Gender disparity doesn’t just exist in the home and workplace, but in university classrooms too. Our contributor Harriet Thompson considers the imbalance of gendered admin labour in higher education and calls for institutional change.
In the 1970s, the Wages for Houseworkcampaign organised resistance and debate around forms of gendered and reproductive labour, such as domestic duties like housework and childcare, and the social performance of gender roles that this work reinforces. Drawing on Marxist understandings of the exploitation of workers in capitalist economies, this feminist social movement sought to conceptualise housework as a form of labour, demanding unemployment benefits, parental leave, and equal pay. Nearly fifty years later, we are still debating the issue of gendered and reproductive labour, along with the ‘mental load’ that is often shouldered by women when it comes to household management. Recent conversations have also turned to other demanding aspects of waged work, such as emotional labour. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap that still exists in most industries has been a subject of front-page discussion – recent examples include the BBC pay-gap scandal in which virtually all of the organisations’ top ten earners were revealed to be men.
So, it seems fair to say that although Wages For Housework brought the issue into the public sphere, it didn’t solve the problems. A 2016 survey by the Office for National Statistics revealed that women shoulder the responsibility of ‘unpaid work’, which includes care roles, volunteering, cooking and cleaning for an average of 26 hours per week, 60% higher than the amount undertaken by men. Indeed, the issue of gendered, reproductive labour is only one aspect of the unwaged work and ‘mental load’ undertaken by women in all aspects of their lives. The university is another site in which a large proportion of additional administrative work falls to women.
As a PhD student in a large English department, within an even larger humanities faculty, I have witnessed first-hand the disparity between the additional work – work that is supplementary to academic research and teaching, like administrative duties, organising reading groups and conferences – that is taken on by women. This is particularly the case when it comes to PhD students and early career researchers. Recently, I was on the organising committee for an annual conference for graduate students working in my field of study. The organising committee comprised of four women PhD researchers, while the academics who recruited us were both men. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, I thought. I checked the conference programme for the previous year, and the five organisers were all women. This might not seem like empirical evidence for a gender disparity. After all, I work in the humanities, a subject area that does overall comprise more women than men. But it got me thinking about the kinds of additional work I do alongside my PhD which seem often to be taken on by women.
…Gender disparity stretches to academic staff too, revealing that more women academics in the department undertake extra work…
Another example of gender imbalance is situated in my department’s research blog, which is edited by PhD students. The blog was established in 2016 by two women, taken over by two women in 2017, and again by two women in 2019, one of whom is me. I should point out that this role is paid, so it will appeal as an extra source of income for precariously positioned doctoral researchers. However, another interesting aspect of this is the content that is written for the blog, which is open to both staff and students in the department. The majority of the site’s content is written for free by PhD students, but staff also contribute. Pulling statistics from the blog reveals that since 2016 of 63 contributors (staff and students), 51 were women and 12 were men. So this gender disparity stretches to academic staff too, revealing that more women academics in the department undertake extra work providing content for the blog. We can speculate about the reasons for this. Perhaps women find it harder to say no. Or possibly due to some of the other issues they face such as the gender pay gap and the need to compete with male colleagues who haven’t taken parental leave, they are under more pressure to perform additional work. Another position available to PhD students at my institution is administrative work for the research centres based in the faculty. There are 10 research centres which have a PhD student administrator, 3 of whom are male and the rest female. Again, this work is paid and I don’t have statistics for the number of applications received, but the gender imbalance implies that they receive far more applications from women than men. So why is this disparity so extreme and how can we combat it?
I should start by saying that paid opportunities for PhD students in academic faculties are crucial and administrative roles are a good way to offer extra income alongside undergraduate teaching and funding stipends. However, these roles are often poorly paid, limited in hours, and badly managed by academics who have been known to treat the administrators like their PA. The problem with this is that it stymies women in exactly the kind of roles that they have historically been restricted to; roles that require them to administer to someone else in order to make that person’s job easier. Aside from paid administrative duties, women also seem to shoulder the burden of most student-led communal projects, of which the Lucy Writers’ Platform is just one example. In my experience, women students are left to oversee pastoral events, such as those which foster a sense of community within PhD cohorts.
A shift in the culture and mentality of academic institutions would ensure that not only all of this work be paid, but that it should be valued by the institutions which expect early career researchers to have all of this experience…
It is no coincidence either that the majority of peer supporters at my institution – students trained by the university’s counselling team to offer voluntary mental health support for their peers – are women. Organising conferences and summer schools, running reading groups, and editing student blogs are all ways in which women provide unpaid labour to further their careers. A shift in the culture and mentality of academic institutions would ensure that not only all of this work be paid, but that it should be valued by the institutions which expect early career researchers to have all of this experience if they want to stand out in an oversaturated job market. The marketisation of higher education means that women feel an additional pressure to do this extra work as a means of improving their job prospects, especially if they are self-funded PhD students. Academia needs to increase its support for ventures which offer a means of support, solidarity, and exposure for women in universities. Departments are quick to praise work that contributes to REF – articles published, grants awarded, prizes won – but rarely take as much interest in student-led projects which provide a space for young researchers to develop their skills and share their worries.
Institutions need to acknowledge the amount of administrative work taken on by women in the early stages of their career and look at ways to ensure these roles are developmental with opportunities for progression, pay rises, and dedicated skills training. Mentoring opportunities are essential, and academic staff should be required to take on PhD students (not necessarily those they are supervising) to provide professional support and development beyond these administrative roles. For instance, I would like to see paid training in the essential skills required for academic careers that do not feature in many of the opportunities that are currently available to early career researchers, such as developing a curriculum or scheme of work for a university teaching module, applying for funding grants, and managing a research project.
Women aren’t less ambitious than men, but their own research often takes a backseat to organising departmental community-oriented projects and research-centred events; in short, the crucial activity that helps the university to be outward facing.
Male students seem less likely to take on additional organisational and administrative responsibilities, not because they don’t care about them in principle, but perhaps because they are more focused on prioritising success with their thesis and in furthering their own academic career. Women aren’t less ambitious than men, but their own research often takes a backseat to organising departmental community-oriented projects and research-centred events; in short, the crucial activity that helps the university to be outward facing. In a sense, women’s professional work is another facet of the labour they are required to do in the home: nurturing and administering to the needs of others. Since I started my PhD, I have heard senior academics wistfully recalling the years spent in doctoral study as the only time in their career when they could focus entirely on their research with no distractions. Most of them don’t realise that the neoliberal university has hit doctoral students just as hard.
Many women find it hard to refuse requests for additional work. How do you say ‘no’ to your supervisor? Or the person who is writing your reference for a funding application? Or the senior academic who has implied you could be in line for a post-doc position on a research project whilst also asking you to do unpaid admin for said project with no guarantee of a job? We are told it’s good for our cv, or an essential part of doing research which we all *love* [They say it is love. We say it is underfunded work], or a necessary stepping-stone to an academic job. But what about the men who aren’t shouldering these additional professional and personal responsibilities but are still being offered post-docs, research fellowships, or tenure track positions? When will we begin to admit that this isn’t an essential developmental pathway into academia, but a discriminatory practice based on pre-conceived, socially conditioned gender roles?
Yes, we need to empower women to delegate some of these responsibilities, particularly ones that are unpaid and do not directly further their career. But in order for this to work, men need to ensure they are supporting women by taking some of the weight of administration. Men, want to know how you can help? Write something for your department blog. Volunteer to help organise a conference. Ensure your female colleagues are being properly recognised and supported in their work. Say ‘yes’ when you are asked to assist with administrative work that seems subsidiary to your personal research or job description. And while you’re at it, take responsibility for your share of the reproductive labour at home too. Only through addressing both the domestic and professional struggles that women face can we begin to relieve the burden of the mental load.