Who does the ‘housework of the university’ during a pandemic? The impact of Covid-19 on precarious women working in universities

Several academic publishers in both the UK and US have revealed that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of articles submitted by women has tanked. Recent research indicates that while in lockdown, women in heterosexual relationships continue to provide the bulk of housework and childcare. However, it is not only at home that women do most of the housework; as Ann Oakley argued in 1995, they do it in the university as well. 

There already exists significant gender disparities within universities and most notably with regard to the valuing of work, career progression, pay and working conditions. Cleaners and caterers are typically paid minimum wage and work with few benefits. By contrast, senior managers – mostly men – are paid six-figure salaries. Teaching and the accompanying administrative and pastoral work is considered less prestigious and beneficial to career advancement than research and publishing. Frontline engagement  with students is the housework of the academy and it usually falls at the feet of women, women who are junior, women of colour and especially women who are precariously employed.  

The deeply gendered nature of this work is further exposed when we look to the academic ranks of the casually employed. In the UK, for example, women hold only 39 percent of full-time teaching and research positions but 67 percent of part-time research-only positions.

While part-time teaching is sometimes contracted on a sessional basis (similar to the US adjunct model), in Ireland and the UK there is a marked overreliance on hourly paid work (where workers are not paid per course but typically only per classroom hour) – a form of work that comes without any rights, protection, and is extremely poorly remunerated, with workers in our study often earning less than 10.000 euro (USD 11.000) per year. Official figures typically exclude many hourly paid workers, student workers and those employed through agencies and ‘partner’ corporations.

Our research in Ireland indicates that women experience precarity more acutely than male counterparts and for longer. They are trapped in the most exploitative forms of precarious work – work that earns less than the minimum wage comes with no job security, sick leave, or other entitlements.

Precarious Bloc at Dublin MayDay march, 2015 Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The gendered impact of Covid-19 

As universities tighten budgets, they target the most vulnerable category of workers: the disposable, precarious workers on short-term contracts who can be dismissed without resource-consuming formal processes. Being over-represented in this category, women are heavily impacted. In the UK, many universities chose to dismiss rather than furlough teaching staff. As campuses in both countries were emptied of student populations, catering and cleaning staff – overwhelmingly women on precarious contracts – were made redundant. Furthermore, many hourly-paid workers were fearful of contracting Covid-19 with no sick leave or entitlement to pay should they be unable to cover designated hours.  

Secondly, ongoing gender equality campaigns have come to an abrupt halt. While gender inequality and casualisation were two of the ‘four fights’ UK higher education staff recently striked over, unions are now prioritising workers’ health and safety, fighting redundancies and spiralling workload inflation.  

Thirdly, due to imbalances in workloads and expectations, women – and often those on precarious contracts – have had to shoulder the bulk of the additional work of switching to online teaching. Creating online lectures is extremely labour intensive, yet hourly paid workers are not usually compensated for preparation. Pastoral care work has also increased significantly as those who interface with students must now support increasingly distressed students anxious about the completion of coursework in the middle of a pandemic. When this work falls to hourly paid staff it is often done without remuneration and at a personal expense as institutions do not pay for internet and phone charges, computer or office equipment.  

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Protest action against casualisation Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The future  

As was the case in the last recession, women may also be disproportionately affected by austerity measures that even the wealthiest universities are likely to implement, such as redundancies, pay reductions, increased workloads and further casualisation.  

In the highly marketized and competitive context of higher education, it is likely that universities decide to offer face-to-face teaching to attract students while maintaining existing levels of fees and profitable campus accommodation occupancy rates. There are indications that come September, academics will be instructed to offer ‘blended learning’, a mix of online and small group face-to-face provision; with increased individual student support to make up for the diminished campus experience. This will increase workloads considerably – likely more than a full move to online teaching. Some institutions have curtailed unfunded research to increase teaching workloads, leaving only those winning large research grants time to conduct research and publish. Given the existing imbalance in the distribution of teaching, and systematic biases against women as well as against Black academics in the allocation of research grants, this will again disproportionately affect women, and Black women even more so. 

Questions also remain as to who will be assigned the administrative coordination and health and safety work necessary for a return to campus. Will this fall to the disproportionately female administrative staff? When campuses reopen will cleaners and caterers be brought back to do more risky work under the same exploitative conditions?  

Covid-19 brings into sharp focus existing injustices that shape the lives of women and especially women of colour, women who are trans, migrants, working-class or from other marginalised communities. The Covid-19 fallout reveals the fragility of the gains for gender equality in the university. It also shows the extensive damage done by decades of casualisation. Yet, in these bleak times there is still hope. Precarious academics are organising in many institutions in the UK and Ireland as the issue is more visible now than ever before.

Going forward, any conversations about gender inequality in the university must centre the most marginalised of women if we hope to affect real change. If we wish to de-gender the housework of the university, we must prioritise fighting for better working conditions for all, not just those in secure academic posts, and resist attempts to further casualise and outsource work in any corner of the university. 

Dr. Theresa O’Keefe is a Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at University College Cork in Ireland. Theresa writes on precarity, feminism in conflict zones, the gendered violence of the state and has published in a range of feminist journals including Feminist Review, International Feminist Journal of Politics and Women’s Studies International Forum. You can follow Theresa on twitter @theresa_okeefe.

Dr. Aline Courtois is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath. Aline writes on precarity, higher education and elite schools and has published in the Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, The British Journal of Educational Studies and other sociology of education journals. You can follow Aline on Twitter at @Aline_Courtois.

As long-term precarious workers, they founded Third Level Workplace Watch in 2013, a collective of precarious academics who came together to resist casualisation in Irish higher education institutions. Their joint publications on academic precarity can be read here (open access) and here (paywalled). 

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