Soapbox: a crushing workload

December 8, 2000

Bureaucracy, home and child care are damaging women's career prospects, says Susan Bassnett.

It is official: I work 57.5 hours a week. After taking part in the government's transparency review, which involved filling in forms during three different weeks and dividing my time dutifully into little boxes, the final analysis tells me I work 57.5 hours.

Filling in the form was not easy. For a start, I did not really understand it. There were six different codes: TPF for public-funded teaching, RPF for research, which seemed unproblematic at first glance. But then there was TNPF, non-public-funded teaching and RNPF as well. I had to think twice about whether giving a paper at a conference could be classified as RNPF, since, if students were present, it could just as well be TNPF. Code S was for something termed support activities and O for other activities, which could include anything. I was puzzled that postgraduate supervision had to be listed as R and not T and, since all my teaching is postgraduate, this skewed the picture completely.

Most of my form was filled with the S code. This is because of the voluminous paperwork that pours across my desk every day. The boxes on my forms ticked at unsocial hours all relate to this kind of activity. Ticks in evening and lunch times refer to dinners with visiting academics and bureaucrats. Thankfully, during those three weeks I was not engaged in any overseas activities, which tend to run from breakfast meetings through to midnight. Would these have been R, S or O, I wonder?

The point of this exercise is not to allow us to bid for more pay, but to ascertain whether R is supporting T or the other way round. Since the categorising is flawed, I cannot see that the results will be anything other than what the government wants them to be. But the exercise was not entirely useless because it made me think harder about what I do in a week.

Like any working mother, my hours at work represent only a percentage of the time I spend working. For a complete picture, I filled in a second set of forms for my own personal use, detailing what else I do in a week. I categorised these activities as H (home), F (family) and P (pet care).

I ran up a staggering nine hours a week on P. This includes walking the dog, feeding a variety of creatures, mucking out guinea pigs and hunting for hamsters that had escaped behind a wardrobe. I then appear to have spent 28.5 hours on H, including 14 hours on general housework - astonishing, since I have help with the cleaning. Eighteen hours were spent on F, including an hour a day assisting with the homework, mending garments, finding lost socks, listening to accounts of what happened at school and shouting about excessive use of the mobile phone.

P, H and F came to 55.5 hours, which, added to my university time, makes a total figure of 113 hours. Allowing that I usually sleep seven hours a night, I end up with six hours a week that is not spent either unconscious or engaged in some form of work.

While the government is trying to get us to sort out our weeks into predetermined boxes, there are also moves afoot to find out why more women are not in senior positions in universities. The reasons are various, but the figures above are one factor. Despite talk of equality, I bet few men put in the hours many women do.

Perhaps the nub of the problem is not the old story that working mothers juggle two careers. What I really learnt from this exercise is not only that I need to delegate more pet care to children and sleep less; it is that I spend a ludicrous amount of time on S work, far more than the 50 per cent I am supposed to devote to the task of being pro vice-chancellor. The transparency review shows it will get more difficult to attract women to these positions because they are juggling both increasing paperwork and F, H and P.

I am against universities being "professionally" managed. I believe a research culture depends on having people at the top who have direct experience of research, but we have surely come to the end of the amateur management cycle of universities in this country. We need a system that combines professional and elected managers in an extended team where everyone is properly paid and trained and departments that lose senior research staff to management are compensated. Without such reforms, not only are we not going to see more women in senior management, we are going to see those of us who are VCs, PVCs and deans questioning whether we want to go on living like this. If we can find an unencumbered half an hour or so in which to think at all.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University

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