Guest blog

Blog – Who does the ‘housework’ in academia?

Blog from Dr Gaia Brezzo

Reading Time: 6 minutes

After a long day in the lab, I was – mostly absent mindedly – scrolling through my Twitter feed in an effort to wind down my brain before bedtime. Little did I know, I would end up doing quite the oppositive. My thumb stopped its upwards flicking motion and my eyes focused on an article title. It read, “Women end up doing the academic housework. While women actively participate in the practical work of their organisation, men dodge it.”

Of course we have all come up against societal gender roles, a set of ‘rules’ i.e stereotypes, which dictate our roles, attitudes, behaviours, and actions according to our gender. Among the countless ‘rule’ hoops we allegedly have to jump through to fit the societal mould, one, in particular, has always bothered me: women are expected to and thus take up the majority of the household chores.

And this same pattern seems to have trickling down in working life, and academia is no exception.

In this blog I am going to discuss the role of gender in academic working life. How men and women view and respond to academic ‘housework’, and why this overt female-heavy contribution is detrimental to women’s academic careers.

The study that formed the basis of the above article, published in Current Sociology is led by Professor Järvinen and Professor Mik-Meyer. Together, they aimed to investigate the mechanisms behind the gender-unequal distribution of academic service or housework via 163 qualitative interviews with male and female associate and full professors in the social sciences at three Danish institutions.

Firstly, they set out to define academic housework, i.e any work in an academic setting which is not meritorious. For example, the mentoring of students, the administration of seminars, the organisation of conferences, and the participation in local or in other committees. Secondly – and of novelty in the field – they split how the participants addressed academic admin into four categories: compliance, evasiveness, barter and investment. They did this, to better define and identify how men and women respond and participate in the academic housework, if at all.

The results were overwhelmingly clear. Women end up participating more actively and did most of the internal service work, compared to men. But compartmentalisation into the four above categories was almost entirely gendered.

Women did what was expected of them, they were governed by compliance, i.e x needs doing, so I will do it. The study reports that two-thirds of women describe situations of compliance, where they have either willingly or unwillingly accepted service activities, as compared to one-fifth of men. Previous research has also shown that women are asked to conduct academic housework more often than men and that women are more inclined to accept the requests when asked. Some women also considered academic service work as a type of investment, i.e it will help my future career at some stage.

For fun

Academic housework refers to the often undervalued and invisible tasks that are necessary for the functioning of academic institutions but do not directly contribute to one’s professional advancement.

Men, on the other hand engaged in evasiveness, unless the activity had a positive effect on their careers. Some of the interviewed male professors and associate professors, stated that they chose to actively ignore emails, told their Head of Department that their time would be best spent elsewhere, identified themselves as poor or incompetent at performing service tasks, or disengaged by saying they didn’t have the time for it. Some of the men that did partake, reported what they described as minimal engagement – after all individual contribution isn’t monitored. Men more than women also engaged in barter or trade-offs, where for example, an increased involvement in service work is the price to be paid for a promotion.

As I was reading extracts from these interviews, I couldn’t help but see myself in the female professor accounts and at the same time, I have never found myself having the same attitudes or reasoning as some of the male professors in avoiding academic housework. I too feel that academic admin needs to be done and everyone should contribute to the running of the department, lab, or university. And that resistance or hesitance in accepting service tasks would be perceived as a sign of inability or laziness.

But what is the impact of a higher load of academic admin on women and their careers? And could findings from this study help explain why women have a more complex path to securing an academic position? Yes. They do.

Merit and qualifications should determine how high you climb the academic ladder, but if in addition to managing one’s own career you find yourself managing services and practicalities at your institution, your opportunities will differ compared to those colleagues that don’t partake in academic admin. And this seems to disproportionately affect women.

Findings report that on average, women spend 6 hours less than men on research per week and more time on academic service tasks and student advising. This is time taken away from pursuing research grants or writing papers, which are the academic currency for promotions. And adding insult to injury, academic service work has been shown to hold very little currency when faculty members are evaluated for hiring and promotions.

So how do we fix this? And hopefully at the same time keep women working in academia.

This gendered engagement appears to be institutionally embedded, giving some faculty members – men more often than women – the right to say no whilst expecting others – women more often than men – to pick up the slack. This requires a change at an organisational level. Having clear expectations and guidelines on which and how much each faculty members should engage with these academic service tasks is paramount. And at the same time, recognising and assigning value to academic housework and citizenship, i.e making them an essential part of promotion, instead of a bargaining chip.

If this institutional change is implemented, this should encourage a shift in attitude – a rebalancing of the individual vs. collective interests, by both men and women. Individuals that partake in extensive academic housework may finally have the space to weigh up each activity against their careers and end this obligation-driven engagement. Individuals that do not partake in extensive academic admin, may in turn find themselves wanting to take up more service work to advance their status and progress their career.

But of course, not all men avoid academic housework, and not all women take it up. As the authors themselves point out, it would be interesting to follow up individuals that show gendered-atypical performance and the impact this has on their careers.

This study has really given me a lot to think about and reflect on. If I was to draw up a list of all the academic housework, admin and tasks that I have engaged with from the start of my PhD up to now, would I be further ahead? I.e would I have had more time for experiments and thus have more papers published?  Would I have more grants against my name?

Bottom line, I can’t change the past, but I can definitely change the way I approach this going forward. Learning to say no – and really mean it, without the fear of being branded as difficult or unhelpful. Learning to put myself – and my science – first. And speaking up about this issue in my own department to combat gendered biases.

Dr Gaia Brezzo Profile Picture. Gaia is wering oval glasses she has long dark brown hair, and a green lanyard.

Dr Gaia Brezzo


Dr Gaia Brezzo is a Research Fellow based within the UK Dementia Research Institute at The University of Edinburgh. Gaia’s research focuses on understanding how immune alterations triggered by stroke shape chronic maladaptive neuroimmune responses that lead to post-stroke cognitive decline and vascular dementia. Raised in Italy, Gaia came to the UK to complete her undergraduate degree, and thankfully, stuck around. Gaia writes about her work and career challenges, when not biking her way up and down hills in Edinburgh.


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