Academic working hours and glass ceilings

The President of the University of Manchester, Dame Nancy Rothwell has given an interview to the Guardian newspaper in which she answers a number of questions on the impact of academic work patterns on women and their careers. Here is one of her answers:

‘I rarely work less than 70 hours a week. On the other hand it depends what you look at as work. University events in the evening are usually work but they are enjoyable; there are a lot of things I chose to read for work but is that work? And I look at research as a hobby. But I think one of the greater issues around high achieving women in HE is that it is very hard to step out of research and then back in again because of the long-term impact it has on [your] research. Your research success depends on being published. It’s a hard culture to break because it’s an international culture and people who do research don’t consider working long hours a bad thing, they do it because they love it.’

A little later in the interview she offers the view that she ‘certainly [hasn’t] experienced any gender bias.’

Having perhaps similar working habits to those of Dame Nancy Rothwell, it is not for me to criticise what she does. But if we are to have gender equality in higher education we must avoid suggesting that excessive hours are not really hard work and that they are, and should be accepted as, normal. I am sure many people share her love for what they do, but people with family or other outside responsibilities will find it much more difficult to be so tolerant of what are really unacceptable conditions.

Universities are not always good at encouraging their staff to adopt a healthy work-life balance. To do so is good in its own right, but it is also an important ingredient in tackling campus inequalities. We all need to make sure we are sending out the right messages.

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17 Comments on “Academic working hours and glass ceilings”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Would it not be a more realistic question to pose if you can survive within a university system working a 38 hour week.

  2. Eugene Gath Says:

    Yes Ferdinand -this is a post to which I hope you deserve 100 posts. First I did those 90-hour weeks for 9-10+ years, but there comes a time…. Then relationships, family etc. become considerations so how does the job accomodate that?
    In Ireland, I would say well -though as you alert us to in your frequent e-mails there are various zombies knocking at our doors. I will end this comment heer without raising too many other points.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I think these are all very valid points about academic working hours and their gender implications. I just wish that these were the only issues regarding the glass ceiling for women in academia; anecdotally at least, it would appear that even women who are prepared to work these hours (most typically at the expense of having any family life – have you ever noticed how many women in academia don’t have children by comparison to the population at large?) are still less likely to be promoted, especially to Professor, than their male counterparts.

    • anna notaro Says:

      That is so true jilly !

      • Vincent Says:

        Are you two not narrowing this roadway to gender when it’s far more cultural.
        And honestly there comes a point where the gender discussion with people in the higher professions changes to one of bemoaning the cost of domestic servants nowadays.

        • Jilly Says:

          Vincent, if what you’re getting at is that class is more powerful than gender in terms of advancement in (or even entrance into) the professions, then I entirely agree with you.

          However, that doesn’t mean that gender isn’t an issue: and it’s one which has implications for wider society, not just the individual women involved, because the cumulative effect of lack of professional advancement for women is an imbalance of power within society.

          In academia, I think that in the main gender biases are subtle and insidious, although we could all think of instances where it’s far from subtle.

          One difficulty is that I think women academics are far less likely to stand upon their dignity regarding job descriptions and seniority – if a job needs doing in the department, and no-one wants to do it, then chances are it’ll be a woman who ends up doing it, even volunteering for it in many cases.

          But far from being rewarded for this, it counts against you because a) doing those tasks takes time and energy which aren’t being put into more prestigious activities, and b) because individuals who take on those tasks become seen as not ambitious, perhaps not quite serious as scholars.

        • anna notaro Says:

          Vincent there is no narrowing down bu raising thr issue of gendrr, which is rxactly one pertaining to culture. the stats when it comes to women and career in academia and not just are appaling, to ignore them is shortsighting to say the least besides the frustration x the individual concerned

          • Vincent Says:

            Things can narrow in. And I think that’s what’s happening here. 90 hour weeks are not good for either gender. That FvP and Rothwell can devote that amount of time is an error to my mind for it creates a false level of attainment. That same level of insanity was rife with the young hospital doctors.
            When gender is carried in it immediately puts men on the defensive. This whether it’s needed or not.
            Put another way, house prices were a function of TWO incomes but one lifestyle.

          • Mary Says:

            When gender is carried in it immediately puts men on the defensive.

            Apparently so. But why should women who perceive a need to talk about gender be made responsible for men’s reactions?


  4. As an academic parent with three primary school aged children, I’m so grateful for your post. As Vincent says, the challenge is surviving within the 38 hour frame when the expectations for output are based on what can be achieved by working 70-90 hours. No matter how much you love research or enjoy work functions, the laundry pile and the homework are still there, along with a whole host of other non-negotiable demands.

    But it’s not just women who are affected. I have male colleagues with young children who are also spending their weekends grading papers at the soccer or surreptitiously answering student emails while watching the school play, and finally returning exhausted to research after they have got everyone to bed.

    All this seems a long way from the vision of the contented researcher curled up with a book at the end of the day.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Hmm insanity and academia, that’s an interesting topic x a blog such as this one🙂


  5. I dropped out of academia after a fairly successful 10 years not long after a senior academic suggested that I should try to get my research day on a Friday ‘so that you can get three full days of research in.’ That was in the first week back after the birth of my first child. Two more children later. and after inventing a new career, I’ve made my peace with it but I still feel real regret that as an academic couple we couldn’t find a way to reconcile family and work because we were expected to treat work as a kind of religious vocation.


    • When I told a senior feminist colleague that we were unexpectedly going to have a third child her first response — her very first response — was “Oh no, this is really going to be a career setback for you.”

      My partner and I were also in the grip of all sorts of “Oh no” thoughts about this development that were of a fairly practical nature, but to be honest, this one hadn’t been top of the list. And since that moment I’ve never stopped thinking about the possibility that something very important about our human sense of self is warped by our belief in academia as a higher calling that surpasses all the other things we might achieve, not just as women but as people.

  6. cormac Says:

    illy – “if a job needs doing in the department, and no-one wants to do it, then chances are it’ll be a woman who ends up doing it, even volunteering for it in many cases”
    That is so true, at least in my department,I have noticed it time and again. And you are also right that they get very little thanks for it.
    I wonder what is at the root of this

  7. Gordon Tait Says:

    If Dame Nancy Rothwell is regularly working 70+ hour weeks this is not only in breach of European Working hours directives, it is taking a job opportunity away from someone else!!! If academics did not work these excessive hours, it might be harder for central government to cut funding as Universitys would not be getting 30 hours a week free of charge from each of their academic employees. Not that I’m blaming academics for the culture of the working environment they are employed in.

  8. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Gordon – you are quite right – it IS taking a job from somebody else. But when universities clamp down on hiring more staff in a misguided attempt to cut costs, no one else is going to get the work anyway and it just won’t get done. Quality drops off the radar and if someone doesn’t put in all the extra hours they get the blame for not being able to keep standards up. That needs to change, and fast. On the flip-side of this there are plenty academics who appear to be left to their own devices and contribute very little overall. They then seem to be rewarded. And yes, they do tend to be men, sorry folks!


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