The Financial Crisis, Gender, and Graduate School: An Interview with Megan Tobias Neely

NOTE: I was on my way to Megan Tobias Neely’s dissertation proposal defense when I received Matt’s invitation to respond to this blog post. In a case of pure serendipity, Megan’s dissertation is an ethnographic study of hedge fund managers. I sent Megan the blog post and we recently sat down to discuss it.

CLW: Why did you decide to write your dissertation on hedge fund managers?

MTN: I was taking a course on the financial crisis in the public policy school. A lot of that research focuses on how deregulation and various political interests led to the financial crises. I realized that we can’t understand the crisis unless we understand how the workplace structures the way people make investments, and how, through their daily decisions at work, financial managers shape public policy.

CLW: So you agree with Chris Warhurst that the sociological angle has been missing from analysis of the financial crisis?

MTN: I don’t think it’s been completely missing, but there is a need for more of it. One of the works that really inspired me was C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite.

CLW: Another Texan!

MTN: That book made me think of the similarities between the “power elite” of the mid-20th century and the “one percent” today. In both contexts, people with economic power don’t think of themselves as elite, because they are caught up the daily demands of their work. I was also inspired by Karen Ho’s Liquidated, Caitlin Zaloom’s Out of the Pits, and Louise Marie Roth’s Selling Women Short.

CLW: It’s interesting that you mention those works. Going back to Chris’ essay, he sets up a binary between studies of the economic crisis and studies of gender. And yet all of the recent books you just mentioned were not only written by women, but they highlight the gendered dimensions of the financial industry.

MTN: One of the things I noticed right away when I began my fieldwork is how men and women hedge fund managers describe their work in highly gendered terms. Women talk about how they are unable to take on as much risk as men do. Investors simply do not trust them in the same way that they trust men. It made me think about how masculinity and whiteness provide opportunities for white men to assume more risks than other groups. As a result, they get the biggest pay-offs. And if their investments fail, they have built-in safety nets to help them find new jobs or develop new funds or portfolios.

CLW: You also mentioned Cynthia Enloe’s work as an important influence.

MTN: She does a great job of bringing gender to the forefront. She argues that we cannot understand the extent of the damage from the recent recession unless we look at its impact on women.

CLW: Returning to Chris’ blogpost, he suggests that studying up has become unpopular among ethnographers because it’s harder to study investment bankers than front-line service workers. Did you receive any push back from studying this group?

MTN: I was worried that professors and fellow students wouldn’t be responsive to this project, but most people I talked to have expressed considerable interest, including people in the hedge fund industry. People want to know how high income people understand and justify social inequality. However I have been warned that I must be prepared to defend my focus on the most privileged members of society. It is important to study them without glorifying them or demonizing them. My goal is no different than that of my fellow graduate students who are studying low wage workers—contextualizing their social worlds and learning about how they make sense of their daily work lives.

CLW: The financial crisis has clearly impacted your choice of dissertation topic. How has the financial crisis impacted your daily work life as a graduate student?

MTN: I see the same logics of the financial industry reflected in the University’s treatment of graduate students. We are expected to take on more debt and more risk than in the past. There is an idea that higher education is an investment in your future and that if you take on huge loans you will reap the reward of a tenure-track job. But the reality is that the academic job market is probably worse than ever, and there is no guarantee of a stable job that will pay enough to cover that large loan debt. Graduate students are also being subjected to all of these measurements—we are constantly evaluated on how many publications, grants, and fellowships we bring in. These quantitative metrics for rating graduate students pit us against one another, which is really unfortunate, because graduate school is supposed to be a place where you develop professional relationships and learn to collaborate.

CLW: It seems like the primary values of higher education today are austerity, efficiency, and fostering competition, instead of promoting learning, scholarship, and contemplation. The institution is shifting the risks associated with pursuing a higher education onto its least powerful members. When I went to graduate school, the public took on more of these risks.

MTN: Grad students are getting the message that we must narrow the scope of our projects and pursue research topics that can be done quickly at low cost. In the past, graduate school was more of an apprenticeship model. But just like in the broader labor force, apprenticeships are going away, and now it is up to the individual workers to gain the skills and training they will need to succeed. What we are experiencing in graduate school is really no different from what is happening in the rest of the economy.

Christine L. Williams is professor and chair of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her teaching and research interests focus on gender and sexuality in the workplace. A native Texan, she is currently working on a study of women scientists in the oil and gas industry.

Megan Tobias Neely is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests are in gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace. She is currently working on her dissertation on gender, organizations, and work in the finance industry.

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