The post-pandemic university and the caring gap

Gabriela Saldanha


As soon as lockdown measures were imposed, we started hearing encouragement along the lines of “Isaac Newton turned isolation from the great plague into a year of wonders” or  “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague”. At the time, my immediate reaction was “Certainly not King Lear, nor Newton-level wonders, but I could write a decent academic monograph if I had nothing else to do for a year”. Being a solo mother of school age twins whom I was now supposed to educate at home while doing my full time work, also known as “my best endeavours”, my reply to such encouragements were along the lines of “Have you noticed that neither of them had to worry about childcare, housekeeping, etc.?” 

As it turns out, the claims about Newton were not really true  but my point still stands. The pandemic highlighted, among many others, the gap between carers and non-carers, not only in terms of pay but also in terms of prestige. In academia and elsewhere, this gap overlaps to some extent with what is known as the “gender pay gap”. The gap between carers and non-carers is inextricably linked to the historical division of labour between men and women: paid, ‘professional’ work and unpaid ‘caring’ labour, in both cases emotional and physical. This historical division manifests itself today in the still unrecognised labour of housekeeping and building and maintaining social networks, which generally falls on women, not only within families but also in larger networks around shared religions, lifestyles, and even research (at least in biomedicine, according to INGENIO). As Ivancheva et al argue: “women have attachments, ties and emotional commitments that are culturally and socially assigned in ways that are different to men”. 

I am aware that speaking of carers rather than women risks veiling the gendered origin of this system of oppression. However, the caring gap also works along the lines of race, sexuality and religion, because it is closely regulated by an economy of prestige which privileges certain genders, races, religions and sexualities at the expense of others. I also prefer talking about carers because it is a concrete term that points to structural but concrete forms of oppression, such as those emerging from access to research time as described below. It is precisely these concrete measures which have been missing from university strategies.

A well-meaning explanation offered for the carer pay gap is women’s lack of self-promotion skills: “It is often assumed that the lack of value given to the achievements of women and people from ethnic minorities relates to a lack of self-promotion”, explain Kandiko et al., who go on to state that their “findings echo other research that suggests that a reluctance to engage in self-promotional activities can be cultural”. The examples offered are of academics justifying their tendency to understatement and modesty as, respectively, British and Japanese in nature. My guess is that British and Japanese men are still better at self-promotion than British and Japanese women, and that this is cultural only in the sense that gendered attitudes are learned through socialization. 

It is hardly surprising that men are better at self-promotion since self-confidence and assertiveness are promoted in boys more than in girls from an early age. What needs to be questioned is, why is it women who should change their behaviour? In the not-so-distant past, all academics used to be socialized into cautious language, as epitomised in Watson & Crick’s modest proposal for the applications that the double helical structure of DNA, which they had just discovered, could have: It has not escaped our notice (13) that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. I suspect that, this day, Watson & Crick, who published their results in Nature in 1953, would be given a lesson on how to present research to be classified as 4* for REF purposes. 

Well-meaning professors propose strategies such as “developing formal support structures for BME groups and women [to] ensure that adequate training for promotion (such as assisting with applications and interviews) is in place in order that such groups can reach their potential”. This, however, suggests that women and BME people are the ones who need to change; who are not able, on their own, to reach their potential. This is not only patronizing but also suggests that the only ones who know this intuitively are neither women nor BME groups. Would that be… white men? I beg to disagree. The problem is not lack of ability to realise a potential but the compromises such potential calls for: “the academy is a highly individualistic, competitive and greedy work institution in time terms”, governed by masculinist norms of geographic mobility and 24/7 availability that the carefree alone can fully observe. 

Closing the carers pay gap will require what is often described as a ‘culture change’, meaning it will require people to change their thinking and that, as we know, takes generations. However, this is no reason to postpone striving to achieve it. Time is of the essence. Literally: because carers and care-free are, respectively but also relatively, time-poor and time-rich. Their unequal access to the esteem indicators that rule appointments and promotions has its roots in this tangible inequality. In a culture where overworking is the norm, to the extent that the union threatens employers with working to contract (have you ever seen anything so self-defeatist?), the time poor have little chance of competing against the time-rich. 

The time-rich are only relatively rich in that, rather than more disposable time, they have more choice as to what they can do with their time. They are actually very busy, so they do not see themselves as ‘time-rich’. They often see themselves as more overworked than others because of their managerial duties or their larger research projects. Arguably, however, they are overworkers rather than overworked,  blind to the fact that, while they can spend 60 hours a week on their job, other colleagues cannot spend as much because they have to do school runs, cook dinner for four, visit their dad in hospital and do the washing, also for four. 

It is not because they work less, and it is not because they have less responsibility or less complex tasks, it is because these other tasks are neither paid nor prestigious and do not contribute to their career in any observable manner. I remember once my head of school complaining about too many working weekends. I couldn’t help myself: “Oh, I miss working weekends! I would happily swap a weekend of birthday parties for a working weekend!” He got the humour, not the irony. 

Care work is time-constrained: it needs to happen regularly and at specific times. It is, after all, what keeps the world turning. You cannot have an extension to feed your children. This is also the case in the less prestigious duties typical of academic contracts, where non-white women are overrepresented: teaching and administration (as opposed to research and management). Lectures and seminars have to be delivered weekly, admission reports monthly, marking quarterly.  

Research, the most career rewarding activity, is considerably more flexible and, as a result, it has been traditionally left to fit around teaching, tutoring and, since women entered the academy, cooking, putting children to bed, and so on. This leaves weekends and summers. It is exceedingly difficult to carve a sustained period of concentrated work in such circumstances. One year I paid for four weeks of holiday camps for my kids so that I could have one month purely dedicated to research. The bill was £1,400. I was paying to work. 

Again, humanities scholars are even more at a disadvantage, because they are expected to write single-author monographs and single-author articles. In disciplines such as Modern Languages and History, single-author monographs are the gold standard, more important than citations, the only works that are likely to be rated 4*. In one Russell Group university, a 4* publication is required for promotion to Senior Lecturer. Teaching buyout throughout research grants and institutional study leave are becoming increasingly competitive, requiring an already substantial accumulation of prestige. 

Fairer solutions are easy to find and not too difficult to implement: setting an expectations ceiling that can be realistically met in around 37.5 hours a week is fundamental, as is ensuring that those with time-tabling constraints due to care responsibilities are not discriminated against by planning prestigious, and optional, research-related events in the evening or weekends; as well as duly rewarding the non-prestigious weekend activities of attending open days. 

When I once objected to a series of events being scheduled in the evenings, on the grounds that those with family duties would be discriminated against, a self-declared feminist professor chairing the meeting quietly pointed out that she would object to the mornings because of her medication. Both are justifiable grounds, but one is likely to affect a larger group of people and, importantly for management purposes, can be predicted and therefore more easily prevented. 

Of course, people should be entitled to work as many hours as they want. The key is, after reaching a certain level, to redirect the energy away from individual promotion and towards the creation and maintenance of a positive environment, mentoring, supervising, building a research community, teaching. Caring for others, basically. 


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Gabriela Saldanha is an independent scholar working in Translation Studies. She is currently writing Translation, A Literary Performance Art (forthcoming, Routledge), is co-editor of the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies and co-author of Research Methodologies in Translation Studies. She took voluntary redundancy from the Department of Modern Languages, University of Birmingham to focus on writing.

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