Squeezing Us ‘Till It Hurts: Motherhood, Discrimination, and Universities

by Deborah Talbottime-488112_1280

The Final Report of the Equalities Review, published by Equalities Commission in 2007, reviewed a range of persistent inequalities including those that affect women. It argued that, ‘…new research reveals clearly that there is one factor that above all leads to women’s inequality in the labour market – becoming mothers’.

Employment discrimination is also an austerity problem, reported the Fawcett Society more recently, with women being more likely than men to be made redundant and targeted when pregnant. The processes in which being a working mother are viewed as a burden by employers were outlined well by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian, shortly after the Equalities Review report was published. They include being on call in case of sickness or problems at the nursery, finding it difficult to work late or do essential networking, and finding travel more difficult.

While employers expect things to change as children get older, the reverse is true. Once children hit school age, the responsibilities of parenthood escalate, as does the difficulties of finding childcare that fits around school times and holidays. A TUC Report called Age Immaterial found that women were more, not less, likely to go part-time, once their children went to school.

The difficulties of sustaining work alongside motherhood is a problem across the class divide, and each has its unique set of tensions. In this article, however, I’m going to focus on the professions, and in particular – largely because I used to be one – the problem of combining motherhood with being an academic.

Until recently, there has been very little written about what happens when women try and, y’know, ‘engage with life’ by having children when they are academics. There has been a smattering of blog posts, more so in the US than the UK. For example, one quite funny blog in the Guardian by an academic at UCL revealed that you need a supportive ‘work at home’ partner, a cleaner, and nearby grandparents, to manage an academic career. She didn’t work on weekends, meaning that her journal and grant production might have been affected (she doesn’t say). Another blog from the US pointed to the ‘vita gap’ that affects tenure progression. The ‘vita gap’ is what happens to your research production when you take a year off to raise your child and over the long-term, produce slower research results and publications. Mothers are often found in much lower status academic work, while academic men who have children and stay at home partners were more likely to find themselves on the tenure track.

However, two relatively recent articles (and I’m sure there are more) have added to the debate in quite important ways. One article in the Times Higher reported on research from Kings College, which explored the problems mid-career women experience with recognition and advancement. Female academics with children said that juggling the demands of childcare with writing academic papers – the only activity that led to prestige and promotion – was particularly acute:

“That particularly affects mothers with young children…because this is one area where you need to sit down and be able to think,” said one academic quoted in the report, who added, “when you’re very exhausted, you do the easy tasks”.

Another article is by Professor of Sociology Angela McRobbie, who comments eloquently on the clash between the demands of children and the contrary demands of the unsullied intellectual life in which a 70-80 hour week is the norm. As she notes of the rigours and hours of academic life:

“As an academic I could hardly disagree, this is indeed what is required to do the job properly, as a feminist I thought that this working day surely relied on high levels of unseen support to shop, cook, and attend to the various aspects of domestic administration so that bills are paid, food is bought, clothes are collected from the dry cleaners, parents nights are attended and so on…it may seem banal but the ideal career track in the academy especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life.”

It seems that issues of gender inequality, and work/life balance, have been creeping up on the sector. All while they are busy being awarded ‘kite marks’ for success in achieving gender and other forms of equity.

As McRobbie rightly points out, the sector has not adjusted or thought about issues of gender and work-life balance in the wake of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its new iteration, the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It is unlikely to do so in response to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The RAE/REF have conspired to propel academics to publish in journals or be damned. They “pathologise failure,” says McRobbie. Academics who do not keep up on the research publication and grant scorecard, for whatever reason, are being actively discriminated against and sidelined. They find it more difficult to move institutions and remain locked into their current job, while being undervalued and under threat. I was very amused to see that during the last REF, maternity leave meant that you could submit one less publication than the four expected. Now for those existing outside the peculiar world of academia, that might seem reasonable – one less publication for the nine months to a year spent away. Until you factor in the REF’s criteria of impact and citations, and the level of networking, research grants, and publishing frenzy you need to achieve the requisite impact and citation score. You just can’t get off the train.

We can add into this mix recent research on the US creative sector by Devon Proudfoot, Aaron Kay, and Christy Koval from the Fuqua School of Business, which found that there was a gender bias in how people perceive creativity. Not surprisingly, in various studies, the researchers identified that women were being assessed as less original, creative and innovative, except in the field of fashion. They conclude that this bias might explain why women were less likely to occupy professions in the upper echelons of the creative sector, science, architecture and mathematics, to name a few. They conclude:

“Our findings complement research examining reasons why women may not want to enter these fields, suggesting that biases about the cognitive processes women adopt can pile up on other impediments.”

This bias will be no surprise to academic women.

The university sector is dominated by pernicious administration and management, seeking to impose management systems long since rejected by the most progressive elements of the private sector. Add to this a government, which insists that universities should not be a burden on the ‘public purse’, and you have a recipe for academics in general, and academic mothers, in particular, to be squeezed until it hurts.

McRobbie argues that moving to a new university, with less pressure to do research, was her solution. That solution may not exist now. However, she does point to the need to resist both the claims of the REF and contemporary notions of work:

“Often I have thought surely it should be enough to spend a morning teaching, an afternoon doing supervisions and some marking of essays and then go home and switch off and enjoy the children or indeed grandchildren, and help with home-work rather than feeling the need to return late night to the computer and to the completion of yet another peer–reviewed journal article.”

This writer can’t disagree with that portrayal, though I’m not sure the majority of academics would buy it, as the culture of the REF is too engrained. It’s as though everyone is suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome and is just lovin’ their chains. There’s moaning, for sure, but moaning is not the same as resistance. The reality is of course that the REF works well for many, allowing them to beat back competition for promotion.

Until the system of assessed and competitive research activity is abolished, there will never be an appropriate balance between teaching and scholarship, work/life balance. Those with family responsibilities will be disproportionately affected.

The problems don’t begin and end with research and teaching assessment. There are other issues to consider.

Universities have been very bad at offering permanent part-time contracts or assessing appropriate career paths for those who are part-time. The lack of permanent part-time options matters, not just to parents, but also to carers and those who want to combine academia with other intellectual and creative pursuits. Too often, institutions, like universities, see flexible working as a burden, rather than an opportunity to build a diverse workforce with a range of skills and social connections.

Universities have also been slow to encourage and professionalise new forms of intellectual representation, including the digital, which ironically can help women network when they can’t be there in person (ever wonder why digital start-ups are so intertwined with employment for mums?). Finally, universities must simply get past the myth that they are good at managing discrimination. Kite marks look great on the marketing materials, but the reality is that they are just a slick layer of corporate advertising hiding a wealth of problems and discriminatory processes.

Universities should be places of intellectual and social innovation, at the forefront of tackling workplace discrimination. Sadly, they are trailing behind the hipster private sector, which has experimented with alternative systems of networking, female networks and collaborations, and flexible working.

Time for an employment revolution, ye scholars.

Deborah Talbot is a freelance qualitative research and journalist, writing about society, culture and all things urban. She has recently set up a new blog Interurban Lines.



Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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