How men get away with dodging ‘academic housework’

Women expected to be ‘organisational team-players’ while male colleagues ‘allowed to pursue their individual career interests’

April 23, 2024
A woman vacuums a red carpet outside a posh building
Source: Olivier Laban-Mattei/Getty Images

Men are more likely to evade academic service tasks, such as organising seminars, supervising PhDs or participating in committees, while women feel obliged to take them on, a new study has found.

Margaretha Järvinen, of the University of Copenhagen, and Nanna Mik-Meyer, of Copenhagen Business School, surveyed 163 associate and full professors from the social science departments of three Danish universities, and found that female respondents completed more service work: of the full professors, 61 per cent of women were “high performers” compared with 27 per cent of men, while for associate professors, those figures stood at 37 per cent versus 11 per cent.

While previous studies have established this imbalance, Professor Järvinen said, “our aim was to investigate how these differences come about”. Writing in Current Sociology, the authors identify four forms of “relational work” to characterise how academics accept or decline service tasks: compliance, evasiveness, barter and investment.

The women they surveyed were more likely to demonstrate compliance, defined as “doing service work without reward”; this response was particularly common among female associate professors, described by two-thirds of this group in comparison with only a fifth of male associate professors. Among full professors, half of women exhibited compliance, compared with just under a quarter of men. Female respondents, the authors write, frequently expressed concern that “resistance – or even hesitation – when it comes to accepting service tasks would be a sign of incapacity or disloyalty”.

Campus resource collection: Gender equality in higher education: how to overcome key challenges

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to exhibit evasiveness, or “doing as little service work as possible”, and barter, defined as “exchanging service work with reward”. Male respondents more frequently described actively avoiding service work that did not relate to their own career goals – and doing so successfully. In comparison, multiple female respondents, the authors write, described situations in which they had tried to say no to service tasks “without this being accepted or respected by management”.

“A woman’s no is not respected to the same extent as a man’s and this seems to be related to institutionalised expectations tied to women and men,” Professor Järvinen said. “Women are to a higher degree expected to be organisational team-players while men to a higher degree are allowed to pursue their individual career interests.”

While both the women and men surveyed demonstrated the fourth type of relational work, investment – or “doing service work in the hope of a future reward” – their approaches differed. Women typically “invested” in service work, such as journal editorship or conference organisation, in the expectation of “rewards sometime in the future”, while men did so to “gain more immediate rewards”.

Men in academia, the authors write, are more likely to “feel they are entitled to select service functions” that are “enriching and rewarding”, and to turn down “time-consuming service that ‘leads nowhere’”.

While all the universities involved in the study mentioned academic service as an important factor in hiring or promotion considerations, Professor Järvinen said, these decisions were still mostly centred on research achievements.

“This discrepancy between official standards and actual assessments need to be solved,” she said. “Universities need to take the devaluation of service work seriously, not least because it is so clearly related to gender differences and obviously one of the reasons for women’s slower career progress compared to men’s.”

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Reader's comments (6)

This has not been my experience. A very limited questionnaire based study of social science departments in three Danish Universities with no indication of how many men and women responded and what roles they had is not sufficient to make a definitive statement that disparages men. It should be noted that the researchers were both women- was this potential of underlying bias addressed?
It took ten seconds to click through to the article and pull out "The participants are 96 associate professors (55 men, 41 women) and 67 full professors (41 men, 26 women)." Your experiences as an individual certainly don't count as a statistically significant counterpoint. Flagging them up in this manner does, however, happen with a high enough frequency that it's a regular square on many a sexism bingo card, as does questioning the competency of female experts.
The bias not the competency was questioned. I have worked in a number of Institutions and disciplines and have never observed what this article describes. This is not coming from my individual experiences but from years of observation. Incidentally I am a female; your subtle accusation of sexism is unfounded.
The bias not the competency was questioned. I have worked in a number of Institutions and disciplines and have never observed what this article describes. This is not coming from my individual experiences but from years of observation. Incidentally I am a female; your subtle accusation of sexism is unfounded.
This article does raise a pertinent issue. If we use an intersectionality lens, you will find those women who are disproportionately affected by the service work without reward and are complaint. The issue is managing the workload allocation so that service work with reward applies to all. In our university, there is a lot of work going into this, and we wait to how fairly tasks will be spread out for the next academic year.
If the research findings are valid for the institutions studied, and are broadly applicable to others, the situation for female academics is much different from what I observed a few years ago in my former university. An affirmative action program (known as the magic carpet ride) for the promotion of often under-qualified women was in full swing. Where women did not have a strong research and publication record, they were placed on numerous committees where they could be seen, allocated departmental administrative roles such as 'associate head', and had their teaching load reduced so they could cope with the 'service work' that would fast-track them to senior positions. That is, service work might not be valued now as a criterion for promotion but it certainly used to be.