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Academic housework: the gendered effects of precarity

Speaking with staff about how casualisation is a feminist issue.

Art by Claire Ollivain

Despite the lengths management will go to cover up their unscrupulous tracks — even weaponising the language of feminist theory against protestors — it is no secret that exploitation is built into the bedrock of the corporate university business model. From the existence of elite colleges to inequity in staffing, universities reproduce the gender, racial and class oppressions of wider society. In the face of ever-decreasing federal government funding, universities have become over-reliant on exorbitant international student fees for revenue, while maintaining an underclass of precariously employed workers to reduce expenses. Often overlooked is how gender intersects with precarity in this exploitative system, to the effect of what philosopher Robin Zheng calls ‘academic housework.’

The pandemic has laid bare the structural inequalities of capitalism; every step of the way workers have been forced to suffer enormous financial stress at the hands of the ruling class. Women, who are overrepresented in casual and part-time work, have been more likely to lose their jobs as a result of COVID. Because 58% of workers in Australian universities are women, massive nation-wide job losses have had disproportionate gendered effects. The disciplines most targeted in austerity measures have also been the ‘feminised’ ones, with humanities departments under particular threat. Unsurprisingly, analysis of publications shows that the number of research articles written by women has declined since COVID, which will have long-term ramifications on the progression of their careers.

Precarity is a feminist issue. The mass casualisation of university staff over the past two decades has subjected thousands of women to unlivable conditions with no job security, systemic underpayment, and few employment rights. This is especially true in a workforce where women make up the majority and are more likely to be concentrated in lower classified positions. At the University of Sydney, almost 55 percent of casual staff and almost 61 percent of fixed-term staff are women. Even at universities where the majority of casuals are not women, precarity still has specific gendered effects. These negative impacts are even further compounded for women of colour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, disabled women and working-class women.

Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, Chair of the NTEU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Committee, spent 18 years in precarious employment at universities before gaining a full-time ongoing position. She tells me she has heard from numerous casually-employed Aboriginal women who are no longer being offered work in the wake of COVID, as well as full-time staff who were made redundant, which came at the loss of Indigenous specific programs: “[This has] had a real impact for our families and in our communities. Loss of income means there is less money for families, to put food on the table, and to pay bills, to assist our communities and make us more welfare dependent.” She believes that by refusing universities Jobkeeper, the government has widened the disadvantage that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face.

Wage theft is embedded in the university model, a standard practice that exploits the most vulnerable workers by failing to pay them for their time. The USyd Casual’s Network’s The Tip of the Iceberg report provided evidence that mass underpayment of precarious workers disproportionately affects women. On average, women had 1.5 times the amount of wages stolen compared to men, and were underpaid at a higher rate. Georgia Carr, a casual staff member who co-authored the report, tells me that “being insecurely employed contributes to and exacerbates all of the usual issues faced by women at work: the gender pay gap, greater employment instability, unequal superannuation, unequal opportunities for promotion and more.” She fears that university managements will wind back these hostile conditions even further in enterprise bargaining.

High up on the list of staff’s demands for the next Enterprise Agreement at the University of Sydney is an end to casualisation itself and improved access to leave for precarious workers. The absence of paid parental, sick and domestic violence leave for casual staff means that — for those who cannot afford to miss a week’s pay —  they will choose to work even when it is unsafe for their wellbeing. Being denied this right is exploitative and dehumanising for all, but the impacts are felt disproportionately by “women and non-cismen [who] are more likely to be primary carers, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and are over-represented in casual work,” Georgia tells me. “As long as those things continue to be true, disadvantaging casual workers will be synonymous with disadvantaging women.”

Domestic violence cases have spiked globally since the pandemic, with victim-survivors forced to spend more time with their abusers, increased situational stressors and decreased social avenues to seek help. Most at risk are women with disabilities, Indigenous women, young women and women experiencing financial hardship. As we are in lockdown again and patterns of violence and coercive control escalate, it is clear that access to paid domestic violence leave is critical for all university workers.

Furthermore, the financial insecurity of precarious employment, particularly for PhD students, often coincides with a time in life where many people want to have children. This is the case for Georgia, who tells me she can’t imagine she’ll find secure work before she wants to have kids. “If I want to stay in academia my only option will be to start a family — a famously stressful and expensive enterprise — while on casual contracts. To land a permanent job I will have to equal or outperform my peers while on shorter contracts with less pay and worse conditions, all while taking unpaid parental leave and raising young child/ren.”

Elizabeth Adamczyk, the casual representative at the University of Newcastle, says that as a casual “you’re likely to forgo the linear steps in the social conventions you might track your life by: getting married, having a child.” In her experience “women are not necessarily disproportionately affected, just differently” based on deep-seated social expectations. For some of Elizabeth’s male colleagues, not having job security or being able to ‘provide’ for their family impacts their identity in a different way: “precarity takes away your ability to feel you are fulfilling those types of norms … It pervades your sense of self.”

Another detrimental impact of how gender and precarity intersect is the gender super gap, which is leaving almost half of retired single women in poverty. Research shows that women, who provide unpaid childcare and receive lower salaries, retire with on average 42% less superannuation than men. The NTEU is demanding that casuals have access to equal 17% superannuation, as well as super for staff on unpaid parental leave, to bridge the gender super gap in the education sector. Casual staff member Dani Cotton wants to see not only fair entitlements for precarious workers, but an end to casualisation itself which has meant that “a feminised workforce is being stripped of their rights.”

Dani is one of the rank-and-file unionists fighting to enshrine rights for transgender workers in the EA, advocating for a total six weeks of paid gender affirmation/transition leave including social and medical steps. “It would make a very small difference [in expenditure] for the University to agree to this, but for trans people it would make an enormous difference,” Dani says. Trans staff at the University have had to take unpaid leave for several months to transition, been forced to dip into their sick leave, or even had to delay affirmative steps for years to save up enough annual leave. “The University likes to put up a ‘progress flag’ to say it supports trans rights, but we’ve already seen a senior academic speak to the media dismissing gender transition as ‘one of life’s challenges,’” Dani says. In this arena, The University of Sydney is lagging behind UNSW and Deakin University, which both provide paid gender transition leave. 

In Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy, Robin Zheng identifies two ideological myths that distract us from organising against the injustice of precarity: the myth of meritocracy and the myth of work as its own reward. She argues that even while most would not endorse the idea that academia is meritocratic, institutional rankings and benefits granted to permanent staff are felt as merit-based, “cultivat[ing] the implicit notion that better working conditions are to be gained through individual talent and effort — rather than, say, collective bargaining.” Casual academics face a highly competitive job market where there are far more candidates worthy of jobs than there are jobs. As a result, “going ‘above and beyond’ – really just code for performing unpaid work – is a necessary prerequisite,” Georgia tells me. The problem is structural rather than a failing of individuals, and it can only be tackled through organised collective resistance. 

While we tend to perceive research and teaching as intrinsically gratifying and done out of personal interest, Robin Zheng argues this glosses over the reality that “academics — particularly women — experience considerable stress on the job, due to income insecurity as well as higher workloads imposed by neoliberal measures.” Zheng suggests that it is seen as bad taste when academics demand better conditions or compensation for doing something they love. Tracing the myth of work as its own reward to the gendered division between waged and unwaged labour, she concludes: “growing casualisation means that increasing members of faculty, both male and female, are now subject to the precarious, low-prestige piece-work conditions long endured by women and workers of colour.”

It is imperative that students stand in solidarity with staff on the picket line when they go to strike for their rights and for an end to the injustice of casualisation. Our casual tutors work tirelessly to provide us with a quality education, yet are not paid for the majority of the time they spend answering emails, preparing classes, formulating assessment feedback and supporting us with pastoral care. Those who do the core work in higher education are treated as disposable — the first to be dismissed by management when revenues take a hit.

Despite the existence of University initiatives aiming to promote gender equality, its neoliberal practices are fundamentally antagonistic to equality for the most vulnerable women it employs: overworked and exploited precarious workers. We don’t want to see women elevated to managerial roles in existing university hierarchies so that they can become the ones exploiting workers. We don’t want a seat at the table, we want to break the table by organising from the margins to radically transform how education and knowledge production are done.