Choosing the UK and relocating to a British context
We find that the broader trends of globalization of labour flows as well as the internationalization of higher education can be discerned at the micro level of individual narratives. All but three of our research participants first arrived in the UK as students. Most came to pursue a Masters or a doctoral degree funded by bodies either in their countries of origin or in the UK, or as a result of bilateral agreements between universities. A small number of European participants also spent part of their undergraduate degree in the UK, funded by the EU Erasmus scheme. Others, originating from regions which in recent years have experienced high levels of economic growth, arrived as premium fee paying overseas students.
Participants often mention the international reputation of UK higher education as an important attracting factor. International league tables along with a promoted longstanding academic tradition contribute to positioning the UK as a strong contender on the global academic market. The English language is also mentioned as a choice criterion. In some cases it was the only foreign language the participants knew, or the language the competence in which they consciously wanted to strengthen; a choice which can be seen to reflect an overall Englishization of academia (Tietze, 2008; Tsuneyoshi, 2005). Based on language, other destinations that were considered included the US and Australia. The prohibitive cost of education in the US and the distance to, and cost of, living in Australia were mentioned as reasons for deciding on the UK. Some non-European participants stated that the comparative easiness of gaining a visa for the UK played a decisive role. One participant originating from outside the EU was offered a concrete choice between the UK and the US as she received scholarships to both countries. As she explained, she made her choice in favour of the UK based on ‘the quality of the programmes’, but also ‘because of colonialism’, stating that the historical colonial ties meant that she had knowledge of, and links to, the UK. Similarly, another participant from a country with a colonial history with the UK spent part of her childhood in the country. When she then decided to enter academia, the sense of ‘knowing the system’ contributed to her returning to the UK.
If the above can be seen as ‘pull’ factors that attracted the participants to the UK, conjoining ‘push’ factors are also mentioned. Notably, these referred to the gendered social expectations or limited academic career opportunities for women in the participants' native countries. While in some cases relocation to the UK was narrated as a choice made in order to circumvent the ‘macho-style’ academic environment of their own country, the move then introduced the new position of being a foreigner. Described on an abstract level by one participant as ‘a synergistic effect that multiplies things’, another participant found that the combination of gender and foreignness created a particular social location:
It's not only that I'm not British, it's also the fact that I'm a woman. I have a different appearance and I appear to be in a certain way. To a certain extent I find that it is easy to be the odd one out … Sometimes people can either be intrigued or fascinated, but sometimes they can feel threatened. So there is a mixture of things and sometimes it's positive and sometimes it's negative … The combination of gender plus national identity is definitely an explosive one. It has been a significant element in my career and it's still an issue. (Zarah, senior lecturer, 35–39, R)
As Zarah indicates, being a foreigner is a dynamic quality that in some cases produces positive and in other cases negative attributions. Although foreignness is not an absolute characteristic, it is a position that is narrated in relation to what is considered non-foreign, i.e. British, as in Zarah's comment above. In the interviews ‘Britishness’ emerges as a perceived norm against which one's own position is measured and understood. The participants were not asked to offer a definition, but the accounts point to some qualities of a perceived Britishness. One aspect of it entails whiteness as an implied racial norm, as expressed by one participant from the Mediterranean region: ‘What is very strange for me, if you ever see me, I look very British. I do not look [own nationality] at all. I have very fair skin.’ Similarly, another European participant explained: ‘Being pale skinned, I don't have the problem of people immediately singling me out as different’.
Compared to white participants, non-white participants invoked race more frequently in the interviews, notably to state its insignificance in an organizational context:
I haven't felt treated badly, or treated in an inferior way because I was not white, but that's very much a feature of the people that are around you. I can imagine going into another setting where it might be very different. The school of management is very mixed in all sorts of ways. (Judith, senior lecturer, 45, R)
While the ‘mixed’ organizational setting provides a context where race is said not to produce an inferior position, there is the notion that other contexts might bring about different effects. In relation to a white British norm, which is reproduced in the predominantly white academic sector, non-whiteness becomes a key aspect by which foreignness is constructed. On the other hand, Judith explains how she sometimes explicitly draws on foreignness to navigate organizationally. She explains that when ‘people are hierarchical, I like to puncture them a bit’ and that she can achieve this by ‘play[ing] the “I'm a foreigner” card’ to express herself more forcefully than is normally accepted by what she calls ‘the indirectness’ of the English. In this particular context, foreignness is narrated as a resource available to draw on in order to achieve a desired aim. This is sometimes explained in conjunction with gender, as for example when Rita explains her decision to stay in the UK:
[By] 2006 I finished my PhD and at that point I got basically all that I wanted … So I was, in a way, ready to go back … But, for a series of reasons, I didn't really want to. First of all, the situation in [my country's] universities is deteriorating. Plus political situation, economic and social situation … As a female … if you want more advanced, more liberal views, where you don't have these traditional relationships of family … I've always felt incredibly free in this country. And I liked the freedom. (Rita, lecturer, 39, R)
For Rita, the relocation provided a respite from the gendered institutional structures in her native country, and consequently a greater sense of belonging in the UK. Magdalena also draws on the notion of ‘fitting in’, establishing its importance in an organizational context:
at work, in terms of who thinks what of me and therefore what I get involved in, and what I get set aside from, that would largely depend on how I'm able to be, to act in a way that is acknowledged to be the right way by the British. (Magdalena, lecturer, 39, R)
While Judith refers to foreignness as a quality that sometimes allows her to test socially accepted norms of behaviour in an organizational context, Magdalena's comment implies that adapting to a behavioural norm is imperative in the workplace. The sense that there is a norm against which the degree of foreignness is measured, whether based on ethnicity or behaviour, means that different individuals, depending on their position in relation to the above, experience differing degrees of foreignness. One mediating factor of the experienced foreignness which emerges in the accounts is cultural distance, whereby a felt cultural proximity — defined in terms of food and drink, the climate and patterns of interaction — between the UK and the country of origin contributes to a lessened experience of foreignness.
While foreignness on the one hand constitutes difference to the perceived norm on different axes, it is also sometimes seen as a resource that can be drawn upon to exploit the said difference. However, in both cases it contributes to reproducing the existing norm, as behaviour is modified to either counteract or adhere to it, while not aspiring to transcend it. Of interest, then, is to explore if and how the increased internationalization might rupture or complement a norm which is narrated in terms of Britishness. In the following section, we discuss the internationalizing business school as the institutional context within which we examine the relationship between gender and foreignness for constituting subjectivities.
The internationalizing UK business school
Participants generally expressed the view that, due to its international character, the business school is an environment where foreignness, as an abstract category, does not constitute a basis of differentiation. As Laila explains:
I don't think [being non-British] has ever actually been an issue, one way or the other. I think, because of the international profile of the whole department. You don't stand out as someone from a particular country, from a particular part of the world, you're just colleagues. (Laila, lecturer, 32, R)
Laila's comment about being ‘just colleagues’ echoes ideas of the universal, disembodied worker, and the international institutional context is presented as a factor that eradicates differences based on origin. In the excerpt, the abstract notion of ‘foreignness’ is equated to nationality, or to coming from ‘some part of the world’, while asserting that origin is only a geographical fact. As such, this defines foreignness and foreigners as intra-categorically homogeneous, a view also promoted by the official rhetoric of internationalization. The level of internationalization of an academic institution is determined by the proportion of non-national staff, whilst ignoring the global distribution of labour flows, or intra-categorical differences. As we have seen above, participants experience variations of foreignness. Such variations, however, are made to disappear in abstract representations of the internationalized organization. On a micro level, though, foreignness as well as gender are invoked as categories of differentiation, as exemplified by Maya:
When I attend meetings at university level … I feel uncomfortable, because it is more senior level staff, and they are mostly men … You do have quite a number of [members] who are British, all white British, and who are men. So I don't feel comfortable there … because it's not just being from somewhere else, but also because you are female.
According to Acker (2006), gender-, class- and race-based assumptions are continuously drawn on in everyday organizational interactions. ‘Appropriate’ assumptions are provided by body differences and expected behaviours. Maya's account of her sense of discomfort when representing her department at higher level committees offers an insight into how a foreign, in this case non-white, woman might feel when confronted with the reality of contemporary organizational hierarchies which, as Acker (2006, p. 445) points out, ‘are usually gendered and racialized, especially at the top’. It also points to the hierarchical differentiation of academia, where a particular department such as the business school might employ an increasing number of international staff, while the composition at university level remains unchanged.
The perceived norm also extends into ideas of the ‘appropriate’ lecturer. One participant argues that students ‘expect a male, possibly oldish, possibly pretty tall, and with a posh voice’ as their lecturer, thus ascribing the job with gendered and classed attributes. Another participant, Rachel, similarly points to how a gendered and racialized university lecturer norm informs her experienced position:
When you walk in and you see [the MBA students] for the first time … you are sometimes met with this incredulous look. Because I think in Britain there is still a very strong mental stereotype about women from Asian background … their mental stereotyping is fed by images they see on television or mainstream media … And it's sometimes quite hard for them to see this 39-year-old, size eight woman standing in front of them and telling them, look, I have done X, Y, Z in my life. (Senior lecturer, R)
The context described is one where the students are British professionals, which for Rachel produces a feeling that there are certain expectations that she fails to meet in the initial encounter. This is explained in terms of how her gender, ethnicity, age and body type are combined attributes that have to be ‘counteracted’ by establishing her credentials. The job of lecturer carries with it a set of traditional ideas of the type of person linked to it, which, despite the increased internationalization, are underpinned by a white masculine norm.
In the excerpt below, Magdalena comments on how the official rhetoric embraces internationalization, and how foreignness becomes an institutional resource in the process, with effects for the individual:
We've got an Internationalization Committee … And I've been asked to fill in spreadsheets about what is international about me and all that kind of stuff … I can apply, theoretically speaking, for citizenship here, and [my manager] said: ‘Don't, because you will not be an international member of staff anymore, and we need you for EQUIS to be international’ … We've got an Executive Board — how many people are foreign on the Executive Board? I don't know. Off the top of my head — no one. Perhaps one?
Being constituted as more valuable as a non-national according to the logic of internationalization, Magdalena sees that internationalization efforts mainly serve instrumental purposes of gaining accreditation. They do not trigger a change in the distribution of power within the business school where she works. The excerpt indicates the micro-level effects of the general trend towards internationalization of HEIs through reference to how global accreditation frameworks constitute subjectivities through the valorization of particular categories.
‘Foreignness’ is invoked by different actors in positive and negative contexts, with different meanings, to produce an effect of empowerment as well as a sense of inferiority. One participant, when talking about instances where the international character of the business school where she works has been raised, said:
I've noticed it from a couple of older male English colleagues, one of whom actually made a rather inappropriate comment many years ago during our staff student committee. I remember he said to the students, well, you'd better toughen up and study hard because otherwise in the future you will all be taught only by Italian women, which I didn't think was particularly right to say.
Possibly meant in a humorous sense, the speaker — defined by the participant through gender, age and nationality — invokes the ‘threat’ of a projected increase of a particular type of foreign academic, an Italian woman, as a factor which will apparently motivate students to work harder. In doing so, he also defines the participant, who is Italian and was present in the meeting, along these particular categories.
On the one hand, then, the international business school is presented as an environment where foreignness, as a general category of being of non-national origin, becomes an insignificant process of differentiation between members of staff. On the other hand, the distinction national/non-national is reinforced by internationalization strategies, for example in the case where institutions are accredited based on the proportion of non-national staff. As a result, for internationalization strategies to be meaningful, a particular type of foreignness based on the nation state necessarily has to be kept in place. While some participants see their institution as a level playing field, there is among others a sense that one's position in the organization is shaped by institutional structures, where different individuals will be differently located in the organizational hierarchy.
In the next section we discuss participants' experiences of promotion procedures, which present key processes by which organizational structures are reproduced.
Appointment and promotion procedures are processes of evaluation of an individual against explicit and implicit criteria, and as such present concrete instances of organizational positioning. In terms of career progression, UK academia is generally portrayed as meritocratic and egalitarian by the participants. As Diana (lecturer, 45, R) says: ‘The advantages of academia, you really are assessed on the quality of your research, and it's not nationality or gender or age-dependent’. Similarly, Ruth explains that
Here you don't need connections [unlike in her native country] … here you need to have a good CV … if you have good publications you get a job and that's how it works. (Professor, 44, R)
Research quality and output are seen as key to career progression. As discussed earlier, quality is commonly assessed based on journal ranking lists. However, in addition to the critique of journal ranking lists mentioned previously, Özbilgin (2009) contends that ranking criteria are inherently gendered, classed and racialized, in that they are constructed by representatives of a white masculinist norm, and that the ranking system therefore plays a part in upholding broader structures of inequality under the guise of objectivity. The underlying structural orderings of evaluation criteria are, however, obscured by assertions such as ‘if you do work hard you get what you deserve’ (Ruth) and ‘if you put in the hard work … everybody's got an equal chance to progress’ (Laila). In a meritocratic discourse, success is attributed to individual effort, but as discussed earlier, what constitutes ‘hard work’ in terms of being deemed as worthy of reward is, for example, underpinned by a masculine norm. Although Diana believes in the meritocratic character of UK academia, she also mentions a criterion for promotion, which she cannot achieve:
For example, one of the fields in terms of promotion where you expect to excel is international networking. For this, you actually need to go to international conferences, and if there isn't someone who can take care of your kids while you are away, that becomes impossible. So a lot of female academics will lose out in this area just automatically.
Being a single mother with no local extended family to support her, Diana counts herself among those female academics who lose out. Not having the opportunity to rely on this kind of support is by no means an issue that all foreign women, or exclusively foreign women, have to address under the contemporary conditions of personal mobility and changes in traditional family relations. However, they are certainly a group that is highly likely to be unable to draw on the help of their extended family with organizing childcare and other daily aspects of their personal lives. Especially for women with childcare responsibilities, the need to carry out their academic work according to the masculine norm may have a negative impact on their career progression, or their personal well-being (Wolfinger et al., 2008). In her comment Diana also subscribes to the gendered norm of the female as the primary carer, which means that women are ‘automatically’ disadvantaged.
Conversely, meeting the masculinist norm of an uninterrupted production of research output at a pace expected by promotion committees and research assessment bodies presents a surprising feat when achieved by a female academic with childcare responsibilities. Petra, a professor, recalls the dinner following her inaugural lecture:
The VC invited a few people for dinner, and they were raising their glasses to the woman who has got it all. And I was thinking, no, I don't have it all, I haven't slept properly in about nine months, I'm absolutely shattered, and I don't have it all. (Petra, professor, 41, R)
Despite the aforementioned conviction that UK academia, in many cases, presents greater opportunities for career progression than academic institutions in the participants' countries of origin, this does not imply an absence of experienced discrimination. Ruth, also a professor, spoke about an earlier stage in her career where
I was pretty sure that they would put me forward [for promotion] because I got some signals from the annual review … But then they didn't and they put forward another guy who was, like, an English boy, so this was really quite disappointing.
In the above excerpt, Ruth describes the candidate to whom she lost in terms of gender and origin, thus also narrating her own position as, at least to some extent, determined by those qualities. The label ‘English boy’ is not a neutral description; gender and nationality are presented as a combination that put the other candidate in a favourable position. Another participant, Monica, attributes the comparatively faster progression of her male colleagues to homosociality:
If I were a man, I probably would have been promoted three years ago. Because I saw male colleagues who achieved less than me being promoted. Because they were friends with the male boss. And I see it all the time. They are very open about promoting their mates, their friends, their drinking buddies, whatever you call it … My previous boss was telling me that he will not promote me, he will not support me, without giving me any reasons, whilst he promoted my male colleagues who were in the same situation or position as me. (Lecturer, 35, R)
Another participant, Sylvia, now a professor, says that gender has not been a disadvantage for her in a direct sense, but on the other hand mentions experiencing limited access to information, linking it to the fact of being a woman. Her comment below further provides an illustration of Bird's (1996) argument about the role of homosociality for providing access to particular networks. When a previous institution she worked for underwent organizational changes,
knowing what was going on … became part of a political game, and there was a group of men at the time, who were definitely very male … young, male macho kind of group of up-and-coming people, who didn't actively exclude women, but they did things like in their free time go out drinking to the pub, or they were into rugby-playing. They were very young, very virile blokes, very career-oriented. And it was as a woman at that stage, it was simply difficult to get into the corridors of power.
Sylvia and Monica, both white European, refer to gender as the key excluding process in the examples above. Patricia, however, when talking about the importance of establishing collaborative ties, expresses difficulty that also includes other aspects:
First of all … I will speak with you very frankly here … because I am a woman. Second, of course, I do have kids. My network is not that extensive. And plus mostly I am a covered woman, so just to find this kind of relationship … this kind of co-operation, not everyone wants to co-operate with you, until they know you perfectly well, and this takes time. (Patricia, lecturer, 44, T)
Here, a gendered dimension of externally recognized symbols of differentiation — for example, in terms of religion — is raised when Patricia reflects on the process of establishing research contacts. Partly, such differences are constructed on a micro level in line with Bauder's (2006) observation about the importance of appearance for the social construction of an individual in terms of a particular type of foreignness. Some of the Muslim participants mention the hijab as a significant differentiating marker.
Instances when discrimination is explicitly experienced may invoke apprehension about possible repercussions. Two participants mention having thought about taking action against experienced discrimination, but both ultimately decided against it. Rita, who says two male colleagues were appointed on a higher salary scale than her, despite having ‘less experience and fewer publications’ decided not to take action because ‘if you start something like that, you have to be prepared for whatever happens … if things go worse, you have to be prepared to move’, which she was not prepared to do. Harriet described how her conditions for gaining permanency were significantly different from those of two male colleagues and how, after having considered contacting the union, in the end she decided against it, because ‘if I were to raise an issue like that, I could kiss my career goodbye’. The belief that challenging the system is pointless or even potentially damaging is a form of internalized control (Acker, 2006) which contributes to upholding structural inequalities. However, not all participants perceive their work environments as producing gendered differences. For example, Laila attributes the disproportionately low number of women in senior academic positions to personal choice rather than institutional processes:
I think there is evidence showing that women don't generally go into senior positions as frequently as men. And that could be because of issues such as having kids, or deciding to take a career break, or maybe just the fact that women are not as equally driven as men to make money. We find satisfaction in smaller things in life. But I think at the junior level at least, academia is gender-blind.
In acknowledging the existence of gender inequalities within organizational hierarchies, Laila uses an argument that naturalizes inequality (Glenn, 2002) through reference to essentialized gendered differences in life values and choices. Christina (lecturer, 31, R) similarly subscribes to a model of individual agency, whereby gender inequalities within an institution are seen as issues which an individual needs to address on her own (Monroe et al., 2008). She explains that ‘I don't think gender is an important barrier. I think it depends on what you really want to do, your targets, and whether you are a hardworking person or not’. Tying in with a meritocratic discourse, career progression is seen as dependent on individual work performance.
Participants make it clear that they seek professional advancement exclusively on the basis of merit, and that other attributes should have neither a discriminating nor an enabling effect. This preference for meritocracy is strongly voiced by Malena, a non-white mid-career academic working towards her goal of becoming a professor:
I want to be promoted not because I'm of a different racial, ethnic grouping or because I'm a female. I want to be promoted because of the kind of work I do, that I'm academically qualified to do. (Malena, senior lecturer, age not disclosed, R)
The functioning of the meritocratic system of UK academia is not, however, entirely trusted. In addition to stating her ambition to progress professionally only on the basis of merit, Malena also expresses a concern that despite the equal opportunities policies that university promotion committees are expected to follow, her chances of career advancement as a foreign woman might be reduced since ‘the philosophy that one promotes can be quite different from what actually is practised in reality behind closed doors’. As Deem (2007, p. 631) concludes, based on her study of six universities in the UK, ‘the rhetoric of equality in institutions is not always matched by the day-to-day experience of staff’. Similarly, the statements and examples provided by the participants indicate that UK academia is seen as meritocratic, particularly in comparison to their native countries, as mentioned by a number of participants. When offering concrete examples, however, some participants also express either an undefined sense of being marginalized, or in some instances relay experiences of direct discrimination.