Around the world, women have been hard-hit by the pandemic – taking on a disproportionate amount of childcare during school closures, with many leaving the workforce entirely to home-school and perform other vital care duties. The situation in academia is particularly dire. Already at the start of the pandemic, alarm bells were ringing that women’s research productivity was plummeting, while that of men was actually rising. The utter fiasco of the NWO’s short-lived April 2020 coronavirus research grant is a symptom of a wider problem with the way academic careers have been made and broken during these catastrophic times. For those who missed the story: in March 2020, the NWO opened up a call for proposals for research on the societal impacts of coronavirus, with a closing date set for September. Days later, the call for proposals was abruptly closed, having ‘reached full capacity’. Who do you think had time to write a decent research proposal in the time span of a few days, during a historic disruption of normality? Look at the list of the researchers to whom the grants were awarded at EUR and you’ll get a picture.

Structural inequality

vrouwelijke erasmus

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More women professors at EUR, but growth is stagnating elsewhere

Bijna een kwart (24 procent) van de hoogleraren werkzaam op Nederlandse universiteiten is…

This crisis comes atop already glaring structural inequalities in academia. Despite promising progress, driven by strong Diversity & Inclusion policies designed by women, for women, the fact remains that while half of PhDs in the Netherlands are women, only a small number of women ever make it all the way up the academic ladder. The pandemic has merely exposed in plain sight what is structurally built into the system: women are the fuse box of the New Public Management University. When the system overheats, women are the first to blow.

I see two reasons for this: firstly, women, particularly mothers, are more likely to be on part-time, temporary contracts in the Netherlands. When push comes to shove, temporary and part-time workers cannot fight for their position and their rights to the same extent as tenured, full-time, permanent employees.

Secondly, women are more likely to be in positions with a higher ‘emotional labour’ investment and a higher teaching load. In Corona times, they have played a vital role in negotiating the disjointed spaces between normality and emergency remote teaching, taking time to comfort distressed students and make sure colleagues are okay, often at the expense of their own research.

Women in the neoliberal university

I would argue that these are not ‘flaws’ or ‘glitches’ in the system – the neoliberal university needs a fuse box – it cannot operate without it. Just as women have been the fuse box of capitalism for decades, taking up the men’s place in the factories during war time and being forced back into their homes en masse when no longer needed, women also play a vital role in ‘stabilising’ the neoliberal university. In an expansion phase, when money is flowing, universities can bring on board large numbers of part-time, temporary female workers to take up the teaching load. When a crisis hits, it’s easy to send all of these women packing. For those that stay, the added emotional labour charge is also part of the package – someone has to put in that work, otherwise the university would lose its customer base. Ditching women’s research when push comes to shove is also par for the course.

A lot of women’s research is done in the ‘Death Valley’ years between PhD and assistant professorship. Although good progress is being made in moving women from assistant professorships into the higher echelons of the tenure track, many women never make it to assistant professor. Instead, they collect post-doc after post-doc, with a research voucher here, a small grant there – and end up with a shorter, sparser publication record than men. This has nothing to do with particular universities’ policies, and everything to do with research funding structures and incentives. Women in the ‘Death Valley’ are constantly questioning whether they should grit their teeth for another year or two hoping for the elusive tenure track opening, or give up while they still have time to change careers. With the pandemic and school closures, many more women will head for the exit door.

Good news

There is also good news: more diverse and ambitious Diversity & Inclusion teams are working hard to find solutions, and university boards are listening to them. They will have their work cut out for them in the coming twelve months. The focus will need to be on putting women’s careers back on track after the pandemic: teaching exemptions, research funds earmarked for female researchers, teaching assistants to free up research time; there are many creative ways to go about this, and with strong action, women will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In the longer run though, the entire research-focused career path-dependency needs to be rethought, and it’s not fair to expect our Diversity & Inclusion offices to do all of the heavy lifting here. Structural issues demand structural interventions. At the institutional level, a clear pathway out of the ‘Death Valley’ must be sketched for women, but in broader terms, our leaders must rethink the neoliberal ‘flexwork’ university management model – if flexwork means use ‘em when you need ‘em, ditch ’em when you don’t, then it’s never going to work for women, and I can’t imagine that this really helps to provide quality education to our students. Perhaps we need a European Convention for women’s academic careers. After all, it was the European framework that brought us the neoliberal university, so perhaps we could start there in order to dismantle it. It sounds like a tall order, but if there was ever a time for a reset of women’s position in academia, it’s now, as we emerge from Covid-19.

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