Professing Education


Professional Marginalization in the Academy

Andrew Short

Brock University

When the nature of work is examined, issues of power and control emerge as important signposts to understanding that work. The idea of power concerns both the ability to make decisions and the scope and effect of the consequences of those decisions. Issues of power include who has it and who does not, and these issues often concern gender. This paper will investigate the gendered university environment in terms of the power possessed and exercised by professions, and the nature of power within the university as a place of work.

Professions and Power

It is no mistake that powerful professions have been traditionally dominated by males. Female dominated disciplines are subordinate to male disciplines primarily because of gender. Nursing for example is subordinate to medicine. In powerful professions females tend to occupy positions of less power within the profession. For example, in pharmacy, females tend to occupy the lower paid positions, which involve caring and nurturing behaviour within the profession (Muzzin, 2001). Mcpherson (1996) asserts that women have been assigned the role of being nurturers because it subordinates them to more `important' male positions.

Knowledge is not a neutral concept but is instead subject to the imposition of values that determine its relative worth. It is the traditionally male dominated groups who assign the relative importance of the knowledge within individual professions based on what is traditionally valued by those groups. Freidson (1986) states: "Professional groups including scientists and academics are often represented as the creators and proponents of particular bodies of knowledge that play important roles in shaping both social policy and the institutions of everyday life" (Freidson, 1986, p. ix).

In the university, scientific knowledge traditionally holds the most value. In other words, within the university, "science is everything and science quite clearly is male" (Muzzin, 2001, p. 35). Universities need to legitimize the knowledge they construct and convey, and they need to legitimate their control over this knowledge. According to Abbott (1988), professions do this by "attaching their expertise to values of rationality, efficiency, and science" (p. 16). Scientific or male knowledge is therefore legitimated.

Power within the university workplace

Witz (1992) claims that professional spaces are dominated by patriarchal capitalism. This informs decisions as to who occupies the positions of power within the institution. Witz (1992) refers to this phenomenon as occupational closure, which is characterized by the marginalization of women and other minorities to positions of little power.

This marginalization becomes apparent in examples such as that of part-time language teachers who work in an intensive English language program within a university. Feldberg (2002) writes: "Ninety percent of language teachers, full time and part time, are women. The university's thirty year policy has been to depend heavily on part time, hourly paid teachers to deliver its core courses, not merely to take up slack or inject new blood; now, part timers assume responsibility for over 50 percent of the department's instruction and student-contact hours, and this percentage continues to grow" (p.56). Language teaching is therefore a female ghetto as far as work is concerned. In Feldberg's example these part time positions are not transitions to full time meaningful work. In fact, "Many part timers have been in the department long term, most for more than ten years and some for well over twenty years" (p. 57).

Those who teach in this area are not subject to the same privilege as others who teach within the university. As Feldberg (2002) points out: "Working on part time hourly rate teaching contracts brought me to experience in earnest the rotten core of marginalization: disrespect for my time, intellectual property, academic freedoms, qualifications, experiences, and professional aspirations" (p. 58). Demonstrations of skilled expertise and specialized professional knowledge "are simply regarded as volunteer work when carried out by part time professors, and are largely unpaid and unattributed" (Feldberg, p. 59).

There is a question as to whether these individuals can be called professionals when they carry out their work, as a profession concerns a certain degree of control over one's labour (Freidson, 1986), and these workers have little control over their work. Instead, women in these positions may be `semi-professionals'. According to Witz (1992), semi-professions are those in which women predominate but are subordinate to the true professions which are male dominated. This may be part of the `hidden curriculum' of the university environment. In other words, male dominated cultures encourage marginalizing attitudes towards women, which relegate women to positions of little power within the institutions (Tierney & Bensimon, 1996).


Powerful professions are male dominated and less powerful female dominated professions are subordinate to male professions. Universities dominated by male models of science value some types or forms of knowledge above others. The knowledge constructed within the university is not neutral, but is constructed deliberately, and concerns the gender of the individual who possesses or constructs knowledge.


Abbott, A. (1988) The System of Professions: an Essay on the Division of Expert Labour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Amundsen,C., Gryspeerdt, D. & Moxness, K. (1993). Practice centred inquiry: Developing more effective teaching. The Review of higher Education, 16(3), 329-353.

Baxter-Magolda, M.B. (1996). Epistemelogical development in graduate and professional education. The Review of higher Education,19 (3), 283-304.

Feldberg, W. (2002). Part time language teachers in the academic tundra. In Hannah, E., Paul, L., & Vethmany-Globus, S., Women in the Canadian academic tundra. 56-62, Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's university Press.

Freidson, E. (1986). Professional powers. Chicago: Chicago University Press

McPherson, K. (1996). Bedside matters: The transformation of Canadian nursing, 1900-1990. Toronto: Oxford University Press

Muzzin (2001). Powder puff brigades. In The hidden curriculum in higher education., 135-154, London: Routledge

Tierney, W. & Bensimon, E. (1996). Promotion and tenure: Community and socialization in academe. New York: Suny Press.

Witz, A. (1992). Professions and patriarchy. London: Routledge.