Publish and Perish: Gendered Precarity, Productivity and University Leadership in COVID19

By Briony Lipton

‘It is important we all continue the upward trajectory, including at this time when we prioritise the needs of our researchers as well as the health and safety of our community’ the university email reads. Just one message among many emails received throughout institutional inboxes during the first Australian lockdown amidst a global pandemic.

Within only a few months, COVID-19 has triggered unprecedented changes to societies on a global scale. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost a million Australians lost their jobs. This drop was predominantly due to restrictions put in place to protect us from the virus and the effect of social-distancing measures devised to limit the spread. However, health crises amplify existing inequalities.

Women are facing additional constraints as a result of COVID-19. A predominantly female healthcare workforce has placed women on the frontlines of the crisis, and while the economic impact of COVID-19 will affect all workers, women have lost jobs and paid working hours at a faster rate than men.

For too long, scholars have warned that the bulk of the unpaid domestic work carried by women is unsustainable. Before COVID-19, women already did double the hours of unpaid work that men did. Now, the impact on households is that women are now doing double again, with the gender gap between paid and unpaid work only widening and equal pay goals set back more than a decade.

Caring responsibilities continue to be shouldered mainly by women. The closure of childcare centres — another ‘essential’, highly feminised and undervalued service — has resulted in the care of infants and education of school age children being done by women at home, alongside paid work hours. The increased time at home due to social distancing and isolation measures is also placing individuals at risk of violence.  It is clear that the impact of COVID-19 is having a gendered effect.

In academia, women are getting less research done than men, as evidenced anecdotally as well as by the significant decline in publication rates for women. Fewer women scientists are being quoted as experts on COVID-19, and far fewer women are part of the cohorts producing new knowledge on the pandemic, and there is bias towards expert men in media coverage. None of these constraints are new. Coronavirus is magnifying this fractured landscape of gender equality in academia. 

This is not the time for institutions to be telling academic women to increase outputs and gain lost research hours in order to maintain Australian universities’ global rankings. The hyphen between work and life balance is being well and truly stretched to breaking. And yet it is stories like this that I keep hearing:

Had an email from a professor that said, ‘this is a good time for people who have lost research time (& don’t have young children & aren’t themselves ill) to win it back by publishing!’

I actually despair.

The contemporary university privileges speed, competition, and performativity; it operates through modes of accelerationism, work intensification, precarity and productivity; and it is oriented to producing academic subjectivities rooted in their own self-commodification.

University organisations are gendered institutions. Women are significantly underrepresented at both professoriate level and in senior academic leadership positions and are almost entirely absent in some STEM disciplines. Normative gender roles continue to be consigned to bodies and jobs in ways that impede women. Women are often pushed into feminised roles (including teaching and administration considered to be less advantageous routes to progression than elite and masculinised research tracks), experience wage inequality as well as everyday sexism and harassment in the workplace.

Stimulus measures have tended to disadvantage casuals (notably where women are overrepresented) and have been focused on specific industries such as construction (where women are underrepresented). The majority casual academic workforce has been left out from stimulus payments. The prevalence of short-term and zero-hour contracts has placed increased pressure on academics to produce more in order to gain permeance or perish.

International education contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2018, and is our largest service-based export. Many casual and short-term contracts have been withdrawn as the higher education sector deals with the dramatic drop in international students following the coronavirus, and yet those hardest hit by the recruitment freeze are ineligible for wage subsidies.

Precarity in academia is gendered. It is not only women’s presence in the academy, but the positions they occupy that expose continued gender inequality in Australian higher education. The interdependency of academics and institutions in terms of casualised labour is part of an ongoing process of subject formation.

Under lockdown, academics are being asked to take on more roles and responsibilities to support students and the transition to online-only or blended learning despite increased domestic stressors. Work from home arrangements bully academic women into feeling grateful to be offered work at all:

Course leader, three kids, multiple older relatives, old parents with existing conditions, existing condition myself… oh sure, what a great opportunity!

When offered another semester of teaching, or a short-term research contract, those without the stability of a permanent position are disinclined to turn down the invitation even if it means taking on additional unpaid hours and emotional labour. Even those with job security also feel pressured to say yes to additional responsibilities because of the continuous scrutiny of academic performance.

Precarious academic positions remain highly sought after not only for financial reasons, but as a means of gaining and building experience with the hope of gaing more secure academic employment in the future. The amplification of existing gender inequalities along with a lack of government support means that academics are being asked to choose between their health and their careers.

Working from home simply disguises institutions exploitation of its precarious workforce. As those living through Stage 4 lockdown in Victoria would tell you, it’s not ‘working from home, it’s staying at home, during a crisis, trying to work’.

Shoutout to the very senior professor at my university who, in the university senate zoom call where we listened to another round of platitudes and magical thinking about ‘safe reopening’ didn’t mute herself and just blurted out ‘this is so stupid.’ Hero.

Right now, every university, city, state and country is each individually and collectively trying to establish when, if and how campuses might reopen and education might be reimagined, but with the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales announcing hundreds of job cuts last month and a projected loss of 21,000 jobs across the sector in the next six months, and without addressing systemic gender inequalities, without supporting vulnerable workers, well … this is, so stupid.


Dr Briony Lipton is an early career academic recognised for her research on gender inequality, leadership and feminism in higher education. Her latest monograph is Academic Women in Neoliberal Times. She tweets @briony_lipton.

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