September 30, 2016

Cherkowski, S., and Bosetti, L. “Behind the Veil: Academic Women Negotiating Demands of Femininity.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 2014, 45, 19-26.

In their article “Behind the Veil: Academic Women Negotiating Demands of Femininity” Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) explore the impact of organizational cultures at universities on the lives of women in academia. Their study focuses specifically on the balancing act between the demands of femininity (i.e. traditional female roles such as mother or sister) and those of intellectual life. The study is comprised of a combination of academic research and gathered narratives. The narratives are the result of intensive interview sessions done with five women from faculties of Education at two universities in Canada. The women range in age and level of academic accomplishment. Some are married, some are not. Some are mothers, some are not. All struggle to succeed in a work environment in which their domestic lives are devalued.

When describing the prevailing organizational culture at universities Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) write, “our professional identity has largely been ascribed to the narrative of our intellectual fathers and grandfathers. These normative scripts (institutional inscriptions) of what it means to be a professor and do academic work have not been of our own making…” (pg.21). Women in academia must navigate an environment founded on rules and cultural norms they had little to no say in developing. Because of this, many feel an intense compulsion to succeed, even above the required standard, so that they will be taken seriously. This intensity of labor comes at a cost to their private lives. Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) write, “…it is their private lives where they make the most compromise. In their professional lives, these women show up as competent, achieving women who are able to do it all despite the un-sustainability of living a fragmented live where tasks and functions in all other areas of their lives are tightly managed to fit around their work” (pg.21).

At the same time, these women are held to a conflicting societal standard of femininity and are often found wanting. Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) write, “They are caught in a paradox—the very traits that help them to be successful at work tend to undermine their ability to sustain relationships and effectively fulfill other role requirements in their private lives” (pg. 22). Pulled in multiple directions as they are, the women in this study overwhelmingly report feeling exhausted, fearful, and tense, but none can envision an alternate path that would allow them both private and intellectual fulfillment.

Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) acknowledge the limitations of their study: their sample size is small, they focus specifically on women, and they only work within two particular institutions. These issues aside, there is definite value in seriously considering the points raised by this study. Although it is focused specifically on women who are teachers, struggles similar to those faced by its subjects are experienced by other groups within a university population, namely students, who may not be able to fluidly integrate into a university’s culture for a variety of reasons.

As teachers we sometimes forget that students are people too, with private lives and their own domestic dramas. We also sometimes forget that not every student fits neatly into the university mold. At the root of this “un-fitting” are embedded cultural differences that do not necessarily mesh well with the university culture. Some may not mesh because they do not speak the language. This refers not to English, but rather the language of academia. Others may not mesh because those in power and those able to easily conform to dominant cultural standards do not approve of them in some way. The latter description applies especially to women and minorities in academia. If an individual chooses to make non-conventional choice such as researching an unorthodox topic or allowing their private life to bleed into their academic life, they are rarely rewarded for it.

The subjects in Cherkowski and Bosetti’s (2014) study were loath to use the demands of their private lives as justification for how they managed their work. Cherkowski and Bosetti (2014) write, “The script available of the high achieving professor is one who is able to keep her private and professional lives in separate spheres, at all times. She is focused, driven, and psychologically hard. Her private needs and desires are far from public view” (pg.21). If this is what we are doing to our professors, we must ask ourselves what we are doing to our students. Do we hold them all to the same standard? Is it fair to do so? Why must academia be treated like a proverbial ivory tower which should not be breached by outside forces? This questions are especially significant on campuses such as UAF’s which have a high population of students outside of the “traditional” mold.

What would a university look like if we were willing to consider individual students in a more holistic way rather than expecting them to conform to the established norm? This inability to conform, which results in increased pressure and in feelings of isolation, is surely a factor that may cause a student to leave school. If universities are concerned with retention, perhaps it is time they take a harder look at the ways in which they alienate the individuals within their population, and try to adapt their organizational culture to be more inclusive.

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