Why I am writing here again

I have not written here for a few months, for which I can only apologise to myself and my avid readership… I have always enjoyed writing and I think my avoidance of the blog has been partly due to distraction with the PhD and also Holly being pregnant, but also a sense of it feeling unnecessary or an indulgence compared to other commitments. This week, I spoke with my dad who was suffering from a relapse of a preexisting back problem. During our conversation, he mentioned that he wanted to stave off boredom the next day, having limited movement and being stuck in the house. I encouraged him to write a story as he has produced some really heartfelt and also innovative pieces in the past. To my delight, I received an email from him the next day with a beautiful reflective piece attached. Reading this piece on my train journey from Newcastle to Carlisle, I was transported back to hill walking on green and rocky scenery warm sunshine with my dad, specifically our walks on Blencathra. My dad’s writing was honest, heartfelt and highly personal. I cried as I read it, swam in my happy memories, and felt the raw emotions of the love between a father and child burst forth. Having sufficiently recovered from this experience and staring at the rolling Northumberland hills as they cascaded into Cumbria, I was immediately reminded of the vital importance of writing in my life, and its pivotal role as a lifeline and catharsis to my own research journey. I immediately resolved to resume my writing commitment and always remember its impact on my own emotional and cognitive focus. Writing will always be the place where I feel most free to express myself. This form of reflective writing is particularly helpful as an ally to the constant whirring of PhD concepts and theories that occupy my conscious and subconscious mind. I have agreed with myself that this is a very worthwhile process and something I must continue. I will start this post with a general update before briefly outlining my thoughts on lies, revisionism and ideology which are some areas of theory and dystopia I am fascinated with.

General Update

I have spent much of the last few months reading about gender theory through Connell’s work, the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ by Freire, and latterly, Ideology through Althusser. I have also continued to read dystopian fiction including the recently published ‘Red Clocks’ by Leni Zumas, which I can highly recommend. In recent months, I have also moved away from a focus on leadership and towards resistant movements of change as depicted in the subversions in dystopian literature.

The Equity Challenge project has been progressing over the summer and I have been really pleased to build a partnership with the Student’s Union on our student audit. I have met new team members and been really pleased to find continuing enthusiasm for this important action. Working for cultural change is as difficult as I expected. Speaking to groups of students in lecture hall about this is a really odd experience. I have found myself pivoting the ‘pitch’ to appeal to the individual gains that students may pull from getting involved. I am happy to report some genuine interest from students so far and feel hopeful for more to come. I think student involvement is an acid test for the viability of sustainable cultural change. I my mind, this will happen far more effectively with a strong and unified staff and student collaboration, but without the students it will be a far more challenging and lengthy journey.

I have also been writing about fertility in the workplace as a trope of dystopian literature through a range of organisation based research into the negative impacts of fertility. This has been through a few drafts already and,  thanks to my supervisors, I have been learning how to craft my writing into an organised and cogent academic essay. I must admit I have fallen into some bad habits since completing my Masters, so their feedback has been vital. Since working on this essay, which I hope to submit to a conference next year, I have started to narrow down my theoretical framework and the theory of ideology has become prominent in my thinking.


My second supervisor suggested that I read Luis Althusser’s work on ideology as a potential theoretical framework that can work in concert with my ideas of dystopia. One of the underpinning ontological assumptions that drives my research is my perception and assumption that people internalise the values, structures and ideology of an organisation, which is often an arm of a larger state/global structure. In the case of Universities, Althusser would define them as Ideological State Apparatuses. Althusser, a prominent, Marxist theorist and philosopher from the mid and late twentieth century, wrote his essay on ideology, outlining state structures underpinned by dominant, bourgeois ideology which reproduced its dominance over the masses through two arms of state apparatuses:

  1. (Repressive) State Apparatuses – acting with the overt, though usually subdued threat of violence as a primary motivating factor.
    • Government, Administration; Army; Police; Courts; Prisons
  2. Ideological State Apparatuses primarily acting through ideological means to inculcate and coerce the masses into a unified social purpose
    • Religion, Education, Family, Legal, Political, Trade unions, Communication media, Cultural – literature, art, sports

These two arms of the state apparatuses work together with various elements acting more prominently or less so depending on the context. Religion in the UK plays a less prominent role in ideological influence than it once did, while communication media relentlessly influences us on a minute by minute basis. The repressive state apparatus form the legitimate, yet often unrequired threat of violence and physical suppression that inculcates a sense of apprehension, self regulation and fear, all experiences of fear. Why do we choose not to rise up and overthrow seemingly incompetent governments? Historical events such as the civil rights backlash of police, imprisoned suffragettes and internationally hounded and outcast whistle-blowers provide clear examples of the consequences of any efforts to rise up against state and ideological power.  We internalise this knowledge and I believe it permeates our daily choices to act or not act. Of course we do internalise different ideologies based on politics, values (religious or other) and family environments etc.

Ideological differences are always present at a personal or group level, but the ideology that is often depicted in dystopia is that of state ideology and dominant elites with one purpose, to retain domination over the masses. Capitalist society, especially neo-liberal society, functions through an ideology of self preservation, individual self-interest and  domination of one group over another. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, contemporary society’s dominant dominant group is the super-rich, white men; often descending from a dynasty of family wealth and power (inherited and accumulated in various ways). If we accept that this group of elite and super-wealthy people have achieved their success by a mixture of individual achievement, inheritance and a societal system that rewards efforts to reinforce the domination of this group, we can begin to conceive of the possibility that the dominant group of white men may not be very receptive to alternative approaches to societal structure. These alternatives include theories and concepts of gender inequity.

Ideology and gender 

Ideology intersects with gender in the disputed concept of patriarchy which runs through western society in much of its ideological and repressive state apparatuses. For the repressive state we have the Government (historically dominated by men, particularly in the US) and the army (a bastion of masculine, aggressive power and tradition), the police (a long time boys club).

Topical this month, the law is a major actor in the repression of women, I don’t think I need to go into the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings other than to ask how a non-conservative woman judge would have been received by the senate if faced with similar allegations. Kavanaugh’s imminent confirmation (barring an unlikely Senate rejection) will encapsulates the ideological challenge for women in western society. He is a wealthy, white man from a privileged upbringing who represents conservative values and has previously talked about Roe Vs Wade as precedent on precedent. This means a ruling that has been reaffirmed in the supreme court after its original ruling. His view is accurate, but does leave the door ajar for alternate rulings as it does not describe the ruling as ‘settled law’. Kavanaugh, if confirmed, will join 5 other men and 3 women on the US supreme court. The events of the Blassey Ford hearings have highlighted the high stakes involved in legal state power. If confirmed, a man accused of sexual assault by multiple women will serve for the rest of his life in a highly influential position as the embodiment of the ideology of the current US administration under Trump. Trump, who this week was exposed in the New York Times as the recipient of a huge inheritance from his family’s real estate business through tax dodging and suspect schemes to siphon millions of dollars into his own coffers for posterity without paying appropriate inheritance tax. Trump, a man who campaigned with Mike Pence, both rich and powerful white men, on an ideology of conservative values and pro-life legislation. The repressive state apparatus really do matter, particularly when working in concert with ideology.

The ideological apparatuses of education, as I have stated before, are dominated by men in positions of power in Professor and Executive roles. The media also repeats the domination with only 20% of national newspaper editors being women. Religion has only very recently even contemplated women in positions of power and this is limited to the Church of England, not Catholicism, Islam or the Judaism.

If I add the recent rise of social media and online tech giants into the mix, we have Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alphabet Inc (google parent company) Larry Page and Sergey Brin. These three giant companies dominate and influence our lives on a minute by minute basis and all three have dominant, super-rich men as their founders. This is omitting the enduringly influential Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as titans of computer technology.

If we can accept that there is a dominant ideology running through the state apparatuses, it is not a great leap to also accept that this ideology will protect its dominant and powerful players, the white men. How do the dominant protect their dominant position in the face of calls for change?

Piecemeal Ideological Responses

When faced with rising calls for change and progress from groups in society, the dominant group protects its position by offering piecemeal amendments, restoring order through concessions which may fall short of the full demand but pacify the rising anger of the masses. When feminist movements rose in the 1960s and 70s, one of the state’s responses was the abortion rights legislation in UK (1967) and US (1973). Such offerings can serve to reduce tensions and give new freedoms, but they do not displace the dominant groups at the top. They do not reduce their power, in fact their domination is secured for a generation by this negotiated offering. As we are seeing in the US, such offerings can be placed at risk in backlash movements underpinned by another state ideological apparatus, the conservative religious apparatus. The dominant elite will respond to this powerful group in the US because they have infiltrated the government as an arm of the repressive state apparatus and we are seeing reduced abortion clinic availability in a number of states across the US. State Apparatuses are already mobilising to offer piecemeal limits on abortion rights. This erosion leads to speculation of the abortion law being repealed in the US.

Dystopian ideology

I will conclude with a brief overview of the book I have recently read ‘Red Clocks’ by Leni Zumas. This highly relevant dystopia depicts an all too plausible future society in America with abortion rights overturned, an ominous ‘pink wall’ border for Canada and a new law to prohibit single mothers from adopting children. This novel may well be read for years to come as a prophetic example of state ideology fuelled by the fear, oppression and control experienced by women in oppressive societies. The US of ‘Red Clocks’ is very recognisable to our contemporary western society, with one difference, the erosion of women’s right to choose. Losing this right devalues women’s autonomy and reduces them to secondary subjects relative to dominant men. The ideology depicted here is likely derived from contemporary religious ideology in the US and the pro-life movement. The consequences for women in this novel are sometimes subtle, sometimes terrifying, often heartbreaking and always unfair. Here, the dominant state ideology has shifted and the repressive state apparatuses move to reinforce them. Once the ideological battle is lost, the struggle changes from progress to clawing back lost ground.

We must be forever vigilant of this constant, distopian threat. If we fall into the trap of internalising the dominant ideology, we can easily become complicit in the creation of dystopia. Ideology is everywhere in many guises, but the dominant state ideology is the most important and powerful, yet representative of the smallest group. Those at the top will ruthlessly protect themselves and we must also protect our own interests as fiercely. In Red Clocks, each protagonist has their own resistant act and shows the fire of subversion within them. We must all keep the fire burning to resist any erosion of progress and recognise the power of ideology as a weapon of dystopian societies.

Gender Pay Gap and the stories organisations tell – week 3 – 24/03/18

This week more gender pay gap reports were released, including at Northumbria University as the deadline for publication looms large. The process of reporting gender pay gaps is revealing some expected outcomes and also some results that invert the traditional narrative. The mean and median pay gap reporting across all submitted reports to date (24/03/18) shows a mean pay gap of 13.3% and a median pay gap at 11.7%. This presents us with a familiar story and one that is not surprising. As a general rule, men are occupied in higher paid positions across the country than women (74% of companies). This is not the story in every organisation and there are clear examples of large pay gaps in favour of women (15% of companies).

One story this begins to tell us is that some sectors may favour women in the same way the majority favour men. In an ideal world, it could be argued that all professions should be gender neutral or within an acceptable range of difference (what this acceptable range could be depends on the pay scales and remuneration differentials in place at an organisation). I believe that a structure of consistent, equal representation at all levels of an organisation, both power and pay, would breed a  culture of mutual respect between people and appreciation of our differences. There is also a strong economic argument as forecasts based on coordinated gender equality measures suggest GDP per capita is estimated to increase by 6-10% relative to the baseline by 2050 (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2017). We are all familiar with the risks of forecasting, but many investors trust economic models for company growth so it stands to reason that this narrative should also bear serious consideration.

From my perspective there should be no reason for any vocation, or profession to favour one gender over another. In Higher Education, the leaky pipeline phenomenon clearly points to a sector problem and one which we should be able to affect. Men currently  dominate the upper echelons of university academia and it is difficult to imagine this changing radically any time soon without radical action. The pinch point of the pipeline occurs between undergraduate and post graduate study, but the clear point of divergence is between Faculty Academic (Lecturer) and Professor. Here is where volume skews and the narrative shifts. Here is where the story of leadership ends for many women, yet continues with increasing success for men. Here is where the dystopic meets reality.

Leaky pipeline

Considering the dystopic reality, my reading this week continued on the theme of method with Kuhn and Popper as competing methodological muses. I have become more convinced of my preference for Popper’s revolutionary argument that ‘…we approach everything in the light of a preconceived theory.’ (Popper, 1970 p52) Set against the framework of masculine privilege, I have started to frame our preconceived theory of organisational normality as a similar restrictive framework to the prevailing scientific theories that scientists work within as per Kuhn’s ‘Normal Science‘.  My question has become centred around the mechanisms and pathways to enable the oppressed to break free from this reality.

With the concept of change and collective movements in mind, my reading of Paulo Freire’s ‘The Pedagogy of Hope’ has directed my thinking towards a clearer appreciation of contextual factors which may influence women in their careers. Freire states that ‘hope, as an ontological need, demands an anchoring in practice’ (Freire, 2014 p2) it is this dependent relationship between hope and reality that interests me when applying dystopian models of subversion to organisational reality. Freire’s describes a seminal moment in his formative years as an educator in Brazil and Chile which stayed with him and informed his later actions. He was touring series of talks to local communities with the intention of sharing his findings concerning corporal punishment between parents and children. His external analysis had found that parents in some inland communities were more inclined to punish their children more severely than parents in coastal communities. Sharing his findings with the intent of educating and raising awareness, he speculated as to the cause and welcomed questions from the audience. The response of a parent from the audience shifted his thinking on the subject of pedagogy and change initiatives.

The parent started by describing the house and environment he envisaged that Freire inhabited, one of relative privilege, but not ludicrously wealthy. They then described their own living conditions of abject poverty with chaos, hunger and exhaustion at the end of the working day. This was a reality of despair in the absence of hope, yet still this parent attended the talk. The message concerning overly harsh punishment of children was necessarily sidelined in the mind of Freire in the context of the oppressive forces that impacted on these communities every day. Sheer survival was the abiding motivation and any means of achieving this were deemed acceptable. This message has resonated with me and I believe it is absolutely vital to consider and adapt to the influences of context when evaluating the actions and outcomes of people in society.

What I have taken from this example is that my privileged position as the academic investigator of gender inequity in leadership is one I cannot dream to effectively articulate without appreciation of the reality for the women I am identifying as oppressed. Their oppression in my framing relates to the barriers evidenced in University contexts to senior leadership, or ‘what we are doing to them’. One factor I continually return to is fertility, with pregnancy and career transitions forming a primary pathway for many mothers. I feel this strikes to the heart of female oppression within the current paradigm and colours the reality of many women as their career progression stalls on the brink of senior leadership. I cannot prove this yet and it is beginning to form part of my ontological assumption on this area. The multitude of variables affecting this ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon is something I need to understand to be able to apply my dystopian method. As the next week progresses, I will continue to read about pedagogy and how we can support meaningful change in higher education and I will retain a healthy critical mind when restraining myself from academic indulgences in


Freire, P. (2014). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Kuhn, T. S., Lakatos, I., & Musgrave, A. (1970). Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Criticism and the growth of knowledge.