside the velvet glove was an iron fist, and this was used against those who dared to complain. It should not be forgotten that Manchester Employment Tribunal condemned institutionally racist culture at MMU in its ruling in favour of Claudius D’Silva, a lecturer in Chemistry, in 2005, during Burslem’s reign. We see clearly here how the university as a business enterprise (polytechnics in the UK were reconstituted as ‘higher education corporations’ in 1988 before being renamed ‘universities’ in 1992) which must run on classically patriarchal lines (male privilege, brute power, hierarchical organisation) starts to call upon something extra to soften up its workforce.

This something extra is the feminisation of the service sector that brings soft, but just as effective, power into private companies and state enterprises. Feminisation is not the same as feminism (a practical critique of male power and of the way that women are fixed in a passive ‘feminine’ role) but instead it draws on the stereotypical supposedly natural capacities of women to form relationships, show empathy and bring an intuitive caring dimension to the workplace (and this is applied not only to women but to the bodies and minds of all workers). Feminisation ranges from training in ‘interpersonal skills’ to keep customers sweet, to ‘deep acting’ of emotional commitment to the product that is being sold, to ‘counselling’ to deal with those who rebel or made redundant, and ‘mindfulness’ to encourage trust in management. It runs down the organisation from the personnel department (now called ‘Human Resources’ in places like MMU) to encounters with ‘customers’ (as students in universities are increasingly described). Feminisation does not even benefit women, for even though it might draw some women in to more highly paid positions and so intensify the divide and rule strategies that have always been implemented to undermine collective action against exploitation at work, feminised organisations are actually mostly still run by men. Feminisation means that even when the top dog is a male bully, a layer of women can ease the implementation of coercive management decisions.

Feminisation reverses the feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’ (a critique of the division between private secretive manifestations of gendered inequality and the public realm of big decisions), and instead it invites the employee to open up to management and show commitment to the organisation. Organisational politics thus harnesses personal initiative to its own ends, and private space in the organisation – trade union activity, for example – is treated as with suspicion, as something worse and more traitorous than mere non-compliance.

This sets up some curious paradoxes in a discipline like psychology. Most psychology students are women, they start wanting to learn about themselves and help others, while most psychology senior staff are men who have learnt to ‘predict and control’ the behaviour of others. Women who organised in the discipline as feminists were told to tone down the politics, and agreed to call their own professional organisation as part of the British Psychological Society (BPS) the ‘Psychology of Women’ section (POWS); the title reassures the authorities that it is not ‘for’ women, let alone feminist. And this is not enough: a guest interview, included without editorial disclaimer, in the monthly BPS journal for December 2012 repeated the claim that psychology has moved in a ‘female’ direction and so is ‘less balanced’, and ‘because it is seen as mainly suitable for women’ suggested that a department of psychology founded today might better call itself ‘behavioural sciences’.

Male power with women

In October 2011 the male head of the psychology department at MMU, who had run things for nearly thirty years in a way that mainly obstructed management directives and let the teaching staff get along with what interested them, retired (and he became this year president of the BPS). That protection of the staff did not make it a perfect place; there were complaints about unfairness in workload and about lack of direction, or even of what some wanted as ‘leadership’. But you should be careful what you wish for when you think you want better management. The new head of department was brought in from outside. She was at that time the chair of POWS, but that did not stop her from turning on a professor in the department who had been her predecessor as chair of POWS, and who is now off work from October 2012 with anxiety and stress. One of the new head’s suggestions in POWS was that, for reasons of balance and fairness perhaps there should be more male speakers at its annual conference.

A combination of soft and not-so-soft power over the past year has included strategies of divide and rule among the women in the department, and a new kind of banter in meetings that also divided the men. Over the past year staff have sat in departmental meetings in stunned silence as instructions relayed from MMU management have been given about new tasks, and the head of department’s response to anyone who demurred was to quickly say that a ‘conversation’ needed to be had about it, which we knew meant that objections would be quashed outside the meeting. Recent appointments of two new (male) ‘principal lecturers’ from among the ranks of the staff included one who is now evidently useful to head of department (and has been given license to resume his hectoring emails that the same head had stopped after her arrival barely a year before).

The head of department made it clear that gender would be a handy tool in her armoury, with comments (to other female staff) made about one male lecturer whom she saw as not behaving well that ‘I know how to deal with men who live with their mothers’, and to that lecturer, in a later departmental meeting while patting the chair seat, ‘there is a place here next to me, it isn’t contaminated’. Another man who some colleagues expected to be promoted (and who worked very hard for approval) was told by the head of department that she hoped that he would carry on being (in her words) ‘my loyal lieutenant’. He was already stressed enough. He resigned from the department without another job to go that same day. Personal humiliation of men in the department (and of women who refused to play along with this) in bizarre pretend-feminist but actually profoundly anti-feminist comments and decisions have been very useful to management. This is feminisation at work in the worst most reactionary meaning of the term.

Feminising politics

This is yet another reason why it is so significant that just as global resistance to capitalism has made it clear that ‘another world is possible’, so resistance to attacks on trade union rights inside the psychology department at MMU has shown us (perhaps) that ‘another form of feminisation is possible’. It is ‘feminisation’ (if we really want to reclaim the term) that connects us once again with the politics of feminism, here self-activity by young women that refuses to be co-opted by power. These are the students that the head of department has complained about in the disciplinary process against Ian Parker when she said that she was ‘distressed and saddened’ by his actions ‘and those taken by ill-informed and often young PhD students who have been acting upon incomplete and inaccurate information’. This is when we see what management really thinks of the students it humours and bribes in its bid to get higher National Student Survey scores.

The student group that mobilised to support Ian were mainly, but not only, women (and forms of feminism today are forms of politics that do not reduce to what sex you are but what you do in relation to power). The discussion, networking and solidarity initiatives were expressions not only of commitment to a cause but to new forms of organisation. Open democratic decision-making, a sensitivity to what hurt might be felt by those involved (including those in management who may genuinely have felt ‘distressed and saddened’ when their power was undermined) and concern about the impact of their actions was at the heart of their activity. Moments of soul-searching, questions about what had been said (what emails were written, what exactly could have been meant by them, how they could have been read) were there in the campaign not to deaden opposition but to enliven it, to make it work.

For revolutionary socialists seeking to make feminist activism part of their theory and practice, there are warnings and lessons that need to be worked through. Some key principles from the feminist and socialist-feminist traditions can guide us in an analysis of these events. The basic principle of open democratic debate – the issue that triggered Ian’s suspension when he questioned secretive procedures and management control over workload, stress and then appointments in the department at MMU – has immense consequences not only for lecturers in general, and for students. This principle is crucial for women in higher education who are told to be passive and shut up (as was usually the case in the old nakedly patriarchal management style) or whose feminine empathic skills are patronised in order to implicate them more closely with power (as is the case in newer forms of ‘feminised’ management).

Feminist analysis taught us that resistance to capitalism must be a kind of politics that attends to the condition of women precisely because we can then see better the nature of power, and we can see better why we must take care not to replicate that kind of power in our own organisations. At a time when capitalism is drawing upon what is usually thought of as women’s power and distorting feminism to create organisations that are ‘feminised’, it is all the more important that we know what we are doing when we reclaim feminism and know what we are doing when we say we want to reclaim feminisation for ourselves.

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