Reflections on ‘academic housekeeping’ for women in STEM | Sharon Peacock
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Reflections on ‘academic housekeeping’ for women in STEM

Reflections on ‘academic housekeeping’ for women in STEM

Professor Sharon Peacock reflects on academic housekeeping tasks, whether women take on more than their fair share, and how to overcome this

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a live conversation as part of the Women Leaders Talks, a series run by the University of Cambridge Academic Women’s Forum. What struck me as needing further discussion was the topic of women and ‘academic housekeeping’ – one of the subjects covered there.

An observation after reading thousands of curriculum vitaes

During my career in academic medicine, I have had the privilege of reading a very large number of CVs. A number that probably runs into the thousands after over 25 years of funding panels large and small, appointment committees, mentoring initiatives, and more. Throughout this period, I have noticed a common pattern that has changed little over time. It is an anecdotal observation rather than output from an academic survey, but it reflects my lived experience.

What I have observed is that the CVs of women often have considerably more responsibilities relating to ‘academic housekeeping’ when compared with their male counterparts. By this, I mean a wide range of committees, panels, courses, internal and external engagement activities.  There is a myriad of other activities that could fit the description.

Such activities are important for departments, and the purpose of this article is not to suggest that some duties are less or more important than others. But the specific issue is when the volume of such work is disproportionate for women. Some women will rightly say that this does not apply to them. But I think it will strike a chord with many readers.

The effect of taking on academic housekeeping is that it reduces the time available to pursue individual research achievements, and in consequence the outputs and impact of scientific work. This has the potential to have a knock-on effect in terms of promotion, career progression, and, ultimately, delivering the best possible science that each of us are capable of.

Why might this disparity arise?

If this assertion rings true, there are several reasons why this disparity could arise.

Senior women in STEM are often under-represented in their department, where the need to include women on panels, committees and other activities is a requirement – this can stretch a small pool of eligible people very thinly. I know from talking with many women that this is the case. This would be corrected by having greater female representation in senior roles, which is what we all strive to achieve. But in a bid to explore solutions for the moment, I am talking about the here and now.

I have also heard some women say that they want to keep their options open because they are anxious about future employment opportunities. Taking on more academic housekeeping can be seen as a way of keeping experience very broad. Several people I have spoken to consider that this increases their odds for the next job, and in some circumstances this may hold true. But in my experience, it may not lead to promotion to senior roles. Depressingly, the opposite may in fact turn out to be true; a CV that is broad and where academic outputs are reduced as a result can become a target for criticism.

Another reason that people may accept numerous tasks that prevent them from doing ‘the day job’ of innovative academic pursuit is difficulty in saying the word ‘no’. During mentoring conversations, this issue comes up very regularly. Saying no to a more senior colleague worries women because of the impression it might give that they are not a team player, and the effect it could have on future career progression or ongoing support.

So, can anything be done about it?

Below is what I have learned from experience, reading, and from observing and talking to others.

Effective time management and regular review of how you are spending your time can be used to manage demand as well as to support future plans. One of my favourite tools is to plot a graph with impact on the y axis and effort on the x axis. A line drawn at the half-way point on the x and y axes creates four quadrants (high impact, low effort; high impact, high effort; low effort, low impact; and low effort, high effort). Listing all of your major and minor tasks, meetings and responsibilities at work and putting these into one of the 4 quadrants helps to visualise how much work is low impact (to you and/or to others) and high effort.

Driving down tasks in this low impact, high effort quadrant does not have to be a sum negative. You could use this opportunity to help others who are in a more junior position to you, and who might reap benefit from taking on tasks that allow them to build up experience in academic management or enlarge their network. It is your opinion that the task is low impact for high effort, but this may relate to the stage of your career and may be viewed differently by others. Shedding responsibilities can provide an opportunity for others to grow, and thinking of women and men who might want to take on new challenges could lift everyone.

Prioritisation is also essential. Again, this can be informed by the impact/effort assessment – but goes beyond this. Identifying tasks that are of the highest importance to your work, which if not completed will have important consequences, qualify for being top of the to-do list for each day. I often find myself skirting around these to spend time on tasks that I prefer. But ranking tasks according to whether they are very important, important, somewhat important or not important will help prioritise what you do first, and what could be delegated (potentially with benefit to others) or even not completed at all if, on reflection, the task has no benefit to anyone.

If you are interested in this approach, you may want to read Eat that Frog, by Brian Tracy.

Finding positive ways to say ‘no’

Getting into the habit of saying no is important but takes practice – and can be made easier. For example, it can be helpful to delay responding to a request to give you time to reach a considered decision. For instance, a request to take on a new role during a passing conversation in the corridor that on reflection will require many hours of your time deserves thought and planning. It can be handled by being armed with a series of responses (e.g. many thanks for thinking of me, can I get back to you within 48 hours whilst I look at how I could balance this with other commitments). Introducing a 48-hour cool-off period before responding to emails can also be very helpful. Although there is a common expectation that emails require an immediate response, this is not the case unless the topic is an emergency. Often, your initial response after taking some time to think about it will be different to a more considered one sent two days later.

If you conclude that you will agree to a new task, there is an opportunity cost to this. If you are already working at full capacity, either your hours are going to have to extend (meaning less time for you or time spent with your family or friends), or something else must cease. Following on from this rationale, you could say yes to a new task but at the same time indicate that you will need to step down from another duty, which is also a way to adapt your own work portfolio over time. At the end of the day, simply saying yes to everything over time is not productive and can lead to inefficiency, ill-health, and burn-out.

If you are going to say no to a request, this can be framed as a ‘helpful no’ using the same mindset described for cessation of tasks. For example, even if you are not able to help with a new request, you can propose several people who would be a good fit. When you do this, you could think of women and men who could benefit, including those who are more junior and who could grow in their own career as a result. This way, tasks and responsibilities become more fluid and dynamic and support a wider range of people. It is also the case that the person writing an email asking you to take on a new task is likely to be pleased to receive such a reply, rather than disappointed. Their task is to find someone qualified for the task, and giving others a lift in the process can only be a good thing.

Making a lasting difference

Writing a journal can also prove powerful. Noting how you are thinking about your career, your prioritisation, and the decisions you are making – particularly those important, every-day micro-decisions that can end up being rushed – can provide a narrative overtime. Important ideas are generally committed to paper rather than left as ideas or a verbal narrative, and the same is true for how you want to work and what you want to focus on. Thinking on paper also leaves a narrative that you can go back over.

There are many reasons why women in STEM can find it challenging to progress within their chosen field. How we spend the hours of our working day is only part of the reason for this and does not take into account issues such as the affordability of childcare and workplace cultures that need to change. But reviewing our time and balancing the type of work done to keep focus on scientific growth and discovery may be part of the solution whilst the underlying problem of under-representation is fully tackled.