I am eight months pregnant.
Around the time other pregnant people start slowing down at work, I panic trying to finish as many papers as possible, because a résumé gap will make me less employable in the future. While my pregnant friends choose the best crib, I’m buying baby furniture that is easy to move, because I have been working in two continents and three countries since 2016. As expecting couples paint the baby room’s walls, I choose removable stickers to decorate my rented apartment, because no bank would give me a mortgage to buy a house with my work contract. When other parents-to-be attract Instagram likes with pictures of cute baby bumps, I shared on Twitter my pregnant belly to denounce the issue of casualisation in academia, following a campaign started by the Dutch collectives Casual Academy, 0.7, and WOinActie.
I will be back from parental leave and my contract as a lecturer in Media and communication for ESHCC will likely not be renewed, even if I have good students’ and supervisors’ evaluations, an excellent publication record, and I perform work – such as BA and MA thesis supervision – that is desperately needed by my department.
As this is a widespread issue in Dutch academia, many of my brilliant colleagues are also hired as temporary lecturers, often exploited through part-time contracts that require full-time efforts. Departments keep people in temporary positions by misleadingly invoking the Dutch Collective Labour Agreement, which nonetheless states that people performing structural academic work should be offered a permanent contract. This casualisation has a huge impact on lecturers’ lives, something I feel even more now than I am pregnant, for three main reasons.
First, as lecturers we are often infantilised, as if we were twenty-somethings living with roommates. Aside from the fact that everybody deserves a good working contract despite age and family condition, many lecturers are already in their thirties and forties. Several academics, me included, have what doctors call ‘geriatric’ pregnancies, while at the same time being called ‘early-career’ or ‘junior lecturers’ at work. This does not only impact pregnant people, but has a detrimental effect on life decisions such as getting married, settling somewhere, or buying a house.
Second, as a woman in higher education I know I have it harder than men. Last year Erasmus University celebrated the fact that a quarter of full professors are women, nonetheless a very low percentage compared to other European universities.
While there are many reasons for this gender gap, taking maternity leave and parenting (tasks not exclusive to, but mostly performed by women) often means being excluded from projects and publications, because of the culture of overworking and competition in academia. This affects working-class, non-white, and non-cishet women the most, and is exacerbated by the lack of maternity leave policies from agencies and employers worldwide.
Third, being the relatively new temporary lecturer, I often feel I need to prove myself ‘strong’ and I do not have space for my personal and professional struggles. This is not only limited to pregnancy, but includes people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, personal struggles: in the last two years, I almost did not dare to ask for time off to mourn the loss of my grandmother, uncle, and father. Especially during lockdowns, temporary lecturers often feel unsupported and unseen within their working environments, with deans and senior colleagues barely knowing their names and faces.
This is even more frustrating when thinking that universities would benefit from supporting the academic growth of talented researchers and educators. People in temporary contracts, including myself, are often prevented from applying to funding schemes (e.g., Vidi grants) for ‘fear’ they would win grants and bring to departments, together with money and prestige, also the obligation to hire them.
Teachers are told that they are perfectly replaceable, even though with every lecturer leaving university there’s the loss of unique expertise and set of skills. Not to mention the budget and time costs in terms of hiring, relocating, and training new lecturers, lack of continuity in students’ education, permanent staff being burdened with administrative and coordination tasks temporary staff cannot perform. Casualisation is hurting temporary staff members, but it is also a systemic issue that is damaging universities.
I shared my story because it is not unique, but tragically common. But what can be done to improve the system? Permanent and temporary staff members and students can join a union and report cases of contract inflations, get engaged with Dutch collectives such as Casual Academy and support their actions, be vocal with Faculty and University Councils. This will create the conditions for the excellent university we all deserve.
This article is a summary of a post Giulia Evolvi published on her personal blog, discussing the experience of being a pregnant woman with a temporary contract in academia.