Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

"Monkey in a Cage": The Complicated Loyalties of Mid-Level Academic Women Working in Higher Education

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

"Monkey in a Cage": The Complicated Loyalties of Mid-Level Academic Women Working in Higher Education

Article excerpt


When Weber referred to the stahlhartes Gehause, 'iron cage' of bureaucracy, he created a powerful image of 'inescapable fate' (Weber, 1978). The title of this paper references this image drawn from a reflection of a mid-level female academic when asked to describe her work in a metaphor. Reflecting on her fate within the higher education organisation, she described herself as 'a monkey in a cage being fed messages to conform'. The image is evocative because in addition to the rational traps and narrow quest for efficiencies, evident in Weber's iron cage, the mid-career woman is rendered to less than human status. Denied her humanity, she is merely a monkey. This analogy has connections with other metaphors that decrease autonomy, creativity and important work. That a participant in the research, summed up her experiences thus, has created a starting point from which to unpack her experiences, and that of other participants, who share the socio demographic space of midlevel female academics.

Much research has been conducted examining the conditions for women in higher education (Morley & Walsh, 1996, Blackmore & Sachs, 2005). The major focus of the research has been on the question of leadership, specifically the lack of women in leadership (White, 2003). For example, "women account for only 23% of university presidents, and that percentage has not changed in the past 10 years (The White House Project, 2009). Baltodano, Carlson, Jackson & Mitchell (2011), state,

Although women now comprise the majority of the workforce, only 39% of females 16 and older work in management or professional occupations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Across the 10 industry sectors studied in 2009 as part of The White House Project, women held an average of 18% of the top leadership positions within each sector (Baltodano et al, 2011, 64).

In order to further explain the lack of women in the top leadership positions, understanding the barriers that create obstacles for women's progression necessitates investigating the earlier stages of the leadership progress from which the movement towards leadership originates. For this reason, investigating the mid-level of university hierarchy may provide insight about the barriers and obstacles experienced by women that influence progress towards leadership.

How women understand and experience their work and organisations can be a multifaceted undertaking as there are many factors and conditions that influence the status of women and their leadership prospects within higher education. This paper focuses on the concept and practice of loyalty and raises issues around how women's loyalty intersects with their prospects and aspirations for leadership.

Rousseau (1990) defined loyalty as a measure of identification and involvement in the organization. The definition encompasses both individual and group interactions that influence identification and a practical element in the form of participation. Determining degrees of identification and involvement is relative to two perspectives, that is, the employee and the employer. This paper explores loyalty for the employee's perspective, particularly how loyalty is created and sustained by mid-career female academics. Loyalty is constructed as a problematic phenomenon for this group of academics because it highlights contradictory conditions for mid-career female academics. It raises questions about the purpose of loyalty and to whom is loyalty directed, when considering the postmodern context of most higher education organisations characterised as,

... the instability of situations; the characteristic changing, porous boundaries of both social worlds and arenas; social worlds seen as mutually constitutive and coproduced in the negotiations taking place in arenas; negotiations as central social processes. (Clarke, 2003, 557).

The higher education context is less stable, changing and socially constructed, therefore, when considering loyalty and commitment, the object and purpose of that raises questions to whom and for what purpose? …

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