Another sorry tale? Why career women end up staying at home…

One of the notorious issues working women face is the dreaded work-life balance. In the Nordic countries where portfolio careers with multiple employments (in various projects, to varying degrees, over diverse timespans) is a norm among academics and researchers during the early and middle years of their careers, it is, indeed, often not only the work-life balance that is at issue but also the work-work balance, i.e. the question of how to do justice to the range of demands of your various projects, not least when they are in different geographical locations and in different organizations.

Once women have children or other care responsibilities their room for manoeuvre becomes increasingly curtailed as they are – even in the Nordic countries – largely left to pick up the domestic pieces. Our research has shown that women in tech-driven careers are more likely to sustain such careers, indeed embark on them, if they have a partner with regular predictable hours who can work from home and effectively take up both house and care work. Where this is not the case, women struggle and can end up leaving academe (if they have worked as researchers there) for a less onerous role in the private sector where they undertake research but are not required also to publish, apply for funding etc.

Shani Orgad’s (2019) Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality (Columbia UP) explores why women in high-powered careers in London end up staying at home to look after their children and what the effects of this are. Orgad interviewed 35 highly educated career women who decided to become stay-at-home mothers, and 5 men. Challenging ‘preference’ and choice feminist views of women supposedly choosing to stay at home, this volume tells a story of impossible work demands (the idea of ‘balance’ is plainly laughable), partners who are largely absent due to their own impossible work demands, and relentless pressures to be everything: high-flying career woman and super-mom. Men are not confronted with any such demands; for them the work-life imbalance in favour of work remains largely unquestioned.

One man Orgad interviewed maintained that ‘the tech industry, particularly the social media end, has so many more female execs because their working model is much more family friendly, intrinsically is much more life friendly, they don’t have work-life separation, they have a kind of ménage and that works much better.’ (Orgad, 2019: 160) This is not, however, how the women Orgad interviewed saw it. Indeed, the covid-19 pandemic may be teaching some people that working from home – on the edges around keeping children entertained and partners from getting depressed – is often not very easy. Both female and male colleagues of mine have told me that they have got nothing done in the past 10 weeks because of being locked down at home. Those who have been productive have often been people living on their own for whom nothing much had changed in terms of their daily work routine as a function of covid.

Covid is certainly shifting the employment paradigm – work from home if you can – but it is also highlighting what the limitations of that imperative are. It may, in time, lead to a thorough review of the work cultures that many take for granted and that urgently need a serious overhaul to re-balance work and life.

Gabriele Griffin 

Thinking Nordwit research with Joan Acker

Gender, Work and Organization dedicates its last issue of 2019 to Professor and feminist sociologist Joan Acker (1924-2016) celebrating her work, life and legacy. Joan has had an enormous impact on feminist sociology and organization studies through introducing  well-known conceptualizations such as gendered organizations and gendering organizational theory, gendered processes of organizations, the abstract bodiless worker and inequality regimes. Joan’s theoretical views are based on a careful and rich empirical work and analysis. She binds the empirical observations and theoretical thinking together so that they form thought-provoking insights. Continue reading “Thinking Nordwit research with Joan Acker”

Designing action research in ICT work across sectors in rural Norway

As we continue our research in Nordwit, we are increasingly focusing on conducting action research, for which we have been in contact with ICT companies and organizations across sectors in rural areas in Norway. Action research is applied as a method for improving organizations’ practices of ensuring gender equality and increasing women’s participation in ICT work and technology-driven innovation. As the method implies, several circles of inquiry need to be developed, through which organizations will be involved in the process of identifying a problem and implementing the presumed solution. I am using this blogpost to think out loud about some challenges in designing action research in ICT work across sectors in rural Norway.

Image from Pexels.com

The ICT organizations with which we have been in contact differ greatly in the type of work they do. Some might have a technological focus, such as programming or designing IT systems, or they might be involved in designing IT solutions and services in the new contexts of digitalization. Despite these differences, we are able to identify some patterns in how they perceive the work in terms of promoting gender equality and overcoming barriers to gender balance in the organisations. One of the characteristics of many ICT organizations located in rural areas on the west coast of Norway is their small size, in that they often have under 50 employees. According to the Norwegian Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act, all employers, regardless of size, have a general duty to be active in promoting gender equality. For all employers in the public sector, and for private employers with more than 50 employees, there is a set of requirements for investigating the possible existence of discrimination or other barriers to equality, and concerning how the statutory duty is to be carried out.

We meet many small companies that are often willing to listen to us and be challenged by us, but they do not have resources allocated for investigating barriers to gender equality. As Sara Ahmed (2012, p. 94) observed of diversity work, gender mainstreaming ‘is messy, even dirty, work,’ referring to the tensions diversity workers face in attempting to enforce changes in the institutions from within. As we conduct action research, we become those who need to do ‘that job’, in order to show people where and how their efforts fall short.  As these resources are usually lacking in the companies in question, there is an urgent need to construct guidelines on how, for instance, to increase women’s participation in ICT work and technology-driven innovation, in ways which are as uncomplicated as possible and are do-able within the context of the organisation. The challenge we face is to formulate guidelines which are workable and relatively straightforward to follow, without losing their power to contribute to change, especially when small companies do not have enough resources to continually do the “dirty work”.

Reference: 
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gilda Seddighi 

From the Nordwit reading group

The Tampere Nordwit team has an on-going reading group on gender in research and innovation. The participants have varied as the work situations and affiliations have changed. However, the group has continuously consisted of 5-6 participants, including the ‘core’ Nordwit members and associates: one doctoral student, one post doc and several senior researchers. The readings have been selected collectively to serve the interests of the participants, and they have covered classics, new texts, texts that have contributed to our conceptual and methodological understanding. Typically, each of the group gatherings discusses two articles that the participants have read beforehand.

In the spring 2020, we read, among others, the article ‘Sheep with five legs’ (Gender practices in the construction of academic excellence, Organization 2011) by Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop, the latter also a member of the Nordwit International Scientific Advisory Board. The article has been widely acknowledged in the research literature and is one of the ‘classics’ for us. Continue reading “From the Nordwit reading group”

Companion Pieces: Technologization, Transhumanism and Questions of the Limits of Innovation

Quite by chance (or was it?), I found myself reading Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (London: Granta, 2017) and Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel Frankissstein (London: Penguin, 2019), one after the other. They make interesting companion pieces.

O’Connell investigates the transhumanist movement in its various forms. Here humans are viewed as constituting suboptimal systems, imperfect structures that can be enhanced through life extension projects such as cognitive augmentation with the aim of transcending the biological body and mind. O’Connell references certain procedures (e.g. cryopreservation of whole bodies and/or skulls only) and companies (e.g. Alcor in Arizona) that resurface in Winterson’s novel – it is as if they have been on the same trip but take somewhat different narrative approaches to exploring the same phenomenon: how to defeat death (or not) and live longer, ideally forever.

Winterson interweaves the tale of Mary Shelley’s production of Frankenstein into a contemporary narrative of technology-enhanced sociality (the world of sexbots, cryopreservation – again -, technocapitalism) where the issue of man defeating ‘nature’/biology/death through technology is replayed in a significantly more humorous and hence absurdist fashion than O’Connell manages.

Techno-optimism or techno-pessimism – is that the question? O’Connell’s exploration leads him into a world that is, as he repeatedly puts it, overwhelmingly male – men implanting devices into themselves, running cryofacilities, lecturing, or is that preaching, around the western, mainly anglophone world. Winterson’s world is less male-dominated but the fantasies of transcending human-ness through technology are, on the optimistic side, mostly displayed by males, on the pessimistic side queried by females. Different worlds?

Gabriele Griffin

Doing Nordwit research in exceptional times

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Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

The outbreak of the coronavirus and the disease COVID-19 has not only affected our health and safety but the possibilities and ways of work as well. This also pertains to social scientific research that we engage in Nordwit research teams. While in Nordwit we are quite accustomed to regular meetings in virtual surroundings, remote work has increased the use of communication technologies in my local team. Since our university is in lock-down for the most part and we cannot go to our offices, we are on the fast track of adopting tools for meeting and sharing our current material. Some are taking courses; some are learning by doing. Virtual meetings are important in giving rhythm and sense of direction to the work we’re doing but also for care, we get a chance to check up on each other.

Collecting interview data has changed, too. As a researcher used to meeting interviewees face to face, I am now taking the uneasy path of organizing career interviews online. It raises methodological questions, such as: How will interaction dynamics change in conversing online? Will I miss important clues when I am online? Will the sense of confidentiality be adequate enough for sharing important and sometimes hurtful experiences? Sensitivity to emerging ethical issues is also important when interviewees are working from home, often surrounded by kids who might be needing care and attention in the middle of the interview session.

As it should, such an acute crisis gives us pause. Professionally, these exceptional times with their restrictions raise questions about the world of work our research subjects are experiencing now: Has the virus outbreak and restrictions related to it affected the ways women view their careers technology? How is this situation changing their businesses and research environments? A lot of the women I’ve interviewed have kids and families. If they do remote work, how can they arrange it? Do they struggle with very concretely combining childcare and work?

These are only some of the questions that could be raised. We will see a rise in the need of social scientific knowledge to understand the vastness of effects of the virus outbreak on different levels of our societies.

Minna Leinonen

Trondheim Workshop on Gender and Equity in Academia

meritocracy
Image from Pixabay

A couple of weeks ago, just before the expansion of the corona-virus in the Nordic countries, I attended a workshop “Gender and Equity in the Contemporary Academy: Kick-Off Workshop for the GENDIM Project in Trondheim, Norway. The GENDIM project, led by Professor Vivian Lagesen from Norwegian University of Science and Technology, investigates the gender dynamics underlying gender imbalance among university academics. The project takes as its starting point the concept “epistemic living space” (Felt 2009), enabling the investigation of epistemic, spatial, temporal, symbolic and social dimensions of academic work and career building in the current neoliberal environment.

Several presentations discussed the discrepancy between gender balance and meritocracy. It is generally agreed that gender balance is a good thing and work to reach gender balance in academia is an important goal. At the same time, people, both men and women, emphasise the importance of academic merits in university recruitments and career progression. Female academics in particular, tend to assure over and over again that they have attained their positions due to their merits, not because of gender balance measures. The same tension between gender balance and meritocracy is apparent also in our interviews with Finnish female academics.

How to become a professor and have career success was another topic that resonates very well with our Finnish findings, just to name a few issues that were eagerly discussed over the workshop. Based on interview material gathered in Norway, Vivian Lagesen distinguished four narratives of how professors make sense of their career trajectories: 1. Narratives of self-inclusion, emphasising hard work in a meritocratic and competitive system, 2. Narrative of ‘tailwind’ in which the interviewees, often with an academic background, have always taken more or less for granted that they will become professors,  3. Narrative of supported inclusion, characterised by help, encouragement and support from networks, and 4. Narratives of ‘headwind’, involving various hardships in a chilly university climate. Sarah R. Davies, drawing on her interviews, gave four pieces of advice of how to become a professor: Work hard, Know the right people, Be lucky, and Be focused. This logic, she underlined, represents individualisation of responsibility.

As a whole, the workshop raised a wide array of important issues concerning, among other things, gender, career, race, policy, power, and inclusion in the neoliberal university context. Both similarities and differences among the Nordic countries became evident. This will offer valuable background against which our Finnish findings can be mirrored and reflected on.

References:
Felt, U. (2009) Knowing and living in academic research: Convergence and heterogeneities in European research cultures. Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

 

Oili-Helena Ylijoki