By Dr Kate Bower, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Professor Terry Threadgold, eminent feminist scholar whose academic work has traversed the areas of English literature, performance studies, women’s studies, media studies, journalism, linguistics and legal studies.
She recently retired as Pro-Vice-Chancellor: Staff at Cardiff University, a role she described as an ‘equality champion’.
Terry is highly regarded in the UK and internationally for her work in equity and diversity in the higher education sector. Our discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating but one thing in particular struck a chord with me – her views on workload models and planning in academia.
In the Australian context (the only one I’m familiar with), workload plans are frequently derided by academics as yet another form of neo-liberal managerial control imposed on our creative minds.
Unions view them as a tool that the administration wields to corral unruly academics into line with university directives. When used incorrectly workload plans can be an exercise in box-ticking and time-wasting, contributing to the growing administrative load on academics.
However, Terry Threadgold thinks that workload models should have a central place in a feminist and equity and diversity agenda in higher education.
As a lifelong academic, Terry was aware in her role as PVC: Staff of the tendency for academics’ to work themselves into the ground if left to their own devices.
For most, if not all scholars, their work is a labour of love, a creative endeavour, a vocation in the original sense of the word.
Hence, academics’ resistance to ‘accounting’ for their work in the crude matrix of workload modeling.
Yet because of their commitment and dedication, academics frequently spend many hours working outside normal business hours – nights, early mornings and weekends.
A personal anecdote gives an indication of the commonality of the practice.
A work colleague posted a Facebook status update on a Sunday afternoon complaining that his institutional email was not functioning and asking colleagues if they were having the same problem.
Twenty-five colleagues responded noting the same problem and complaining about the work that wasn’t getting done because of it.
That is twenty-six academics working on a Sunday and not one mentioned it as exceptional!
Additional hours spent working is not necessarily problematic on its own, if it’s a decision made by an individual because they choose to devote their time to their passion.
A problem arises when it becomes the norm.
Management develops expectations about what an ordinary academic can achieve in terms of workload and outputs on the basis of what the workforce is producing – the expectation is that this work is done in a 40-hour week (in Australia the official working work is in fact 35 hours), when in reality many academics are spending 50 or even 60 hours a week working.
This means the ‘standard’ for academic achievement becomes distorted and expectations become unrealistic.
Just like any other job, an academic’s job should be achievable in normal business hours.
Overtime should be a choice not a necessity.
By now, the implications for equity should be evident but let me elaborate the point.
For some academics, working 50 or 60 hours a week is just not possible.
Women, sole parents and people with disabilities are disproportionately affected. Despite progress in the numbers of couples co-parenting, women are still more often the primary carers for children and for elderly parents.
The responsibilities of caring for children, aging or unwell parents or perhaps a sibling or partner with severe disability make it difficult to manage a 40-hour working week, let alone finding time on nights or weekends to work.
These problems can be compounded for sole parents who have similar responsibilities but no one to share the load.
Some academics with disabilities require extra time and assistance to participate in the workforce and simply do not have the option to work overtime.
An example: I’m a member of a Facebook group for academic mums and the most common complaint is the anxiety and fear caused by having to compete for jobs with colleagues who can devote many more hours to their work because they don’t have children to care for; and the networking opportunities missed by not being able to attend after-work events or international conferences.
This is where Terry Threadgold sees an opportunity for workload models to help.
If academics use the workload model to accurately account for their time and their activities; to reflect the enormous effort in terms of intellect and time invested that produces academic work; it can be advantageous to all.
As Pro-vice-chancellor Terry was able to use workload models to create a more equitable work place by demonstrating an appropriate workload in a way that was appealing to university management.
Workload models that accurately reflect the hours spent on each activity can highlight the prevalence of overtime and change the expectations of managers overseeing academics workload, meaning that all academics can participate in the workforce equally without impacting their personal and caring responsibilities.
In the case of Cardiff University, Terry and her colleagues were also able to demonstrate the need for more permanent full-time academics leading to several new appointments across the institution.
In the long run, embracing the workload plan as an equity tool created a more equitable workplace (in terms of participation), less overtime for academic staff, new full-time appointments and greater job security for those appointed from casual or contract based positions.
Maybe it’s time to embrace workload modeling and planning as a useful strategy to address equity and diversity issues in academia?
NB: This blog post was written entirely within normal business hours!