The Dominator Social System: Alive and well in academia.

Posted on October 23, 2011 by


I am currently in a tenure track position at a university where I find myself charged with not only implementing an innovative approach to nursing education, but also working as a program administrator and undergoing the tenure track process. For those of you already familiar with the tenure process, you know that this entails teaching, students advising, outreach within the healthcare community, community service, committee-university service, and research-scholarship-publication.

I knew about most of these requirements coming into my current position, the stress the arises from striving to meet these expectations, but as I settle into my second year in this setting, I would have to say the gaps between faculty and “upper” administration, seem to be the most challenging. These relationships tend to reflect the greater social system, as I shall discuss in this blog entry.

The school where I teach serves about 5000 students and we have a very active faculty union. I joined the union of course to protect myself, to show solidarity, and I have had some experiences in the past (particularly when it came to benefits and maternity leave a few years back) where I had to utilize the union power in order to be treated fairly.

In the past, I wrote formally about the gap that unions create between practicing nurses and hospital administrators and their ability to communicate directly with one another in a compassionate way. I think unions in some ways prevent the sort of kind and caring atmosphere I would like to work in, similar to the type of atmosphere I strive to create with my students or, in the past, with my patients. Unions can create an “us versus them” atmosphere and the value of being of service to the students and the creation of a caring learning community can get lost in the dichotomous tension.

Because of the power structure within various university systems, nursing faculty may find ourselves going to administration asking for help: we need more release time to revise the curriculum, we have accreditation demands, and we therefore need more faculty and/or more release time. Administrators on the other hand are charged with pulling in the financial reigns during these challenging times. Both sides hold tight to their perceptions of the collective bargaining agreement and decisions are based on the bottom line and the strategic plan.

Particular to nursing faculty, we tend to work about 25% more than faculty in other disciplines and we tend to put in more hours over vacations and breaks, preparing for our forthcoming terms. We often do not get “full credit hours” for clinical teaching (often times it is 1/2-2/3 of “real-time” to count as a clinical hour of teaching) , whereas the science lab classes may not have this issue, with their lab hours= 60 or even 50 minutes of real-time. We tend to not stand up for ourselves and ask for parity and equity. We “give away” our time by arriving early or the day before to make clinical assignments, further diluting our hours of fair compensation. We become bogged down in grading clinical paperwork that may not truly support the learning of our students.

I would also say we tend to not let the world know what it is we do. At times it seems like we keep ourselves so busy with the demands of the teaching and/or tenure process that we let our voice be muffled by these demands; we become too tired, too overwhelmed to take a stand. We lack in self-care and we burn out, creating toxic environments for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. Our own nursing program leadership likely has too many administrative demands to focus on creating change within our programs. Maybe as faculty we feel confused or torn between our loyalty to our students and the lack of the larger system administrative support; we don’t know when to walk away or when to take a stand, so maybe we just keep doing what we can to get by, protecting what we can of ourselves, and remaining stuck in our old patterns.

Amazingly, this is the exact same phenomenon, the strange loop of repetitive behavior, that often happens in the practice-healthcare setting. So is nursing in both academia and the practice setting a reflection of our larger society, a culture being run in a dominator mode versus the more ideal partnership mode most of us likely seek?

Riane Eisler has written extensively about this social system; a brief introduction is here in these two videos,

With much more information on Riane’s website:

In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations.  Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

(adapted from Eisler, 2002).

Dominator systems thrive on hierarchy, with the basis of fear and “masculine” socialization values at the forefront of control. Nursing, being a mostly female dominated profession is at great risk for being on the bottom of the hierarchy of the practice and educational systems.

However, it is still up to us to begin to practice partnership relationships, and this process begins with self-reflection. Do you treat yourself with partnership values? What are the messages you carry around with you and express in your thoughts and actions? What are some daily habits that perhaps keep you focused on violence and dominance instead of love and creativity? Are you kind to yourself?

Beginning to be a partner to yourself may be easier than it sounds. For instance, does watching TV dominate your free time, and are you willing to alter your watching habits? How can you better appreciate yourself, your role, and the larger natural world around you? Do you set limits on your work time in order to make your family a priority? Is there time for your own self-care, sacred spiritual practices, and appreciation of your own gifts? Do you practice love and compassion for others, even if they are enacting typically dominator behaviors? Do you carry around anger and resentments and live in a state of anxiety? Do you view conflict as an opportunity for creative problem solving?

As we become better partners with our inner-selves, we will be better prepared to enact partnership values within our academic settings. We can begin to see our students, colleagues, and administrators as partners; we can facilitate rather than control or prescribe learning; we can honor many learning styles and the unique voices of our students; we can move beyond fear of students’ emotional needs as we foster learning collectives; we can recognize that as teachers, we are also learning along with our students; and we can support our students’ development of ethical and caring behaviors.

By role modeling and living partnership values within our schools and programs of nursing, we can begin to move toward partnership interactions that break down the hierarchical, dominator trends of academia.


Eisler, R. (2002). The power of partnership: Seven relationships that will change your life.   Novato, CA: New World Library.