Being a parent and an academic: early thoughts.

We are a week into our interviews with academic parents working in Scottish universities. As with all research, I am grateful to those who are willing, not only to take the time to talk to us, but also to share their experiences with such openness. Just to recap, our study aims to understand how academics in Scotland navigate their lives as parents alongside their careers. There is considerable evidence that women are disadvantaged within the academic sector, with both vertical and horizontal segregation. As with other similar occupational groups, there is a persistent gender pay gap, with UCU recently calling for equality audits. Recently the Guardian’s series ‘Academics Anonymous’ published a piece on the perceived incompatibility of motherhood with ‘serious research’. Specifically the author, a recent PhD Grad, argues that mothers, due to time constraints and the flexibility of academic work, are able to produce high quality research. While we are not yet in a position to analyse our data, our early interview data suggests women in lecturing posts articulate a more bleak picture. The women we have spoken to so far describe their working lives in terms of keeping up with work, with little scope to do more than this. In part this is due to the structural aspects of university life including:

  • teaching – not simply the hours spent in the lecture hall, but also the administration associated with marking, updating materials (including virtual learning environments), and meetings with students.
  • Administrative roles – we see examples of part time workers (women) undertaking significant administrative tasks which do not take into account part time working.
  • Scheduling of research events, usually at the end of the working day or in the evening.

The timing of research seminars is tricky. They need to be at a time where a good turnout can be guaranteed and when a suitable room will be available. However, seminars at 4pm or evening inaugurals are not timely for those with responsibility for childcare, including, collection from nursery or school. In addition, conference attendance is difficult for those with primary child-care responsibilities. The importance of social networks for academic careers is well known (Brink and Benschop, 2014), and being unable to attend seminars and conferences limits opportunities to develop these resources. However, our early data suggests there may be a further impact – on academics’ confidence in their own research abilities. As a PhD supervisor I advise my students to attend all the seminars they can. It’s how we learn to play part of the game – namely how to talk about our work. How to articulate our ideas in ways which are appropriate to our disciplinary norms. This need does not disappear once the VIVA is over. For those academics who have been away from research, either due to extended leave or perhaps job roles which are teaching/admin focussed, confidence in designing and conducting research may be dented. WIthin in our study this appears to affect women to a greater extent, due to societal structures – namely the gendered household division of labour. This is not to say that for fathers there are not effects on career or day-to-day working life, but that the effects are different. The men we have interviewed so far have been able to dedicate time to their careers, including research, while their (female) partners have worked part-time.

Our recent interviews suggest that the flexibility of academic life is essential for at least keeping up with workloads, if not for undertaking the additional work perceived as necessary for advancement. However, there are then associated impacts on working hours – including working evenings and weekend. If workloads cannot be completed within the working week, then perhaps questions need to be asked about the allocation of work, particularly with increasing pressures?


Brink, M., & Benschop, Y. (2014). Gender in Academic Networking: The Role of Gatekeepers in Professorial Recruitment. Journal of Management Studies, 51(3), 460-492.

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