A Possible Toilet Paper Effect in Academic Hiring

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala and Kalika Kastein


At the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people stockpiled toilet paper, emptying supermarket shelves. We use the analogy of toilet paper hoarding to capture the emotional climate that caused some to hoard opportunities for themselves and their in-group. We caution that a survival mentality will negatively impact marginalised academics in their early career stages and decrease mentorship. We believe that a lack of supply, or a toilet paper effect, may occur for academic positions in which those with privilege hoard job opportunities for themselves and in-group. An already competitive job market in academia may intensify as universities cut costs, leading to a decreased focus on early career researchers, particularly those from marginalised groups. 

During the global lockdowns in 2020, some could afford to maintain their access to a supply of toilet paper through stockpiling, while those facing financial precarity were often unable to. The analogy of toilet paper hoarding or a toilet paper effect attempts to capture emotions associated with looking out for oneself and in-group during times of insecurity. In academia, those with job security, power, and means will likely fare better than those facing career precarity, such as early career researchers and those with marginalised identities. However, this analogy has limits because the stakes in academia are much higher. Although toilet paper was not generally in short supply before the pandemic, there was already a decrease in tenured positions prior to the pandemic. Jobs for postgraduate degree holders have been increasingly competitive, especially for those seeking to enter tenure tracks in academia

We are sceptical that systemic issues can improve in this pandemic environment and caution of worsening inequities as survival mentalities set in. If tenured academics who are members of the dominant group feel insecure about their positions, will they have the capacity to provide adequate mentorship to marginalised early career researchers? Research shows that academics not in tenured positions are more likely to associate achieving tenure with more time to commit to postgraduate supervision. The existing competitive academic environment will likely intensify with dominant groups activating a focus on self and in-group favouritism, rendering racialised early career researchers invisible.  

While student populations are becoming increasingly diverse even in the global north, why do academic positions at many institutions remain white-dominated? Historically, tertiary institutions have been spaces of white privilege. Those with marginalised identities are underrepresented in many tertiary institutions in the global north and face greater career precarity in academia.

Anecdotally, the authors have witnessed how postgraduate students aiming for an academic track, especially those from the global south and Indigenous communities, are less likely to receive support and mentorship than their white male and female colleagues from the global north. Postgraduates from the global south and Indigenous communities in academia tend to be excluded from opportunities, experiencing less commitment and engagement from mentors. These actions reinforce the traditional exclusion of members of the global south in the context of the global north. 

Ethnicity and class are intersectional parts of identity and impacted by gender. Institutional exclusion exacerbated by presumed incompetence often leads women of colour to receive less academic mentorship. They may also overcompensate for structural disadvantages by working more than white counterparts to resist an environment that expects their failure.

For change to occur amidst these pandemic challenges, institutions must recognise the criticality of mentorship, hiring mentors who are aware of the longstanding biases barring marginalised individuals from academia. Empirical evidence demonstrates the benefits of diversity, which also impacts research quality.

Diversity in academia is under threat. Increased pandemic-related uncertainty about the academic job market could fuel competition in the global north, creating greater bias against marginalised early-career researchers. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected marginalised groups inside and outside academia. Everyone is not equally vulnerable. As people begin to look out for themselves and their in-group, there is a risk that mentorship of early career researchers, especially those with marginalised identities, will decrease as tenured academics face increased responsibility, workload, and career instability themselves. The pandemic exacerbates systemic inequalities, and “this pandemic is not bringing us closer together, it continues to push us further apart”. 


Photo by Danilo Alvesd on Unsplash

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala is Political Scientist from Colombia, Research Affiliate at Political Economy and Transnational Governance (PETGOV), at University of Amsterdam and PhD candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She studies armed forces in post-conflict scenarios, political violence, and reconciliation

Kalika Kastein is an educator from the United States of America and a PhD candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in Aotearoa New Zealand. She researches on peace education, organisational climate, and the role of silence in peace studies.

4 comments

  1. This is a very compelling argument and one that needs to be extensively shared and discussed. Huge thanks to the authors for highlighting the challenges faced by the global south and indigenous communities in academia.

    Liked by 1 person

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