Falling through the cracks?

The administrator came to her with such an expression of condolences that it seemed like somebody had just died. But no. She was just pregnant. She had asked about changing her work contract, since in a couple of months or so she was about to take maternity leave and there would be some working months left over for later. Could she perhaps get a work contract that would cover both her leave of absence and the left over working months? Looking at her with such sad eyes the administrator sighed indicating that this would be difficult. The implication was that this fixed-term researcher probably posed a risk to the organization: she might return from her parental leave earlier than expected and then the university – and not just the project – would have to pay her salary.  The change from an asset to a liability was so fast that it left her head spinning.

The majority of researchers in the Finnish universities are working on fixed-term contracts or scholarships. This puts them in vulnerable positions in many respects. Our tentative findings from career interviews with women in research indicate that the work–family combination still demands the skills equal to those of a trapeze artist. This seems to hold true even though universities have gender equality plans that usually make claims about supporting the efforts of the employees in reconciling family and work. How this support comes true in practice, is still somewhat vague. Often fixed-term employees may find that they are totally dependent upon the kindness and goodwill of their colleagues to let them join projects they are not actually going to be working in because of parental leave.

Research on researchers in fixed-term employment makes visible how the entrepreneurial university is based on internalized control of its employees. There is never a good time to be a mother in academic work and in order to be researchers [women] should be more like men. Attitudes towards employees’ families may be positive as such, but pratices of academic work do not take into account child care or other care obligations. They are a private matter. (Nikunen 2014, 128, 132)

All in all, work and family issues are but one manifestation of the challenges to promoting equality in universities. If researchers mainly try to adapt to the male worker ideal and accept it as it is, how can we find and realize practices that would be included in the gender equality work of universities?

Minna Leinonen

Reference:

Nikunen, Minna (2014) The ‘entrepreneurial university’, family and gender: Changes and demands faced by fixed-term workers. Gender and Education, 26:2, 119–134, DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2014.888402.

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