Who does the housekeeping in academia?

Svenska 2019-08-27

“Academic housekeeping” steals time from research, and does not add merit. Academic housekeeping is the invisible work primarily carried out by women.

The researcher Sara Kalm has brought the US term “academic housekeeping” to Sweden in an article in the periodical Sociologisk forskning.

“I think that the term places the finger on something that is difficult to define but that must be made visible,” says Sara Kalm, who otherwise mostly conducts research into international migration, but who is also interested in issues relating to conditions in academia.

Academic housekeeping can be described as a sort of internal service, that must be carried out by someone, but not by everyone. It can consist of comforting a doctoral student who is having problems, act as locum teacher when a colleague is off sick, or overseeing the department’s seminar programme.

No study of how these tasks are allocated has been conducted in Sweden, but research exists from other countries. Sara Kalm, senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Lund University, has summarised results from studies conducted in the USA and elsewhere in her article.

For example, a US study shows that it is around 50 per cent more probable that a woman will offer to carry out such service tasks than for a man to do so. Women are also asked to do them much more often, and are also more likely to say yes when asked.

Outdated expectations for women and men

The fact that it is primarily women who carry out this type of invisible tasks is a well-known phenomenon within research about gender in academia internationally, says Liisa Husu, professor of gender studies at Örebro University.

“It is about informal work allocation within research teams and departments; a work allocation that is often gender-tagged and arises without being consciously decided on by the management,” she says.

In her own comprehensive qualitative study of sexism in Finnish academia, this phenomenon emerged clearly.

“My data show that female researchers may receive praise from the management when they take on such housekeeping tasks, while their scientific merits receive less notice,” she says, and tells us that some lecturerships could be informally coded for housekeeping tasks.

Her study also showed that many male researchers expected to be able to talk to their female colleagues about their private lives and marital problems. Simultaneously, the same men did not take any initiative or show any interest in discussing scientific issues with these female colleagues.

“Outdated expectations still affect how women and men are treated, and what is expected of them in academic contexts,” says Liisa Husu.

“Star researchers” are excused

Sara Kalm establishes that women are expected to join in and put their own interests aside to a greater extent than men are.

“For example, if a Christmas party is to be arranged, for some reason it seems a good idea to ask a young female doctoral student to do this. It is felt that she will do well at this.”

In her article in Sociologisk forskning, she divided up academic housekeeping into three different categories: low-status tasks, duty tasks and caring tasks. The tasks may consist of membership of the gender equality committee, being the note-taker at a meeting, or helping out when a colleague needs support.

The US study referred to above shows that it is not just women who are over-represented among those who carry out the academic housekeeping work. Researchers from minority groups and lower-grade researchers also stand out. It seems that these tasks end up being done by persons of lower status, while persons of higher status are excused.

The US researchers have investigated whether those who carry out the majority of the academic housekeeping perhaps like these tasks better than other researchers do, but this does not appear to be the case.

“It seems as if they would all really prefer to focus on their own research,” says Sara Kalm.

Housekeeping obstructs careers

Liisa Husu makes a connection between women carrying out the majority of academic housekeeping tasks and gender equality figures, which show that the overwhelming percentage of professors in Sweden – and in other countries – are men. The fact that women carry out a large part of the academic housekeeping may be part of the explanation, she considers.

“It is of course negative if you spend a lot of time on things that are irrelevant to your academic career.”

She points to an issue that she thinks has become more topical. This is the service work on committees and decision-making bodies, where there is a requirement for equal gender distribution, as is the case in the Nordic countries.

“Here, female professors, who are fewer in number, can be over-loaded with such tasks, at the expense of time for research and publication.”

One way of making the unequal distribution of housekeeping tasks visible could be to ask questions about service tasks in personnel surveys. However, Liisa Husu considers that there are so many different types of service tasks that they are difficult to specify in a survey. Nor is it always certain that staff themselves know how much time they spend on these tasks, or even that they are aware of carrying out or being expected to carry out this invisible work.

“It is difficult to measure the division of the academic housekeeping quantitatively. Qualitative methods are better suited for accessing this type of issue. Then you can place them into a context of issues of formal and informal work allocation, expectations from management, work environment and equal treatment.

Greasing the wheels of star researchers

Sara Kalm describes academic housekeeping as a lubricant that enables “star researchers” to shine. Against this background, she would like to see more discussion of academia’s performance-oriented culture and the researcher ideal: the man who commits entirely to his research.

“The academic culture doesn’t create incentives for helping out; instead, it rewards pushing others aside and focusing entirely on your own career.

Even though academic housekeeping pays neither in money, nor in merit, there are other advantages of taking on the tasks. By supporting colleagues, you contribute to a better work environment,” establishes Sara Kalm.

“But this is something that everybody should feel responsible for.

In the end, academic housekeeping consists of tasks that actually must be done. Things don’t work if everybody just ignores them,” she explains. “In USA, service is part of the mandate of higher education institutions. Perhaps this is a way of making the tasks visible?” Sara Kalm reasons.

A matter for management

The unequal distribution is, at least partly, a matter for university managements, she thinks.

“Some of these tasks could be distributed more fairly from above. Others are more difficult to control. For example, you cannot decide who a doctoral student should confide in,” she says.

She thinks that a first step would be to start talking about the tasks, and to increase awareness of who is carrying them out.

“This would hopefully make it easier to divide them up more fairly,” she says.

Text: Charlie Olofsson

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