Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University

By Alena Sander

During the past four years of my PhD, I gave various presentations and speeches about the impossibility of reconciling motherhood and research, especially in times of Covid-19. I placed special emphasis on the inequalities that affect researchers who also either identify or are read as mothers*, and I contributed to discussions about gender policies at my university and elsewhere. I also wrote about the leaky pipeline for women in academia (Sander and Grauer, 2021). I thought I knew so much about how researcher-mothers* were pushed out of the academy that I would certainly not fall into the same trap.

Photo: Nenad Stojkovic via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

However, coming towards the end of my doctoral journey, my initial optimism about an academic career quickly faded as I began to look into the world of post-docs and further academic career options and realized: it is going to be harder than I thought.

One of the main reasons for this is that I identify and am read as a mother*.

I have two small children. But I am also married to the greatest partner and husband, who takes over at least half of the care work, so the problem is not an unequal share of physical or cognitive care work within our relationship or our family.

The problem is the neoliberal university.

Care work, motherhood, and the neoliberal university

An academic career at today’s neoliberal university relies greatly on the institution’s dominant capitalist market orientation that places emphasis on efficient knowledge production under relatively precarious working conditions (Narayanaswamy and Schöneberg, 2020). Among other things, this implies a publish-or-perish logic (Dickson, 2020) in which quantity trumps quality and an often toxic competition among researchers, relatively low salaries, short-term contracts – especially in early career stages, and increased international mobility.

Because neoliberalism glorifies an idealized form of masculinity that emphasizes ambition, competition, and the acquisition of wealth, as well as material success, it is not only deeply involved in producing gendered identities, but also in reproducing patriarchal values that squeeze women* into the devalued role of caregivers.

Today, motherhood continues to imply carrying out the majority of the cognitive and physical care work within the family (Nash and Churchill, 2020; Utoft, 2020) and being subject to social pressure and stereotypical expectations about women*. Seen from this perspective, motherhood can hardly be reconciled with the neoliberal working conditions and expectations in academia.

As a parent who has the responsibility for another human being, long- or at least mid-term contracts are usually key, as they allow planning and stability, on the one hand, and decrease stress, anxiety, and mental burden that come with quasi-constant job-seeking, on the other hand. The omnipresent short-term contracts that dominate especially in early career stages make planning almost impossible. This becomes more problematic if the household depends on this caregiver’s salary, which is the case, for example, of single caregivers, who are more often mothers* than fathers*.

The anxiety and mental burden that comes with the constant pressure of potential unemployment and the time spent writing applications for project funding or jobs outside the academy – just in case – adds to the cognitive charge that is already increased for mothers* in particular (Robertson, Anderson, Hall, and Kim, 2019). This, in turn, leaves less scope for other cognitive work, such as creativity and flexible thinking, two basic elements of quality research. A vicious circle.   

Apart from creativity and flexible thinking, doing research and writing about it require a substantial amount of another resource that is in short supply for many caregivers: time. In fact, long working hours that come with the pressure of publishing are often impossible to combine with the requirements of care work.

Of course, neoliberalism has developed a very efficient solution for this dilemma: outsourcing.

Indeed, many caregiving researchers outsource their care work, if they can. However, this depends on financial resources, which, because of low PhD and post-doc funding, is often not available to all. At the same time, early career researchers are often part of the group who would need it most: parents of younger children.

Outsourcing care work also depends on the availabilities of care facilities. Many universities now have nurseries – however, the slots are often reserved for university staff, and PhD students are often considered students, not staff. Where no daycare facilities are available, care activities may be outsourced to other caregivers, such as grandparents. However, given the requirement of international mobility for young researchers, grandparents often do not even live in the same country and, thus, can be mobilized only to a limited extent.

However, not all caregivers wish to outsource their care responsibilities. This is due to personal preferences, as many caregivers do not see their care responsibilities as a burden, but may actually – believe it or not – like spending time with the people they take care of. Especially for women*, the decision not to outsource care work may also be the result of social pressure. This is particularly hard on young mothers* in certain cultural contexts, where only a “bad” mother* leaves her baby in daycare.

International mobility for caregivers is also feasible only to a certain extent. While researchers without care responsibilities may move rather easily from one country to another, a whole family is very difficult to move, especially if it is for a limited time and for a salary that can only rarely cover family expenses by itself.

Apart from being internationally mobile between contracts and positions, researchers are also required to do research abroad, to become visiting fellows at other universities, and to participate in international conferences. If the researcher is not a single caregiver, they may rely on a partner, but in many cases, further outsourcing, including paying babysitters, is needed – a financial burden that is assumed by the caregiving researcher who is already poorly paid.

Finally, even if job opportunities exist, candidates often have to go through extensive recruiting procedures during which young women* in particular must be prepared to provide satisfying answers to questions about family planning and child care facilities and to defy stereotypes about the impossibility of reconciling care work and research. This puts them in a disadvantaged position in comparison to men*.

Because the criteria that the neoliberal functioning of today’s university has set for researchers makes it so difficult for caregivers, and especially mothers*, to move on with their career, it is not surprising that many, especially women*, drop out. This is not only frustrating for motivated young researchers. Every year, the university also loses a great number of brilliant scholars, depriving society of important knowledge and inventions.

How Covid-19 could have changed the neoliberal university

These are not new findings, but that they are still valid after almost two years of worldwide lockdowns and massive experience with online learning, teaching and lecturing, virtual conferences and meetings, and online research is surprising.

Indeed, home-based research positions may be an option, especially if the focus is on publishing and meetings with colleagues can be held online. However, until now, there seem to be very few possibilities for non-resident PhD or post-doctoral programs. Instead, candidates are required to move. For example, I once applied for a one-year post-doc position that would have required moving between countries three times within that year – impossible for a mother* of two. 

The lockdowns, some of which are still ongoing, put a special spotlight on the situation of caregivers in general and mothers* in particular, of whom many were able to juggle paid work and care responsibilities only with difficulty. In academia, publishers of international journals complained about the decrease in manuscripts submitted by women* and thereby emphasized how the pandemic seemed to affect male and female researchers differently (Andersen, Nielsen, Simone, Lewiss, and Jagsi, 2020; Pinho-Gomes et al., 2020; Stadnyk and Black, 2020). Nevertheless, when I inquired about one funding body’s selection criteria for post-docs in Belgium, the main factor for successful candidates remained the number of publications, and, at least officially, no differences are made between caregivers and those who are not caregivers.

Even though many universities have developed gender equality and diversity policies that also address the question of the leaky pipeline and the role of caregivers and have put in place mechanisms to promote the career of mother*-researchers in particular, the fact is that young women* continue to drop out more often than young men.

This is because the neoliberal foundation of today’s university continues to understand care work as a burden and source of irritation: because it demands research-relevant resources such as time and cognitive space, it disturbs the machine’s efficient production of knowledge. The knowledge producers’ care work, therefore, must be minimized, eliminated, or, even better: care workers must be sorted out. Consequently, the system has developed barriers that complicate caregiving researchers’ career progress to a maximum, especially that of women*. This not only demotivates, but also demoralizes them, sooner or later spitting them out, brilliant but frustrated. This is the leaky pipeline.

*Author’s note: The asterisk is used to emphasize the manifold gender identities of both women* and men*, including also non-binary persons.


Literature

Andersen, J. P., M. W. Nielsen, N. L. Simone, R. E.  Lewiss, and R. Jagsi (2020). COVID-19 medical papers have fewer women first authors than expected. eLife, 9.

Dickson, M. (2020). “He’s Not Good at Sensing That Look That Says, I’m Drowning Here!” Academic Mothers’ Perceptions of Spousal Support. Marriage & Family Review, 56(3), 241–263.

Narayanaswamy, L., and J. Schöneberg (2020). Interrogating how we know the world: Starting the conversation. acta academica, 52(1), 1–9.

Nash, M., and B. Churchill (2020). Caring during COVID-19: A gendered analysis of Australian university responses to managing remote working and caring responsibilities. Gender, Work & Organization.

Pinho-Gomes, A.-C., S. Peters, K. Thompson, C. Hockham, K. Ripullone, M. Woodward, and C. Carcel (2020). Where are the women? Gender inequalities in COVID-19 research authorship. BMJ global health, 5(7).

Sander, A., and C. Grauer, (2020): Female scientists in crisis. In: Mama is an Academic Blog, available online: https://mamaisanacademic.wordpress.com/blog/.

Stadnyk, T., and K. Black (2020). Lost ground: Female academics face an uphill battle in post‐pandemic world. Hydrological Processes, 34(15), 3400–3402.

Robertson, L. G., T. L. Anderson, M. E. L. Hall, and C. L. Kim (2019). Mothers and Mental Labor: A Phenomenological Focus Group Study of Family-Related Thinking Work. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 43(2), 184–200.

Utoft, E. H. (2020). “All the single ladies” as the ideal academic during times of COVID‐19?” Gender, Work & Organization, 20(1), 1.


Alena Sander is an associate researcher at UCLouvain in Belgium and holds a PhD in Social Sciences. Even though her main research focuses on power relations and resistance in North-South cooperation, as a mother of two and an intersectional feminist, she is also passionate about the topic of motherhood in academia, writing blogs and articles and giving trainings and keynote speeches about it.


Further articles in the Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes series on TRAFO:

“Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes”: Call for Contributions to the Series, 18 October 2021


Citation: Alena Sander, Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.01.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/32012


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