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Driving women out

By: | August 23, 2017

How MUN’s reliance on contract labour is creating a hostile environment for female professors.

Robin Durnford
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When I started teaching at Memorial University’s (MUN) Grenfell Campus five years ago I had to leave my infant son with family and commute an hour to work, often through rough weather. There was no childcare available on campus.

As a result of the commute, I had to pump bottles of milk from my body every spare moment that I wasn’t driving or teaching. I pumped before class and after office hours. I shared an office because I was on contract, so in order to get privacy I sat on a toilet in a washroom and did last minute class prep while pumping. The only real support I got that semester was a whisper about this rarely used wheelchair accessible washroom from a friendly colleague who had used it herself a couple of years before.

This is the real culture on university campuses, even as there is much talk about feminism and intersectionality.

For a woman on a contract, though, the hypocrisy is clear: as conversations swirl in classrooms and spill out into the halls, her body, her labour, her humanity, even her feminism, do not count because they involve acknowledging the inequality still deeply embedded within the physical and intellectual framework of campus life.

Any feminism that is not material and does not take into account women’s paid and unpaid labour is no feminism at all because it ignores the needs and experiences of most women in this province, and indeed across the planet.

On the very campuses, including MUN’s, where these issues are supposed to be freely discussed, there is a silent inequality between men and women, and in many cases between those women who benefit from the prevailing academic hierarchy, including those in administration, and those who do not.

This inequality is created by a system that does not offer childcare, at least at Grenfell Campus, to part or in some cases even full-time faculty; that lacks clear access to maternity leave for pregnant women working contracts; that lacks the political will to address the gendered wage gap; that demonstrates bias against female professors through student evaluations; and despite new research showing that women are carrying the burden of service work on campus while seeing few rewards, at the expense of their own writing and research.

It is an old story really, but one that is reaching a crisis point for women—and men—in academia because of the university’s increasing reliance on contract labour.

The illusion of equality

It used to be that back in the ‘old days’, of which some on campus still speak rather too fondly, that professors were all men. They spent their days teaching and researching and publishing (often sexist) books while their wives planned dinner parties for faculty and took care of the kids. When women did get more actively involved in university life it was as adjuncts, thus that term was originally used for these so-called “housewives” of the department.

Of course, if you talk to students, the stereotypical professor is still often the absent-minded bushy-haired white male—somewhere between Einstein and Indiana Jones—with his head in the clouds. I, too, have a great deal of affection and respect for some of these archetypal white men and their love of other dead white dudes such as John Keats and Robert Browning (although I can also find much room to admire Gwendolyn Brooks and Elizabeth Bishop).

But it is also true—as these fine poets would be the first to tell us—that looks can be deceiving. Bushy hair and a spoiled male attitude does not necessarily a brilliant professor make.

In fact, these days, brilliant or not, some professors look like me. They wear lipstick and heels and skirts—or androgenous suits and hair—and sometimes they smile a lot, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they have to breastfeed in the bathroom even as their students—oblivious to their own gender and race biases—give them lower evaluations, which does have the potential to harm their careers, just because they are chicks.

Pull Quote Robin Durnford Contract Work 1Meanwhile, the grumpy bushy-haired patriarch who appears not to have changed his shirt in a week—a sign of his intellectualism, you see—but who also doesn’t read the material before class and hasn’t published an article for half a century, gets wonderful ratings for the pureness of his tenured thought.

These days the very campuses which claim to create a space for free speech, radical thought, and rigorous research cannot see what is right there in their own washrooms: women who are told to keep their bodies under wraps and their issues hush hush.

If a woman on repeated contracts gets pregnant, say, in January and her baby is due in September (or October or November, and so on) she risks losing her contract to a colleague — no doubt a younger male colleague untroubled by such worries (except if his wife happens to be a woman on a contract).

I admit to having had such thoughts myself: that I should plan any potential pregnancy around the university calendar. At that point the university—where so many people support women’s right to choose—is, in effect, more or less choosing what I do with my body through the threat of career reprisal. This might not be the intention, but it is the effect. Through all of the supposed free debate on campus, this domination of the woman’s body is never discussed except in hushed tones, in back rooms or after a glass (or two) of wine, by women who are navigating these terrible dilemmas.

Women on contracts have the bare minimum of workplace protections, and for one-third of the year—if they are ‘lucky’ enough to have an eight-month contract—no protections at all. What’s more, every spring many of them have to reapply for the job they are already doing—I have been interviewed three times for the same job—and this opens up other avenues for dehumanization and discrimination, especially when it comes to women, who are statistically far more likely to be sexually harassed or bullied.

The potential for these problems is endless on any increasingly hierarchical university campus with a more and more vulnerable workforce, and it only stands to reason that women—especially ballsy feminists—would be more vulnerable to certain forms of abuse.

Most studies of contract labour, when these studies exist at all—and there is a reason there is so little data—do not take gender balance into account, but we do know this: as recently as 2014, 47 percent of MUN’s faculty were hired on a short-term basis, and the research we do have shows that, in Canada, “the majority of part-time faculty in precarious employment situations are female.”

Pull Quote Robin Durnford Contract Work 2Research also shows that men still tend to occupy the senior academic ranks and leadership positions in Canadian universities. Even within the Humanities—where graduate students tend to be predominantly female—women occupy only 47.5 percent of full-time faculty positions. This begs the question as to where all those female grad students go, but also about the role gender plays in the fact that salaries in the Humanities skew so much lower than those in male-dominated fields such as science and engineering.

Consider also that Newfoundland and Labrador, according to this labour study, has the highest wage gap in the country. Women in Newfoundland and Labrador earn an incredible 66 percent of what their male colleagues earn. This statistic alone should have us marching in the streets.

We need more data on how female faculty, especially contract faculty, fare compared to their male colleagues. At Wilfred Laurier University, for example, women forced their university to pay up only after a gender equity analysis explained what was really going on. There is no doubt that women on repeated contracts are losing income, benefits, funding for their retirement, as we speak. And the longer this goes on, and the more conditions deteriorate, the more women, like myself, will leave academia even before we get on the tenure track, which is already out of reach for some.

We need to turn the tide, and fast. Women leaving academia will have ramifications for everyone, most notably for female students who often look to female professors as mentors and models. If women are driven out of academia because of the short-term thinking of the market we will once again be left with a professoriate limited in perspective. A resurgence—with no doubt a few ‘exceptional’ women thrown in—of those backwards mythologies about who is and can be an intellectual, cannot be far behind.

My case (and I know I’m not alone)

When I got offered a contract at Grenfell Campus for this coming school year I almost didn’t take it. Even after all the years I have devoted to teaching, research, and creative work—and all the public investment in me as a professor—I couldn’t help but think that there must be something better out there. I seriously considered leaving even though I know that this is what I am good at, what I have spent my life doing, even feel called to do. I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some other employer out there who would benefit from and find value in all the energy and talents I have and want to give. The university certainly doesn’t.

Pull Quote Robin Durnford Contract Work 3In the time I have spent in Corner Brook teaching my heart out and publishing books my pay has been cut and my workload increased. The planned childcare centre I was promised by the former campus VP herself was scrapped after the provincial government’s 2016 austerity budget (after years of heel-dragging when times were supposedly good, although mind you, no one told contract workers that times were good and that the coffers were flush). My research and creative work continues to go unfunded and underappreciated by a university that cannot fully acknowledge the contributions of a professor on a teaching term contract.

It is not the whole story, but I do believe that ‘adjuncts’ are still being treated like the housewives of departments. It is a feminized workforce, the new ‘pink collar’ labour, and so the work of contract faculty is treated as such. Only in a truly patriarchal, Orwellian, and ruthless society could an institution that pretends to celebrate egalitarianism be so content to exploit my labour in the best ‘housewife’ tradition, and demand my Betty Draper silence.

Any new glossy marketing campaign, any new building or grand infrastructure project, a bloated administration — in fact any new scheme, is, and has been, given priority over the university’s own workers. But professors and instructors are the people who do the real work of ‘selling’ the university in the only way that’s real and that matters: by inspiring and mentoring the students every single day, including in the summer, with their teaching and with their creativity and research.

Unfortunately women in the university, especially those on repeated contracts, often end up like me at the end of that long cold semester of 2012. Sure, I felt like a hero for a while. I launched my first collection of poetry that April after one of my best semesters teaching, and I did it all while commuting and breastfeeding and pumping in the bathroom.

But by the time I reached sunny Georgia to reunite with my husband I passed him the bubbly little baby I’d somehow managed to nurse to red-cheeked health, and then I collapsed onto the bed in exhaustion.

Even as, at that very moment, Grenfell Campus cut my email, stopped paying me, and shruggingly told me that, sorry, your future with the university is uncertain, I dreamt of the four big stacks of papers and exams I had waiting for me when I woke up.

Robin Durnford is a poet from the west coast of Newfoundland. She has published three books of poetry since 2012: A Lovely Gutting (2012), Fog of the Outport (2013), and Half Rock (2016), the latter of which was nominated for the 2017 E. J. Pratt Poetry Award. She received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Alberta in 2013 and is currently at work on a new semi-autobiographical poetry collection, Gap-Toothed Girl, about being a woman in the arts. She will be starting her fourth contract at Grenfell Campus in the fall of 2017.

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