Study has implications for patriarchal institutional policies

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded “an already elusive gender inequity in the academy”. It affected women academics by interrupting their postgraduate studies – and, therefore, their academic careers – as well as destabilising their appointments and setting them back in their sabbaticals, according to a study.

While this resulted in delayed career advancement, many women experienced a career existential crisis, in which they questioned “whether an academic career is really worth it”, while issues such as promotion opportunities, probation and funding terms created uncertainty and stress.

The study, the first qualitative one on the topic in South Africa, which was done from a Global South perspective, revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic set women back in the academy.

‘The precarity of women’s academic work and careers during the COVID-19 pandemic: A South African case study’ was published in the South African Journal of Science, May-June 2022.

It was undertaken by Dr Cyrill Walters of Stellenbosch University (SU); Dr Armand Bam; the head of social impact and a senior lecturer at the SU business school, and Dr Philippa Tumubweinee, a senior lecturer at the school of architecture, planning and geomatics at the University of Cape Town.

According to the researchers, “The study shows that the variability in employment agreements for women contributes to the uncertainty that they already experience,” in terms of their careers and progression within the academy.

Referring to other research, they indicated that, before the pandemic, “gender inequalities in the academy already existed in terms of women’s recruitment, representation, remuneration, leadership and productivity”.

‘Non-citizens’ in the academy

The academic women in this study comprised non-permanent staff which included part-time employees, postdoctoral fellows, e-tutors (employed by the University of South Africa, or UNISA, South Africa’s biggest distance education institution), external markers and “those existing on the precarity of soft-funding for short-term research projects”.

The scholars refer to the Higher Education Management Information System 2020, which reveals that most academics are on temporary appointments (25,094 or 56.1%).

“The senior professoriate is still mainly white and male, while the lower levels of appointment (junior lecturer, lecturer) mainly black, especially in the former white universities.” More men (10, 314) than women (9,587) are employed as research and instruction staff, while many more women were appointed in administrative jobs (5,758 more).”

They refer to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) which revealed that, from 2005-16, the higher education sector in South Africa saw an increase in both permanent and temporary academic staff. However, this equates to a “casualisation” of academic work and an increased “precariousness” of the academic profession.

This research by Theresa O’Keefe and Aline Courtois argues that precarious work and the lack of gender parity in academia result in female academics feeling like “non-citizens” in the academy.

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