Author Archives: Silke Roth

Intersectional Perspectives on Working in Higher Education – Diversity, Collegiality, Productivity and Technology

Work Futures Research Centre panel discussion, 2nd November 2016

The managerial university is characterized by norms and standards, in particular performance auditing, which disrupt those of the classic humanist university. At the same time it offers opportunities for underrepresented groups – women, ethnic minorities through initiatives such as Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter. Some institutions are becoming more aware of the potential impact of competing pressures and job insecurity on the well-being of staff; for example, the University of Southampton holds an annual well-being day and has signed the Mindful Employer Charter. This is certainly welcome in the context of the demands to demonstrate research and teaching excellence (REF and TEF) and insecurities associated with the EU referendum. The panel discussion reflected on different aspects of working conditions and careers Higher Education: Diversity, Collegiality, Productivity in the context of fixed-term contracts and technology.

from left to right: Fiona Harvey, Eric Silverman, Bruce Marfalane, Kalwant

from left to right: Fiona Harvey, Eric Silverman, Bruce Macfarlane, Kalwant Bhopal

Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice, Southampton Education School, discussed the experiences of Black and minority ethnic (BME) academics who consider moving overseas for career opportunities. Although the proportion of BME academics has increased, they are still under represented among senior managerial positions and the top academic pay spine range. According to the ECU Statistical Report 2015, 93% of professors and 92% of other academic staff where white. The barriers that BME academics face in UK higher education, motivates their decisions for overseas higher education migration. Bhopal presented research funded by the Equality Challenge Unit which indicates that BME academics were significantly more likely than White academics to have ever considered moving overseas. Bhopal concluded that significant change is needed in the UK higher education sector in order to retain BME academics. This requires greater visibility of BME staff in academic and decision making roles, transparency in recruitment and progression, recognition and appreciation of diversity (including curricula), networking, mentoring and training as well as acknowledging and addressing institutional racism. The Race Equality Charter underpins such initiatives.

In his presentation Bruce Macfarlane, Professor of Higher Education, Co-Director of CHES, Southampton Education School focused on collegiality. He distinguished three types of collegiality: Structural collegiality which refers to shared governance – which is reduced through the corporatization of the managerial university. Cultural collegiality which is based on a sense of shared values and undermined by an increasing division between teaching and research, increase of temporary jobs and a division between managers and academics. Behavioural collegiality which concerns the relationship between academics is undermined by the emphasis on audits and targets. In consequence, academic citizenship increasingly becomes performative. Macfarlane reminded the audience that nostalgia would be mistaken given that the classic humanist university was a domain of white middle class men and thus hardly diverse. Continuities persist – a recent study by Macfarlane indicates that younger staff members as well as women felt had a much more critical view on the fairness and available support than older staff members as well as men.

The situation of researcher on fixed term contracts was addressed by Eric Silverman, Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Computing, School of Computing, Teesside University. The working conditions of many early-career researchers in the UK and elsewhere are defined by the stress and uncertainty of life on successive fixed-term contracts. Only a small number of PhD graduates in the UK end up in a permanent position and over two thirds of researchers are on short-term contracts. Senior academics are under pressure to prepare bids, hiring post-docs to carry out the research if successful. Employing Agent-Based Modelling, Silverman and his colleagues have studied the connection between research funding systems and the career structures they produce. Their preliminary results suggest that our current system is neither efficient in terms of return on investment, nor effective in producing a supportive working environment for postdocs.

New Technologies increase opportunities for flexible work – but they might also negatively affect work-place balance. Fiona Harvey, ILIad and UCU Equality Officer, discussed to what extent academics are willing to embrace the digital workplace and what barriers they face. Multimedia offer tremendous opportunities, but require access to devices and software as well as web literacy. Gender differences in engaging with technologies exist and universities do not necessarily make use of the most suitable systems or support staff to use them effectively. Furthermore, staff and students need to be aware how smartphones and other mobile devices result in workplace surveillance and invade privacy.

The event was followed by a lively conversation and was organized by Dr Silke Roth and Dr Rebecca Taylor who belong to the Steering Group of the Work Futures Research Centre and serve as WFRC Co-Directors in Semester 1, 2016/17. The event was supported by the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre and School of Social Sciences.

Making a Difference – or Maintaining Global Inequalities? Perspectives on International Aid Work

Crossing the Congo

Crossing the Congo (c) Julien Harneis

Aid work – that is work for humanitarian and development agencies is attractive to men and women in all stages of life, after school or university, in mid-life or in retirement. Involvement in development and humanitarian relief promises meaningful and challenging work and provides opportunities for ‘making a difference’.

Aid work encompasses a wide range of paid and unpaid work. Many aidworkers start out as volunteers in order to gain overseas experience, to prove themselves in challenging conditions and to develop networks that are highly important in a sector that is characterised by short contracts and high turnover. Aid work requires mobility and flexibility, since positions frequently need to be filled at very short notice. This requires compromises both from the perspective of the organisation which might not find the ideal candidate and from the applicant who might have wished to find work in an East African country but finds herself in the Middle East – or vice versa. The necessity to hire the best available candidate thus opens up opportunities for newcomers to ‘Aidland’. I use this shorthand term to cover the wide range of work opportunities in aid organisations including volunteers, consultants, staff on longer and shorter contracts, working in their own country or abroad, in head, regional or field offices.

International aid worker meeting

International aid worker meeting (c) USAID

Aidworkers are boundary-crossers not only geographically, but also with respect to transferring skills from the private sector to aid organisations, for example work experience in commercial logistics, management or public relations. This influx of professionals is part of the professionalisation of aidwork. However, Aidland has always encompassed a wide variety of skilled professionals – medics, engineers and nutritionists to name just a few. Professionalisation also refers to a variety of codes and standards that were developed and introduced in the last two decades and more recently integrated in the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS).

The population of humanitarian aidworkers is continually growing. Parallel to the proliferation of humanitarian crises and growing budgets, a number of humanitarian studies programmes have been established and a veritable gap year industry has emerged which provides newcomers to aid work with field experience. At the same time, lives of aid workers are increasingly at risk as the number of aidworkers who have been kidnapped or killed in recent years has steadily grown. Moreover, people working in aid give up job security and risk de-skilling, mobility affects the family planning and can jeopardize relationships, furthermore diseases and attacks can make the work dangerous.

So what attracts people to aid work? According to the interviews with aid workers that I conducted between 2004 and 2013, there is a whole range of motives. There is the desire to ‘make a difference’ and to ‘give something back’ by helping those who are in need and less privileged. However, equally important is the fact that aid work is perceived as ‘challenging’, respondents sought out difficult assignments that allowed them to learn and grow. Given the predominance of fixed-term positions and limited career opportunities within aid organisations, frequent job changes are as much a structural requirement of pursuing a career in Aidland as well as a preference of people working in aid who are interested in new challenges and experiences. Lastly, working overseas, thus getting to know a range of countries (and conflict areas) off the tourist circuit and working in international and inter-cultural teams is a further attractive aspect. Respondents from high(er) income countries described the encounters with team members and with the recipients of aid interventions as ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ and contrasted it with everyday life and careers in their home countries. Aid work thus offers opportunities for self-realization and personal growth that were missed in ‘normal life’.

This contrast between Aidland and ‘normal life’ is much more prominent for aidworkers from high(er) income countries who represent a small minority of the aid worker population but the vast majority of those in leadership positions. Thus, while aidworkers are engaged in addressing the symptoms of global inequality, these inequalities are reflected within aid organisations in which international and national staff are differently positioned. For example, language skills, job experiences and academic training play a different role for national and international staff. Language skills are of great importance in the context of international teams and thus offer access to jobs. (Native) speakers of English can expect that team members will speak English or that an interpreter is at hand, they can be engaged in capacity building without speaking the local language. The careers of national staff of international aid organisations are often based on language skills (often English, even in organisations such as Medecins sans frontiers/Doctors without Borders). The salaries for international and national staff differ significantly. Furthermore, (university) educated national staff find themselves supervised by international staff who have no prior experience or training for this particular position and confronted with a lack of career opportunities in aid organisations.

Not surprisingly, some national staff members embark on international careers. However, the ‘brain drain’, that is leaving the home country for an overseas career, is often only temporary and undertaken with the intension to gain political and international capital necessary to improve the living conditions in the country of origin. Aidworkers from high(er) income countries in contrast seek to make ‘a difference’ by leaving their country of origin and implementing programmes in other countries.

Another speech

Another speech (c) Julien Harneis

The situation might change as some aid organisations have realised that more career opportunities need to be given to national staff and ActionAid and Oxfam have already or consider to move head offices to Asia and Africa, Medecins sans Frontieres has opened branch offices in Brazil and South Africa and the international NGO EveryChild transformed to a network of national NGOs. Furthermore, the newly established Humanitarian Leadership Academy seeks to empower communities to become more resilient. A shift towards national staff – also related to increasing risk for aid personnel and shrinking aid budgets – may limit job opportunities for recent graduates of humanitarian studies programmes. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to engage in global social justice – for example through (social) work and advocacy for migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers or trade politics of high-income countries.

Silke Roth is a sociologist and author of The Paradoxes of Aid Work. Passionate Professionals (Routledge 2015).

Self-employment and the feminist future – the women’s cooperative WeiberWirtschaft

Dr Silke Roth

Dr Silke Roth

Since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, there has been a significant increase of women’s self-employment. However, women are still under represented among the self-employed. Obstacles to female entrepreneurship include lack of capital and affordable office space, in particular for small organizations. The women’s cooperative WeiberWirtschaft (women’s economy) was founded to address these problems and enable women to become economically independent. The idea to create a cooperative emerged in the 1980s when a small group of recent graduates and post-graduated discussed the idea of a feminist economy and money cycle. Based on a lot of un-paid voluntary work and significant negotiation skills with a variety of stakeholders the idea of a self-organized center for women founders became reality. Over the course of twenty-five years, the cooperative raised the necessary funds to buy, renovate and extend a historic building (the former socialist cosmetics factory VEB Kosmetik) offering social housing in addition to workplaces. In 2014, the cooperative houses 60 enterprises comprising 150 workplaces.  Furthermore, a number of services were established that support the women entrepreneurs, including day care facilities, micro-credit services, a conference center and a mediation unit. In addition, in 2006 the Center for Women Establishing New Businesses’ (GZ) was founded as subsidiary organization. It provides information, consultation and networking opportunities, has so far been contacted by 10.000 women and is supported through the European Social Fund.

The WeiberWirtschaft (WW) is an unusual feminist organization as it is primarily an economic organization rather than a cultural or political organization. Furthermore, it represents a ‘real utopia’, a concept that refers to organizations which are guided by the moral principles of equality, democracy and sustainability. The organizational structure of the cooperative and the low membership shares ensure equality and democracy. Each member – no matter how many shares she owns – has the same voice. Sustainability was a guiding criteria during the renovation and extension of the building. Furthermore, the cooperation engages in intersectional feminist practices: local democratic practices, cooperation between state and community, as well as democratic practices in the transnational context.

What factors and paradoxes contributed to the success of WW and how does this project reflect and inspire feminist transformations?

One of the most important lessons that WW offers is the readiness to cooperate with diverse groups and individuals – or at least to consider it. Social movements, including women’s movements are not always willing to reach out to potential allies and often engage in exclusionary solidarity. The openness to negotiate and to seek support from a range of stakeholders does not mean selling out – the tightrope walk and compromises were (and continue to be) embedded in extensive discussion processes.

Weiberwirtschaft building

Courtyard of the WeiberWirtschaft building in Berlin, Germany

Independence plays a decisive role for assuring the integrity of the organization. In my opinion the extensive volunteer work of the founders and other members of the WW is crucial in this respect. The importance of voluntary work for an organization that creates income opportunities for women may seem paradoxical. WW has been very successful in creating jobs – primarily through the creation of affordable offices and work spaces, but also because some of the volunteer service rendered in the administration of the cooperative could be converted into paid jobs. The pivotal role of volunteering assured that the WeiberWirtschaft has not been co-opted and remained independent and true to herself. Moreover, the boundary between paid work and volunteering is extremely thin as the full-time staff have also put a lot of volunteer service in the WeiberWirtschaft. The volunteers have invested a lot – not only time but also money – but they have also gained a lot. Not just an internationally prominent cooperative, but they have also learned a lot, gained skills and experience and thus qualified themselves. The founding of WW documents realism and vision, wit and humor, but also the lust for power and creating an organization. WW is a “learning organization”, members engage critically with themselves and their environment and are very good at finding resources and the support of experts.

One of the most important lessons is certainly that success is not a zero sum ​​game, but that different groups can benefit if one of them is successful. For example, media attention for WW is good for the tenants. Furthermore, the founders’ center does not only benefit the tenants of WW, but women’s companies worldwide. This demonstrates that economic efficiency does not automatically imply competition.

The WeiberWirtschaft is embedded in the transformations of German, European and global women’s movements. The European Union and the United Nations women’s conferences presented transnational opportunity structures that could be used for the implementation of women’s policy demands. An affinity between (liberal) feminism and neoliberalism has been noted: In a tricky way, the demands of women’s movements for self-determination, self-reliance, individual freedom and autonomy are compatible with the logic of globalized markets. What does that mean? Neoliberalism involves the transfer of tasks that were previously the responsibility of the state to private sector or civil society. In addition, neoliberalism is characterized by an emphasis on personal responsibility and efficiency. These features coincide with feminist demands for self-determination and open up possibilities for women’s NGOs and gender consultants. These changes have been described as a shift from state to market feminism. While it is a welcome development that the expertise and services of feminists are paid adequately, the reliance on project and performance-bound funding encompasses the risk of co-optation and depoliticization. As a feminist organization and ‘real utopia’ WeiberWirtschaft is well positioned to practice system-criticism and represent an alternative to lack of solidarity of emancipation interests.

I am anxious to see if and how the WeiberWirtschaft will return to their original idea, the feminist money economy, and to make the earned surplus available to — for example — feminist projects, single mothers, and to people and businesses in the Global South. This would mean that WW would leave market feminism behind and represent an alternative to neoliberal practices, not only by enabling women to become economically independent, but also through the redistribution of resources and re-evaluation of different forms of paid and unpaid work.

Silke Roth is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Southampton, her research interests include feminist organizations and coalition building. She has observed the formation of the WeiberWirtschaft for over 25 years and is a shareholder of the cooperative.