Women’s Work and Academia

Women’s Work and Academia April 22, 2012

This Chronicle article by Emma Thornton tells a familiar story: a female academic is told she appears “too confident,” observes that a lot of the upper echelons of academia are overwhelmingly male-populated, and ruminates on the emotional labor or “women’s work” that female academics invisibly perform.

Characterizing this women’s work, which she calls “cuddle work,” the author writes:

…women were expected to do, and did do, more of what I call the “cuddle work” of academe: reassuring worried students, listening to problems, taking time outside of classroom and office hours to offer help and support. And as long as I’ve been in academe it’s seemed to me that women attend to their “school” work with a conscientiousness detrimental to their research. Too many women devote hours to committee concerns and go out of their way to make sure other people’s needs are met as soon as possible—to a degree that plays havoc with their own careers in an academic world that has forgotten that educating is its primary goal.

Women are raised to say yes, to help people, to be pleasant, so academic women must overcome a lot of social conditioning in order to turn down constant requests for help and focus on their own research. It’s really disheartening to realize, however, that a lot of labor we’re expected to do is invisible and unpaid; in addition to the nurturing we perform on campus, there’s probably unpaid domestic labor waiting at home.

As it’s become so prevalent, I forget where I first encountered the idea that academics really need a wife at home to take care of all those daily-life tasks, but the sexism inherent in many university roles is well described here. And here is an enumeration of how many advantages an academic woman loses when she has children; it’s enough to make me want to tear out my hair with frustration, and I haven’t even 100% decided whether I’m having kids yet.

However, I’m completely with Thornton when she talks about complicity and infiltration as a strategy to subvert:

I’m willing to tone down my confidence if it might get me a job, because I need to put food on my table and pay off my student loans, and because I believe infiltration is a powerful tool. But once I’m in the door I intend to be as confident as I naturally am, and as expectant, and I hope to encourage other women to be the same way.

This is one of the reasons I really want to land an academic job now that I’ve finished my PhD; I want to be a role model to women and other minorities, and I want to help open the door for others like me.

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