precarious equality in universities

It’s time for a critical comment on equality structures at small universities in Germany. In 2019, I was elected by the vote of all female university members (yes, the election regulations still see gender in a binary way) to be the equal opportunities representant of the HKS – University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Ottersberg. I am thankful for this trust that has been placed in me. This is one of the reasons why I would like to address structural deficiencies in my work and that of other equal opportunity representants.

beforehand

Don’t get me wrong, I love my university. That’s one reason why change is important to me. We are a small institution with hierarchies, that are a little flatter than at large universities, and with more personal freedom. My university isn’t more discriminating than other institutions. It is probably very similar to other German educational institutions. Like everywhere, there are individuals who resist progressive change. There are individuals, who are not concerned with anti-discrimination. And there are those, who reflect on their own privileges and actively fight discrimination. The issue is not unique to our university. It is structural.

white equality

The problem starts with me as a white cis woman being the relatively most qualified candidate to be an equality representant. I know well what sexism feels like, but I have no experience of discrimination in terms of racism or anti-trans hostility. There are even more experiences with ableism, psychism, anti-semitism, anti-muslim hostiltiy etc., that I don’t have. So for many people, I am not the person they would need and who represents them. But our university is mostly white, cis, able-bodied, and socialized Christian and academically. There are simply hardly any people from marginalized groups ​(Bönkost, 2016)​; at least not in tenured professorial positions with permanent contracts.

I know, representation policy alone does not change structures, but let’s assume that these colleagues would exist here: Do we want to subject them to the current exploitative conditions of precarious equality work?

honorary

At small universities, equality representant is an honorary position. This means that, apart from a small financial allowance, it is unpaid. At some universities, there may still be a teaching allowance, which means that there are slightly fewer courses to give for the equal opportunity representant. Anything beyond that is idealism.

academic precarity

If equality representants are not professors, but artistic research assistants, they are very likely to be additionally affected by academic precarity. This means part-time positions with more work than is paid for, fixed-term contracts, (self-)exploitation, and a lack of future prospects while having above-average educational qualifications.

emotional labor

Added to this, equality work is not the same as giving a statistics lecture or organizing a lecture series. In addition to dealing with feminist discourses, practical equality work and communication with various university members and committees, it requires a high degree of emotional labor. It requires professionalism, the conflict skills, and diplomacy. It is not uncommon for equality representants to encounter emotionalities and resistance. Most of the time, these are not intentional. All the more they are to be seen as blockades in the sense of a system preventing itself. Here are some examples:

  • Own resistances and emotions are attributed to equality representants (e.g. fear of losing one’s own privileges, white emotions ​(Bönkost, 2016)​). They are perceived one-dimensionally as uncomfortable, eternally criticizing individuals.
  • Demands for the elimination of discriminatory circumstances are treated as they were a personal self-interest of equality representants, instead of what they are, individual, institutional and structural discrimination.
  • The “burden of proof” that circumstances are in fact discriminating lies with equality respresentants.
  • The need for action is delayed by bureaucratic processes.
  • Discrimination sensitivity is not seen as a collective concern of the university, but its implementation rests solely on the shoulders of the equality representants.
  • When changes are successfully implemented, diversity is claimed and one’s own tolerance is celebrated, while structurally little changes.

so, who is doing this work?

So who does equality work under these conditions? Scenario 1: The equality representant is a person for whom reaching all marginalized groups is not the primary concern. In the best case, s*he represents the interests of white cis-women and simply hasn’t heard of intersectionality yet (we are all socialized in a society that naturally discriminates and are in a learning process). In the worst case scenario, s*he has internalized patriarchal, white power structures and allies herself with those interested in maintaining a hegemonic system of higher education along with its privileges they benefit from (btw often, but not exclusively white cis men). Scenario 2: Equality is a heartfelt matter for this person. Then the odds for a burnout sooner or later are high.

conclusion

It would be desirable, if equality work in higher education were given more impetus and a higher status – ideally, structurally and monetarily. After all, criticism of existing structures of inequality is not a personal attack, but a constructive contribution to the improvement of academia – not in order to look better, but for the benefit of all.

  1. Bönkost, J. (2016). Weiße Emotionen: Wenn Hochschullehre Rassismus thematisiert. Institut Für Diskriminierungsfreie Bildung (IDB). https://diskriminierungsfreie-bildung.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IDB-Paper-No-1_Wei%C3%9Fe-Emotionen.pdf

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