An Autoethnographic Journey Navigating the Academy: Womxn in Pursuit of Academic Excellence, Health, and Personal Wellbeing
We lift As We Rise
Without which, we cannot claim the celebrated title of Womxn. In 1956, my grand aunt, sociologist Professor Fatima Meer, was the first Black womxn appointed to the all-White University of Natal. South African girl children are at severe risk of occupying an unequal academy although their journeys may be substantially more welcoming than the academics of the 1950s and the current era.
Ethics, Morals, and Values
Academia tests one’s resolve, forcing steadfast commitment to maintain integrity and ethical values. I have learnt that I am not alone in affirming honesty, integrity and moral practice. National Research Foundation (NRF) rating, visiting professorships, presidential appointments, chairs, research, funding, publications, keynote addresses, critical engagements, community service, and professional and teaching awards require womxn to multiply their efforts, demanding personal sacrifices. I owe all my academic accolades to a generation of exemplary womxn who came before. My journey is interspersed with bullying, exclusion, cancer, failure, global recognition, international training, rejection, determination and ultimate success.
Walk With Me
My autoethnographic narrative resonates with womxn academics globally. By sharing challenges, failures and experiences, I hope to open the conversation within institutional spaces to recognise the gendered rules imposed on womxn. Intellectual engagement facilitates and mobilises womxn to challenge patriarchy in the academy, acting as change agents for academics of the future. I have benefitted personally and professionally from slaying dragons and resisting the temptation of poisoned apples.
Dragons and Poisoned Apples
While select groups of womxn slay dragons and resist the poisoned apple without fear or favour, others inadvertently nurture the dragon and fleetingly taste the sweet apple, sustaining patriarchy. Womxn possess agency and social capital, and it is contingent on academics to challenge the status quo, slay dragons, dismantle the old boys’ network, and disable the objectionable behaviour of queen bees, bootlickers, and bullies. I am proud to work alongside human resources psychologist Ms Ramabodu, Corporate Relations’ Ms Zondo, Dr Dlamini, Professors Hlongwa, Magidimisha-Chipungu, Moletsane, Trois, Essack, Bob, Bhana, Maart, Uys, Q. Abdool-Karim, Hlongwane, Downs, Mosoetsa and Nkomo, all of whom work tirelessly to professionalise academic spaces. Leadership places womxn at the helm of a tremulous ship; navigating the storm is no easy task. Leadership choices set the path for future generations; assenting to ethics, morals and inclusionary methodologies paves an efficacious track for womxn. Failure to align to existing pervasive exploitative practices results in the exclusion of womxn, leading to imposter syndrome impeding success.
I have faced scores of bullies head-on, all of whom adopt textbook methods of interpersonal and shared belligerence. Distortion and false narratives are employed to systematically rescind womxn academics’ credibility. Bullies are rarely overt in their pejorative actions, leaving the recipient questioning the legitimacy of their feelings. They use emotional manipulation, relying on infrequent indistinct commendation, followed by disparaging remarks. Bullies cannot be successful in isolation; they rely on colleagues to support their actions directing superficial attention to build trust used as a conduit for gaining intelligence which is subsequently distorted to debase the womxn. Trust is exploited to increase the pressure and undermine the targeted womxn.
Gaslighting questions the target’s credibility, capabilities, and specialisation, capitalising on anxieties and fears. All the while, bullies deny culpability for their actions. Bullying is made worse by isolating, blocking communication, preclusion and eschewing. Antagonistic behaviour is heightened by the failure to operationalise and monitor institutional policies. Gaining support for #teambully requires advocacy among colleagues to adopt a hostile attitude to the recipient.
The queen bee is located at the apex, intensifying systemic patriarchal culture, making them complicit in pervasive bullying (Taylor and Anderson, 2012). This disrupts womxns’ progression to the professoriate.
Much like queen bees, bootlickers receive professional rewards in exchange for supporting and sustaining a patriarchal institutional culture. “Bootlickers” advance to the professoriate timeously. They are strategically positioned, prudently recognising by specific personality typesto capitalise on gendered limitations and strengthening the patriarchal grip.
Systemic gendered obstacles produce imposter syndrome leaving womxn feeling devalued and undeserving of recognition and accolades. The engendered fear has mental health implications, including anxiety, stress, diminished self-confidence and depression. Awareness of others’ (bullies) false, socially constructed gendered view leaves womxn questioning their professional authenticity. The imposter syndrome intensifies failure and inadequacy, resulting in womxn overworking or underachieving in the academy. Role overload produces burnout, negatively impacting intellectual engagement and impeding advancement opportunities.Breeze (2018) notes that, a ‘noticeable effect is less of a flight, a fight, and not a failure, but a paralysis, like the “freeze” of small mammals’ response to a perceived threat, playing dead instead of fighting or fleeing.’
Achieving work-life balance is one of the greatest challenges that womxn have failed to master. Investing in healthy professional relationships is critical to achieve balance. Mentorship and serving mentees strengthen supportive professional networks, encouraging personal and work-life balance. Investing in familial relationships increases support and reduces stress, encouraging an open-minded approach to wellbeing.
No Thank You
Queen bees, old boys’ networks, bullies, bootlickers, the institutional culture and the imposter syndrome lured me into the most significant professional fight of my life. Efforts to collectively demoralise womxn verify the existence of a glass ceiling in academia. I have thousands of citations, received an NRF C2 rating in 2022, received local and international funding and achieved recognition from peers across the globe. Professionalising existing knowledge has been fulfilled through international certification, making me one of only three clinical sociologists on the continent. Leadership roles in professional associations authenticate my value as a womxn in the academy. While unsuccessful promotions, failed acknowledgements, inequality, and status initiate self-doubt, I refuse to give failure any power. I say no thank you. I am because we are - Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, whichis contingent on recognising and respecting the role of womxn librarians, finance officers, communication and media professionals, administrators, operational staff, human resources, information computer technology experts, student councils, security, and cleaning staff. As we continue our personal journeys, let us be reminded to lift womxn as we rise. We are womxn; “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo”.
Womxn is an intersectional universal term intended to signal the inclusion of those who have traditionally been excluded from White feminist discourse: Black women, women of colour, and trans women. More recently, the term has also been used to include nonbinary people.
Professor Mariam Seedat-Khan is an NRF rated researcher; AACS certified clinical sociologist, and board member of the UKZN-Imbokodo, Women in Leadership. She is a board member of the International Sociological Association - RC46, and the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology AACS. She serves as the Clinical Sociology working group convenor for the South African Sociological Association - SASA and is a member of the Asia Pacific Sociological Association - APSA, Canadian Sociological Association - CSA and World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology. She has been internationally recognised for establishing a 12 000-member virtual platform with her clinical intervention, Simply Managing Academic Related Tasks - SMART, developed to treat learning disorders that intensified during COVID-19. Seedat- Khan singlehandedly developed a postgraduate applied and clinical sociology honours programme, which is currently in its first offering. She co-edited the Alternation Special Edition 37 (2021) Clinical Sociology Models: Interventions and Analysis in Africa and has published more than 100 scientific papers, books, book chapters and peer-reviewed conference proceedings. She is a visiting professor at Taylors University in Malaysia and Covenant University in Nigeria and the current chair of the International Research Network for applied and clinical sociologists, RC46, an initiative that provides mentorship and support for academics across the globe. Seedat-Khan was the principle investigator for a transatlantic project, Co-creating Recovery, Renewal and Resilience (CoRRE-M): Evidence-based Interventions with Migrant Youth and Young Adults in a (post) pandemic world that involved universities across the world.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.