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Solitudes of the Workplace: Women in Universities

By Elvi Whittaker

Review By Nancy Janovicek

May 16, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 218-219

The essays in Solitudes of the Workplace examine the university as a workplace. The authors use the concept of solitude to examine women’s various experiences as workers in universities. A key premise of the book is that universities are hierarchical workplaces where women experience specific institutional marginalization based on the type of work they do as well as by race and class. The essays use auto-ethnographic approaches and oral histories to survey and document what started as hallway conversations about the inequities that persist despite a range of policies addressing gender gaps in pay, merit, and authority. By documenting these stories of solitude, Elvi Whittaker and her contributors hope that women in the university community will be able to draw on both the formal institutional knowledge and everyday experience-based knowledge of universities to continue the struggle of making them more equitable workplaces.

Discussions about gendered hierarchies in universities often ask why they persist, and how women and feminist knowledge are marginalized despite more than four decades of feminist organizing within academe. The essays in Solitudes of the Workplace provide both clues and answers. Annalee Lepp examines how Women’s Studies departments initiated these movements and sought to break the solitude that many women felt in their own departments by developing an interdisciplinary space within the university that focused on feminist knowledge production. Today, the majority of Women’s Studies departments in Canada have broadened their curriculums to include other equity studies programs. This reflects both the debates about intersectionality within feminist studies as well as budgetary restraints within institutions that compelled scholars committed to equity studies to expand and/or to amalgamate their programs. Katie Aubrecht and Isabel Mackenzie Lay provide perspectives on being “women students,” emphasizing the need to create a university community that allows for diverse experiences among women. Leila Kennedy’s interviews with mature women students challenge the conflation of students and youth and the perception that mature students are at a disadvantage because of their age. Together, these essays underscore the importance of forming intellectual spaces within the university to ensure that differences among women are reflected in strategies to change institutions.

A key strength of the book is the representation of different kinds of workers at universities. Notably, it identifies students as workers by recognizing that studying is a form of work rather than consumption. Whittaker includes essays on women working at all levels of administration and teaching. Sally Thorne’s prologue is based on a conversation with Martha Piper, president of UBC from 1997-2002 and the first woman in Canada to rise to this position. Piper established new roles for university presidents because of her unprecedented influence outside of the university, especially in the development of government policies for postsecondary education and research. While Piper acknowledges her impact at her own institution, she is less certain that her success will make it easier for women to take on senior positions in the future. Isabella Losinger and Kersti Krug examine the work of clerical staff and senior administrative staff. These essays offer interesting insights not only into university administration but also into the cultural barriers between academic and non-academic employees. Because most university administrators and clerical staff are women, the chapter would have benefitted from an examination of the differences between unionized and non-unionized workplaces. This could provide useful information to develop strategies to address pay inequities for female workers. Linda Cohen’s essay on contractual university teachers calls for the need for systematic examination of how unions and worker protection improve the conditions for these employees.

Solitudes of the Workplace succeeds in documenting how women from various social locations and work backgrounds experience inequality in universities. Feminist scholarship has insisted that policy must be based on women’s experiences, and this important documentation of women’s perspectives is a necessary first step toward policy development.

Solitudes of the Workplace: Women in Universities
Elvi Whittaker, editor
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. $37.95 cloth.