Study has implications for patriarchal institutional policies

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded “an already elusive gender inequity in the academy”. It affected women academics by interrupting their postgraduate studies – and, therefore, their academic careers – as well as destabilising their appointments and setting them back in their sabbaticals, according to a study.

While this resulted in delayed career advancement, many women experienced a career existential crisis, in which they questioned “whether an academic career is really worth it”, while issues such as promotion opportunities, probation and funding terms created uncertainty and stress.

The study, the first qualitative one on the topic in South Africa, which was done from a Global South perspective, revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic set women back in the academy.

‘The precarity of women’s academic work and careers during the COVID-19 pandemic: A South African case study’ was published in the South African Journal of Science, May-June 2022.

It was undertaken by Dr Cyrill Walters of Stellenbosch University (SU); Dr Armand Bam; the head of social impact and a senior lecturer at the SU business school, and Dr Philippa Tumubweinee, a senior lecturer at the school of architecture, planning and geomatics at the University of Cape Town.

According to the researchers, “The study shows that the variability in employment agreements for women contributes to the uncertainty that they already experience,” in terms of their careers and progression within the academy.

Referring to other research, they indicated that, before the pandemic, “gender inequalities in the academy already existed in terms of women’s recruitment, representation, remuneration, leadership and productivity”.

‘Non-citizens’ in the academy

The academic women in this study comprised non-permanent staff which included part-time employees, postdoctoral fellows, e-tutors (employed by the University of South Africa, or UNISA, South Africa’s biggest distance education institution), external markers and “those existing on the precarity of soft-funding for short-term research projects”.

The scholars refer to the Higher Education Management Information System 2020, which reveals that most academics are on temporary appointments (25,094 or 56.1%).

“The senior professoriate is still mainly white and male, while the lower levels of appointment (junior lecturer, lecturer) mainly black, especially in the former white universities.” More men (10, 314) than women (9,587) are employed as research and instruction staff, while many more women were appointed in administrative jobs (5,758 more).”

They refer to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) which revealed that, from 2005-16, the higher education sector in South Africa saw an increase in both permanent and temporary academic staff. However, this equates to a “casualisation” of academic work and an increased “precariousness” of the academic profession.

This research by Theresa O’Keefe and Aline Courtois argues that precarious work and the lack of gender parity in academia result in female academics feeling like “non-citizens” in the academy.

Coupled with the arguments presented in a recent CHE review, the precarity of the temporary conditions of service for non-permanent academic staff during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has been a wrecking ball on the academic futures of these female scholars.

An experienced academic and mother of three young children explained: “I have been on two three-year rolling contracts of some sort (first postdoctoral, then as a researcher) that were all self-funded (salary-wise) by independent funding since completing my PhD in 2009.

“I don’t have the luxury of having one ‘bad’ year publication- or output-wise, since I am not likely to have a fixed, permanent appointment at my institution and need to keep performing at a high level to be successful for competitive external grants for my employment.”

Yet there are other categories of employment that were also threatened by the lockdown, such as e-tutors and external markers, especially at UNISA. As the financial hardship of the lockdown hit universities, these additional staff were the most vulnerable to layoffs.

An early-career academic with two children in primary school stated: “As an external marker, the workload decreased significantly, as there were no written June exams, so loss of work (and income from this work) as exams were changed to multiple-choice online exams [resulted].”

In terms of promotions, while holding onto a contract job was one problem, being promoted within an existing job was a different challenge that also could upend an academic career. Given the multiple demands on women during the lockdown, there was often a sense of being overwhelmed.

Another participant describes this: “Trying to juggle research, lecturing and supporting my students, attending numerous Zoom meetings, as well as cleaning house, making food and being a teacher to my children, I feel like I’m failing at everything ...”

Rules of engagement

The sense that the rules of advancement have not changed, despite the impact of the pandemic on academic work, is something that runs through the responses of hundreds of women in this study.

“The study participants gave vent to a harsh reality of advancement in South African universities,” and the obsession with research outputs.”

The findings reveal that academic administration does not carry any weight in promotion considerations, which invariably brings out strong feelings of resentment about the institutional arrangements.

And then there is an often overlooked aspect of academic work: the high proportion of female scholars who only teach, for whom advancement is not on the agenda – a situation described by one female academic at a major research institution who observed of her university that it “runs on the work of middle-aged women who don’t become research professors”.

Academic women who are not on the permanent payroll of the university were particularly vulnerable as a result of the pandemic lockdown.

“When that external funding is threatened or disrupted, the situation of these academics becomes even more precarious,” according to Walters, Bam and Tumubweinee.

A large group of women in this study hold academic appointments while pursuing their own postgraduate studies as masters or doctoral students.

Completing these senior degrees is crucial to their holding on to or obtaining a secure academic appointment.

Once again, it is the inevitable entwinement of women’s academic ambitions and their domestic obligations that has disrupted the pursuit of further studies: “Inequality in the distribution of academic work among male and female staff is a theme that runs through much of the data on the impact of the pandemic on teaching, research and administration in universities over the lockdown period.”

This point by one experienced female academic and mother of a pre-schooler is by no means an isolated one: “My male colleagues refuse to bear coordination burdens, citing their PhDs as the main reason. I have read towards a PhD and I am in the process of applying to a PhD programme.

“My male colleague, who is busy with his PhD, has been working primarily on the same second-year course since he joined the school five years ago. My point is that, while women do bear disproportionate household responsibilities, they also have to contend with being evaluated unfairly at work.”

An early career academic added: “The university’s expectations of continued research and PhD progress, as though the interruption to our academic norm has not occurred, is a major stress factor.”

As with promotion, it was difficult to meet the conditions of probation during the lockdown, with the multiple demands of schoolwork, housework, teaching and, of course, the requirement to conduct and publish research.

The study provides striking evidence of perceived institutional inflexibility, and its consequences with regard to appointments, probation, promotion and even continued postgraduate studies.

One early-career respondent put it this way: “I find myself caring less about my job and my future in academia.”

One established academic made the case deftly: “I simply have to believe that management logic will look upon my performance through the COVID-19 looking glass.”

Implications of this study

The implications of the study are:

• To moderate management expectations from the top down in ways that recognise the exceptional circumstances imposed by the pandemic lockdown.

• To adjust timelines and schedules for promotion and advancement to allow for lapses in productivity as a result of the pandemic years.

• To provide for research and administrative assistance to all female academics, but especially those without the large research grants to be able to manage the new and competing demands on academic work.

• To commit to institutional reach into the problem of precarity, especially under conditions of confinement, and allow those data to inform senior management deliberations on women’s academic work on a consistent basis.

“The findings have implications for institutional policies regulating academic work that is at once sensitive to the diverse needs of different women in the academy even as it is attentive to the shared needs of all women in a patriarchal society,” said Walters, Bam and Tumubweinee.