The New Norm/al: The Care-Giving Academic

Dibattito Analisi (dis)uguaglianza

Prof. Dr. Carolin Schurr, Heike Mayer, Andrea Winiger maggio 2020

By now, we are well aware of the gendered effects (see for example the last post «The corona crisis from a gender perspective: Opening up a debate») of the current global health crisis caused by COVID-19. A survey in the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern has revealed the crisis’ uneven care responsibilities. While acknowledging these unequal effects, this entry calls for considering the current crisis as an opportunity to constituting a new academic norm/ality: The care-giving academic. Rather than the typically white*male academic without or outsourced care duties, the care-giving academic should be considered as the new norm when it comes to regulating working hours (maximum 32h), flexibility (working from home) and evaluating academic performance (better science).

A never ending – and never to win – marathon: The motherhood penalty in academia

Even before Western countries were hit by COVID-19, employment opportunities at institutions of higher education were shaped by gendered inequalities. These inequalities can not only be understood by looking at gender inequalities but rather need to be attended through an intersectional analysis as class, race, nationality, sexuality and other categories of difference shape one’s access to higher education and academic careers (see for example Katrin Meyers' contribution to this blog). Given, however, that Switzerland only slowly starts to recognize the importance of intersectionalising its diversity politics in academia and for the sake of lack of data, this entry focuses on gender inequalities while being well aware of how much is missed out if we do not consider other systems of oppression.
So, what can be said about the gendered inequalities in Swiss academia for now? Years of gender mainstreaming, mentoring programs, women-only career promotion programs and the hard work of gender equality offices at Swiss universities still have not managed to equalize the inequalities between women and men when it comes to access to the scarce positions of professorships. While women make up 51% of university students and 44% of doctoral students, only 23% of professors are female across Swiss universities. “The leaky pipeline”, “the glass ceiling”, “the double career problem”, and the “motherhood penalty” are all attempts to explain the drop of women along the academic career ladder. Despite years of feminist struggles for gender equality in institutions of (higher) education and the inroads women have made into all fields of research, women still have to work harder and perform better to gain tenured positions than men, women have lower scores in students’ teaching evaluations, and are promoted later than their male colleagues with a similar academic track record. Much research has looked into the reasons for the continuing inequalities, seeking explanations in women’s life cycle, societal gender roles and a masculine academic culture.
While the number of female professors at Swiss universities increases slowly thanks to all kind of gender equality politics and measures, it is the women themselves that shoulder the burdens of this rocky road to success: female academics disproportionally face mental health problems due to the multiple burden resulting from their attempt to juggle academic and care work both at home and at their institutions.

Exacerbating gender inequalities: The effects of COVID-19 on employees of the Institute of Geography in Bern

A couple of weeks into the COVID-19 health crisis, first evidence appeared with regard to the unequal effects this crisis has on academics who are now left alone to care and homeschool their children 24/7 with schools and child care institutions closed. Alessandra Minello, a social demographer at the University of Florence, wrote in Nature: “Academic work — in which career advancement is based on the number and quality of a person’s scientific publications, and their ability to obtain funding for research projects — is basically incompatible with tending to children. I expect that data on publication records over the next couple of years will show that parents in academia were disadvantaged relative to non-parents in 2020”. And a few days later, Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, wrote on Twitter: “Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month. Never seen anything like it”. Given the ongoing unbalanced distribution of care work which has exacerbated with the increased demands of care work during the quarantine, these insights do not come as a surprise. A recent study by economists from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zürich carried out between April 9 and 14 indicates that women – no matter whether and how much they work – spend at least an extra 1.5 hour on childcare and homeschooling every day compared to the average man in the same circumstances. The study found that the gender divide is even larger in high-income households (lecturers and professors). A mother who is working from home is typically doing 3.3 hours of home schooling and 3.8 hours of childcare each day – over seven hours in total. A typical father only spends 2.1 hours home schooling his children and 2.3 hours on childcare each working day – less than 4.5 hours in total.
When we closed the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern, following the health and safety measures of the Swiss Federal Council, the GIUB Equal Opportunity Commission thought about the effects of the closure of employees’ offices, schools and child care institutions on employees’ working conditions and academic performance. In consequence, it launched a survey with regard to how care responsibilities of GIUB employees have changed due to the current situation (see results of the survey here). The response was quite high, with 92 out of 160 employees responding to the online survey whereby 52% of the respondents identify as women. The study found that the GIUB employees who participated in the survey have a total of 58 children out of which 43 are under the age of 12. As graph 1 (see above) shows, nearly half of the respondents state that they do not face additional care responsibilities due to the current Corona situation. 28% have additional child care responsibilities, 12% care for particularly vulnerable persons and 5% care for themselves as they belong to a so-called risk group. In short, nearly half of the employees currently face additional care responsibilities. While three quarter of the parents at GIUB have a supporting partner with whom they share care responsibilities, 23% carry all care responsibilities alone. Many of those with care obligations shift working times to early morning, evening and weekends (9 respondents) and by doing so increase their risk for physical and psychological exhaustion and in the worst case burnout. They are obviously not able to work as much as usual (3 respondents), have longer and more working days (2 respondents), take holidays due to care responsibilities (1 respondent) or are not able to work at all (1 respondent). A significant share feels that they are less productive and effective as they are frequently interrupted and report a general emotional distress with regard to the current situation. Especially the early career scholars among the respondents already feel and fear the effects of their increased care burden among those in particular the delay and therefore negative impact of the crisis on their fieldwork (which is crucial for most geographers) (8 respondents), to have less time for own research and the preparation of grants/scholarship proposals (5 respondents), to face delay in their research outcomes (7 respondents) and difficult situation with regard to expiring scholarships and contracts (4 respondents), and to suffer from less publications than their peers without care duties (3 respondents) as well as to have to miss deadlines for grant applications (3 respondents).
On basis of the survey, the GIUB Equal Opportunity Commission articulated the following recommendations:

  • The directorate, professors and supervisors are aware of additional care work demands and shifts in working hours as well as the implications of the crisis for the health of GIUB academic, administrative and technical staff. This will be addressed in a timely manner and in the annual appraisal interviews;
  • GIUB does take COVID-19 into account in evaluations (applications, reviews, letter of support, letter of reference);
  • GIUB recommends to report COVID-19 as a career break on one’s CVs if additional care responsibilities were carried out;
  • GIUB supports student needs by signaling in their certificates the extraordinary situation of the COVID-19 semester.

In response to these recommendations, the directorate of GIUB (all tenured professors) has discussed the possibility to establish a pool for money to extend contracts for those in critical situations due to increased care responsibilities during COVID-19. Funds from the GIUB Equal Opportunity Commission can be used to hire student assistants who assist early career scholars to advance their research. Most importantly, the Equal Opportunity Commission has emphasized that the GIUB supports the Better Science Initiative. This initiative privileges quality and impact over quantity when assessing research performance. Following the spirit of this initiative, we consider the current situation of COVID-19 as a window of opportunity to reflect upon and rethink current academic practices and routines working towards a more sustainable, healthier and more equal academic system (online meetings, setting priorities, slowing down by reducing number of courses, meetings and events etc.) on the long run.

Towards a new norm/ality post-COVID-19: Changing the politics of academic time and work

Advocating for the initiative “Better Science: Academic Culture in the 21st Century”, this blogpost invites to rethink the politics of time at universities and research institutions. We argue that while the academic norm consists of a fulltime working person with no, little or outsourced care duties, those with care responsibilities will always be forced “to speed up” to “catch up” and “compensate” for the time they spend caring for their children, others and themselves. This situation is not only unfair and highly unbalanced as researchers from the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin point out but presents severe threats to employees’ and their children’s physical and psychological health. Rather than to establish yet another mentoring, support or extra funding program for women or those with care responsibilities, we should equalize the conditions on which we compete by establishing a new norm/al that implies 32 rather than 42 or even more working hours. As long as men – inside and outside academia – still work full time and women part time, gender equality will never be reached. Even less in Switzerland – the champion of female part-time work in Europe – where 60% of women but only 18% men work part-time being. We agree with sociologist Prof. Jutta Allmendinger that 32 hours should be the new norm for everybody, giving everybody more time for life outside the academy to socialize, exercise, enjoy, relax, care and participate in social, family, community and political life. Having a child should no longer be penalized neither in academia (see motherhood penalty) nor society (see increased risk of mothers for poverty) because our children will be your future students and our nations’ future citizens. Our children are not a private issue but “system relevant” to ensure the future of education and society. To even out the competitive ground of academia for parents and non-parents, for women and men alike, we need new academic politics of time that give everybody the signal that 30-32 hours a week is enough, that we can adjust our working time to our life (and not the other way around) by advocating home office solutions and reducing the number of meetings, events and travels. Here we are also in line with the arguments recently put forward by post-growth scholars such as Irmi Seidl and Angelika Zahrnt who call for a new conception of work in order to transition to a future in which we are less dependent on economic growth. Such a new politics of time and work would contribute to the Better Science initiative that places quality over quantity, it would contribute to a more sustainable academic work environment where care of others and oneself in and outside of the department is not a luxury but a fundamental part of our academic identity, and it would open up an academic future where people with child obligations do not have to ‘make up for it’ but are from the onset on equal foot with their peers. If Corona has shown us one thing, it is the relevance of care work for society. Academia could be a role model in showing society how to give care the time and space it deserves in our all everyday lives.

In the video below, Carolin Schurr, Professor for Social and Cultural Geography at the University of Bern and co-author of this blog talks about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for her personal and professional life (change language to english for english subtitles).

Date di pubblicazione:

27 maggio 2020


Prof. Dr. Carolin Schurr, Heike Mayer, Andrea Winiger