Alison Mountz, “Women on the Edge”

The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.

The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:

a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)

As Mountz further documents, these corporeal effects also extend directly into women’s reproductive health. I particularly recommend this section to male-identified readers, who may be less aware of these issues. In essence, overwhelming stress can create a range of problems with menstruation, ovulation and general fertility. This in turn can elicit intense anxieties and ambivalences about having (or even trying to have) children while being career academics. Some women ended up not having children by default; others traversed calamitous experiences, such as miscarriages or failed fertility treatments, that became “invisible stressors experienced in isolation: shared privately, if at all.” One doctoral student ultimately concluded that “It seems very clear to me that being a childless woman in academia is a much better fit.”

Indeed, as the paper reminds us, one strange consequence of this generally degraded and degrading environment is a pervasive fantasy of the “perfect fit” with academic labor that no one can actually attain. Faced with humanly impossible work demands and unattainable goals, many nonetheless dream of labor without compromise.

The imagined “ideal worker” is able to perform long hours physically and emotionally and unencumbered by “outside demands” like family or personal needs. She is highly efficient and able to operate on sparse amounts of sleep or nourishment. This ideal worker becomes an imagined standard against which we frame ourselves or imagine ourselves framed.

Thus we see here that academic cult of perfection goes beyond the content of one’s academic work and becomes a sort of self-destructive life project. It’s understandable that academics try to perfect their scholarly knowledge; it’s more absurd that they suffer pressure to further optimize their affects, habits, social relationships, family plans, communicative practices, styles of obsequiousness (to senior colleagues), and so on. Of course, as the literature on New Public Management would have us expect, much of this pressure is not applied directly. Rather, it’s a “rational” response to external incentives, which “just happen” to create inhuman performance standards. In that sense, one can only attribute these forms of workplace stress to “the system” or “the culture”; but at the same time, some will always say that the system is not to blame, since so much of the stress is, superficially speaking, self-inflicted.

But I digress. Mountz has written an exemplary autoethnography of faculty work, which synthesizes personal observation with qualitative research, a sense of trauma and injustice with a program for action. It offers a powerful feminist call to action while also (in my view as a nonfemale feminist reader) documenting workplace stresses that often cross gender lines. In her conclusion, Mountz endorses five strategies for responding to this situation — all of them, she emphasizes, long familiar to feminists and other institutional activists:

  • Mentor and be mentored.
  • Establish boundaries around work times and places.
  • Promote caring and healthy ways of working and value care work.
  • Decolonize time by embracing slowness, laziness and failure.
  • Form collectives.

This simple program has nevertheless been very difficult to implement, which raises questions. Mountz does note, incidentally, that labor unions are one important form of collectivity — and one major route, in my view, for changing working conditions across the academic industry. But not all labor unions feel collective, of course (and just what, I wondered, is the relationship between labor organizing and feminist collectivity today?). The paper suggests, moreover, that not all feminist politics necessarily fits comfortably into a public platform. At one point, Mountz recounts an exemplary form of politics as silence:

In one graduate program where I worked, women graduate students often baked and brought baked goods to meetings with graduate committees. This was a gendered contribution; I never attended a meeting with goods baked by male students, but women students routinely baked. Dissertations, comprehensive exams, and annual reviews were discussed over elaborate offerings: breads, cakes, and cookies. I wondered how women found time to bake while preparing. Some may have found solace and relief from stress in baking; some may have found the mere availability of freshly baked goods in meetings comforting. In this context, although I too like to bake, these gendered performances felt out of place and made me feel uncomfortable and feminized by association in masculinist environments. I never discussed this with students, however, as I did not find it my place to police modes of participation.

Here it seems that Mountz’s laudable anti-hierarchical feminism led her, paradoxically, to deliberately not interfere in the unequal reproduction of gendered care labor. In other words, women students’ baked goods made Mountz uncomfortable as a feminist analyst, and yet to raise her discomfort with the students would have been to deploy professorial power (in the usual paradox of trying to liberate students from themselves). I would have loved to have heard further reflections here on non-intervention as a form of feminist practice. (Is this also a form of self-care — to pick one’s battles?) And I have to say that, having recently finished graduate school, this story made me wonder what other gender dynamics may have been knowingly tolerated by my own graduate faculty for similar reasons.

In any case, I strongly recommend that junior academics (and anyone considering academic careers) take the time to read Mountz’s paper. It distills a feminist analysis of a series of workplace sufferings and tragedies that we often fail to understand as a system (see also the blog, Academia Is Killing My Friends). As such, it allows us to think collectively about injuries that often pass in silence, and to think about how social invisibility is itself gendered. Incidentally, this paper appears in a special issue of The Canadian Geographer dedicated to an “ethic of wellness in geography,” and I hope to write about the rest of the issue when I find the time.

You might also be interested in our growing Zotero bibliography on stress in the academy.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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