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Some Thoughts on Being a Female Academic

The fact that women are under-represented in the higher ranks of academia will come as no surprise to those working in universities. Recent statistics by the Department of Education and Training (2016) show that, in Australia, more than half of all positions at the lecturer level are held by females; however, this apparent gender equality begins to diminish at senior lecturer level (44.7 per cent) and above (31.7 per cent).

Why is this? Is it because women are less willing to take on leadership roles? Are women less dedicated to their research? Does intentional discrimination and bias shape employers’ decisions about promotion and employment?

I believe the under-representation of women is a direct outcome of the way academia works and the effect of this—especially—on women who chose to have a family.

First of all, part-time positions in research and teaching are hard to find. This is true at the postdoctoral level, but even more so for higher positions (i.e., above the lecturer level). This leaves many new mothers in a difficult position: they must either change careers or return to full-time work. Returning to full-time work is great if that’s what you want to do; however, from my experience, many mothers seek part-time employment—at least for the first few years with young children.

Thus, these women are forced to change careers in the short term to gain part-time employment. Sadly, by the time they are ready to return to full-time work, they feel as though they are completely out of touch with their field, and have insufficient recent academic experience to be competitive candidates for new positions.

Second, the pressures of working in a research and teaching position—especially positions above lecturer level—are such that many academics feel as though they are not pulling their weight unless they significantly exceed the work hours expected in a normal working week (i.e., 38–40 hours if you’re working full time).

Often, overtime hours are not immediately obvious. Much of this extra, unpaid work involves replying to emails every day (including weekends and holidays, sometimes until late in the evening), reading drafts after dinner and writing grant applications (sometimes until the early hours of the morning).

These extra commitments didn’t bother me much before I had children. Now, instead of spending my Saturday trying to finish a report or writing another grant application (which probably won’t be successful), I’d rather spend time with my oh-so-quickly growing children.

Yes, of course, I can work at night when my children are in bed. However, in reality, my brain and body are utterly exhausted from working two jobs (i.e., my paid academic job and my unpaid ‘mum’ job, wherein I fulfil the role of cleaner, chef, babysitter, educator, chauffeur, project manager, personal assistant and accountant). At the end of the day, all I really want to do is collapse on the couch! I’m certain that my best and most insightful work is not done after 8.30 pm!

Of course, this does not only apply to women; however, given that in many cases, the bulk of housework and child-related tasks are managed by the mother, overtime work hours are particularly challenging for working mums.

I once mentioned my real working hours to a clinical psychologist I was seeing, partly due to work-related stress. I tried to explain to her that my excessive work hours were completely normal in my field and that I couldn’t possibly handle my workload otherwise. Her reaction baffled me: ‘But that’s not reasonable’.

Have we really come to the point where we think it is ‘reasonable’ to sacrifice our relationships with our family and friends (not to mention our mental health!), just to be seen to be ‘pulling our weight’ in a field that expects complete dedication? (Consider also that academia does not offer the financial compensation offered by other demanding professions.)

I love my job and I am passionate about the research and teaching I do. However, I feel like I am slowly drowning in the unrelenting workload. I worry that I will never have the brain space or time to achieve my best; my list of ‘urgent’ tasks keeps growing by the minute! I desperately need my workload adjusted to be a more realistic reflection of the time I am actually paid to work.

As far as this blogger is concerned, I believe that if we truly want to encourage more females into the higher ranks of academia, we need to address the culture and work-life balance at our universities. Additionally, we need to provide more part-time employment opportunities, especially in research.

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