Struggling to reclaim futures in the neoliberal university

12-13 November, along with a number of Nordwit colleagues, I participated in the Gender Studies Conference 2020, organised virtually by Tampere University and the Association for Gender Studies in Finland. The theme of the conference was Reclaiming Futures, and Nordwit coordinated, in collaboration with Maria Pietilä from NORDICORE, a four-part series of panels, titled Gendering research in and outside academia. In this blog post, I’ll reflect on what I heard at and learned from the conference, focusing on some of the challenges that scientific research and specifically feminist research currently faces.

In our Gendering research in and outside academia panel series, a recurring theme was the neoliberal university as a source of struggle in current research environments. First, neoliberal models that prioritise productivity and results seem to be a hindrance to gender equality, as a culture of intense competition for funding and higher positions in the university appear to interfere with women’s opportunities to advance, sometimes despite extensive gender equality measures. This was mentioned for example by Maria Pietilä and colleagues, based on research by NORDICORE. In her presentation, Minna Salminen-Karlsson talked about the barriers female researchers face when trying to enter into academic entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship and the image of a good entrepreneur seem to still be based on masculine ideals; therefore women are seen as having qualities and priorities that are less than desirable in a successful entrepreneur. In fact, the neoliberal university as a whole can perhaps be understood through masculine ideals, such as competitiveness and individual achievement. This was also brought up by Mervi Heikkinen, Päivi Naskali and Lena Abrahamsson, who spoke of a ‘macho’ type masculinity as an obstacle for advancing gender equality in Arctic universities.

Losing accomplished female researchers to gender inequality and discrimination is not the only way in which the neoliberal university puts the quality of knowledge production in jeopardy. By focusing on securing funding and producing successful results, the neoliberal university narrows the scope of what kind of research is seen as worthwhile, thus limiting researchers’ ability to explore subjects that don’t appeal to funders but that could be important to research. Fortunately, our panel series also included some examples of ways to navigate the neoliberal university and perhaps combat its adverse effects. Isaura Castelao-Huerta presented her research into the caring practices that female professors in Columbia had developed to help them and their students survive in an environment of competition and scarcity of resources. We were also introduced to the concept of epistemic disobedience by Liu Xin and Salla Aldrin Salskov, which offers ways to resist the neoliberal logic researchers find themselves subject to. A key takeaway from the panel series, however, was that working and producing knowledge in a neoliberal university setting is an ongoing struggle for researchers.

In addition to the panels, I attended all three keynotes at the conference, all of which expanded on my understanding of the challenges feminist scientific knowledge production currently faces. In her keynote about feminist posthumanities, Cecilia Åsberg spoke about climate change as perhaps the biggest challenge we face not only as academics but as human beings. As I see it, climate change is in many ways a direct consequence of the global capitalist and consumerist economy we currently live in, and therefore the neoliberal university and climate change are symptoms of the same root cause: a logic of profit and infinite growth.

My personal favourite keynote, by Roman Kuhar, brought up another challenge to feminist research and gender studies: the anti-gender movement, which is centred around the idea that there is some kind of liberal conspiracy, led by feminists and LGBTQ+ activists, referred to as gender ideology. The anti-gender movement positions itself in opposition to this imagined conspiracy, and is rooted in conservative family values; its origins can be found in the Catholic Church. This movement is a serious threat to gender studies as a discipline, as it has already succeeded in discrediting, devaluing or defunding gender studies university programmes in multiple countries. Although the anti-gender movement as presented by Kuhar sees gender as inherently tied to LGBTQ+ identities, Kyla Schuller’s keynote brought up a fascinating contradiction: the origins of gender as a concept and phenomenon can actually be found in the 1960s United States, where biology began to discover that sexual dimorphism in humans was not actually as clear-cut as previously believed, and gender emerged as a way to preserve the binary roles of man and woman.

Considering all this, the Gender Studies Conference left me with a feeling that academia, and gender studies in particular, is being attacked from all sides. Gender studies and feminist knowledge production, by definition, works to call into question and dismantle structures of power and thought that have been taken for granted in academia and society as a whole, but it would imperative to also rebuild something in their place, and at the moment, that appears nigh impossible. We can recognise, analyse and discuss a multitude of societal problems that pose a threat to gender studies, to academia, and to humanity as a whole, but trying to bring about positive change through research, when a significant part of the population no longer believes in the legitimacy of science, feels somewhat like screaming into the void.

As not to end on an entirely defeatist note, in her keynote, Cecilia Åsberg also spoke of unexpected forms of collaboration as a way forward for feminist knowledge production, mentioning for example collaboration with farmers to find new and more sustainable forms of food production, such as cultivating kelp and seaweed on a small scale along coastlines. Perhaps feminist posthumanities, in their rejection of dichotomies such as human and nature or STEM and humanities, can be the light at the end of the tunnel for academia as a whole, and we can find ways to reclaim the futures of scientific knowledge production, as the conference theme suggests.

Text and illustration by Liekki Valaskivi

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