Why I... think women are being exploited by the university system

October 8, 2004

It is no surprise that recent research by the Association of University Teachers has found that women trying to establish a career as academics are more likely than men to find themselves used as casualised labour or stuck in junior types of employment, as casual teaching assistants, research assistants or on the lower grades of the lecturers' pay scale.

Many university departments are stuck in the 1970s, with the structures and assumptions described so wittily by Malcolm Bradbury in his novel The History Man remaining in place. PhD students joining such departments are told they are entering a community in which like-minded souls will be offered opportunities to develop their skills as academics in a supportive environment. After the welcome, however, many departments resort to their female-unfriendly practices and then wonder why their PhD completion rates suffer as a consequence.

Take teaching experience, a pre-requisite for permanent employment. Many departments do not run a system that is anything like equitable in the way that available teaching is shared out among PhD students. Instead, a structure of patronage and placements operates. Those whose faces fit get most teaching, and in departments still mentally working in the 1970s it is often the faces of male students that fit the parameters for acquiring teaching experience. Yet claims of a departmental bias against women would be met with cries of disbelief and explanations of a shortage of teaching for everyone.

The process of staff development further marginalises female postgraduates and junior members of staff, especially where it is delivered by means of early-evening seminars. Anyone with childcare knows that attending a seminar running between 4pm and 6pm - and, indeed, probably continuing in the bar after 6pm - is impossible. Nurseries close promptly, and even if evening care were available it would be nice to be able to see the children while they are awake as well as trying to develop a career. The problem is that not attending such events is seen as tantamount to not being committed to developing a career.

Another strand of the institutional gender discrimination found in some departments is illustrated by this example. One department advertised vacancies for junior lecturers and received more than 300 applicants, many known to be from able women. Only two women were interviewed and three men were appointed.

I also know of women applying for posts who have been asked to explain their child-care arrangements. This is a practice long since outlawed and almost unheard of in the commercial and industrial sectors, where women are making considerably more progress in breaking through glass ceilings. As the number of students in higher education rises, it would seem fair to assume that there will be an increasing need for well-qualified academics who reflect the student intake - that is, a slight majority of women and many more people from ethnic minorities.

What is increasingly happening, however, is that departments are taking up the slack by employing well-qualified people desperate to get a foot on the ladder of an academic career on semester-length contracts. Spending several years hanging round departments with no job security seems to be considered a way of measuring commitment to academia rather than being seen as exploitation.

This casualised labour force is often made up of women who have a partner prepared to support them financially while they try to develop an academic career. The tragedy is that while departments with a "History Man" mindset exist, most of these women will not even get a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, never mind bumping their heads on the ceiling.

Carolyn Downs
PhD student
St Martin's College
Lancaster University

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