The Dominator Social System: Alive and well in academia.

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.


  1. Carey, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the dominator vs. partnership relationship. As I was reading through your first few paragraphs I was thinking to myself how much the academic setting mirrored the work setting…then of course you go on to say this…but I guess what I was thinking was that the nurses educators most likely unwittingly taught the students that they were to be treated in this manner, both during schooling, at the clinical setting and in their future work world…of course this was taught without words…
    I also was thinking how much the current academic setting mirrors unhealthy homes, marriages and cultural norms that display the hierarchal relationships…esp. with men being at the top and dominating with force and fear…and finally I was thinking as I read your thoughts that many of us nurses come from homes such as above so we already have these roles ingrained deeply so we naturally just go along…
    I grew up in a DOMINATED home, where the parents were to honored and respected at all costs and the children were to obey blindly and be seen and not heard! I have worked in many a dominator style framework job. In fact, all the jobs I’ve had seem to reflect this. As an older nurse I feel that I do have a voice at my current job…my supervisor listens to what I have to say and I feel that she accommodates as best she can for the nurses within the dominator system. There is a disconnect between “the big bosses” and the nurses though in the sense of making decisions based on the bottom line and not always what is best for nurses.
    I can happily say that my marriage of 25 years is definitely a partnership and that type of relationship is so much nicer and produces so much more satisfaction and creativity! Imagine if our work areas were this way….wow what a thought!
    Our profession is the largest in the U.S. but because we are mostly women we still seem to have no voice…or maybe it is just what you mentioned in your blog…we are so busy carrying out our work, caring for our families and friends, going to school, etc that we just are too tired to band together and demand change. I think your final comments are on target and it’s a good reminder that change starts within first and only then can it branch out.

  2. Bobbi, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I do think these values and ways of interacting are ingrained in us from our early experiences.

    As Riane mentions in her work, most of us experience a continuum between dominator> partnership experiences in any given setting. For instance, when I worked for a large highly regarded university in California, the social system was far more dominator versus the university I am at now. Also, I see our nursing program evolving everyday toward partnership values despite what I perceive as dominator trends in the larger setting.

    I think I wrote this as a reminder to myself; I firmly believe that if I continue on with my own self-care and spiritual growth, I can make my whole life into a more partnership-based experience. When I started to write this blog entry, this is not where I was headed at all, so it is interesting that it ended up here.

  3. I am new to this blog. I decided to visit this site because the topic peaked my interest. I am currently a grad student in nursing education. My final goal is to teach at a college or university. I am sure one day I will get my PhD. I find these comments a little hard to take. I don’t want to be naive to the world and what takes place in it. I feel that if you are unhappy with what is going on, then you should do something about it. I do not agree with the comments that nursing is dominated. If anything, its corporations that dominate and affect what we do. I work at a not for profit hospital whose CEO makes almost 3 million in pay and bonuses and we as employees are expected to help cut cost and help save the budget. But that’s a separate issue. My question is, is it really that bad to work at a university? Is the work overbearing and if so why do we as nurses put up with it?

    • Hello and thanks for reading this post. I appreciate your view, and I would encourage you to read some of my published works on the dominator social system, which was developed Riane Eisler, to explain the challenges we face in the world in general.

      Academia is not immune from these challenges and if you can recognize them in the larger culture as you have mentioned here, you can recognize them in academia as well. So, I would say it depends on the university and the culture of the university where you are teaching. The dominator tendencies also show up along a continuum between partnership and dominator traits. The current school where I teach has far more partnership tendencies then previous schools where I have taught.

      The problem with just leaving is that you will find this everywhere, so we have to act as role models of more partnership ways of being.Also, I would say many nurses have more dominator traits, and we need to begin to role model partnership in early education settings.

      For more reading on the topic:
      •Clark, C.S. (2005). Transforming nursing education: A partnership social system for alignment with philosophies of care. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship, 2(1).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s