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Retaining Women Faculty: The Problem of Invisible Labor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2021

Rebecca A. Reid
University of Texas at El Paso
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Strategies for How Men Can Advance Gender Equity in Political Science
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Growing research identifies problems in academia that contribute to the “leaky pipeline,” wherein academia fails to retain women faculty due to salary inequalities (Ginther Reference Ginther2004), publication inequities (Mathews and Anderson Reference Mathews and Andersen2001; Teele and Thelen Reference Teele and Thelen2017), and promotion disparities (Misra et al. Reference Misra, Lundquist, Holmes and Agiomavritis2011; Monforti and Michelson Reference Monforti and Michelson2008; Perna Reference Perna2001; Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group 2017). Furthermore, “having children amplifies and intensifies all of the obstacles female scholars already face in academia” (Windsor and Crawford Reference Windsor and Crawford2020, 276). As a result, nearly a third of tenured women consider leaving academia (Hurtado et al. Reference Hurtado, Eagan, Pryor, Whang and Tran2012). Yet, little scholarship focuses on the disproportionate burdens of invisible labor on women and faculty of color (Turner 2002). Invisible labor consists of student-initiated (Whitaker Reference Whitaker2017) mentorship, in which faculty provide “hands-on attention” to “serve as role models, mentors, and even surrogate parents” (June Reference June2015) and engage in caregiving and emotional work (Hochschild Reference Hochschild1983), especially pertaining to student diversification and inclusion (Flaherty Reference Flaherty2019). This time-consuming work often is overlooked and undervalued because it is considered unnecessary and voluntary. Combined with rampant inequities in research and teaching, it is no surprise that women would consider alternative careers when overburdened with this service while remaining unacknowledged, underappreciated, and exhausted for it.

Invisible labor is necessary and valuable to universities and departments because it directly ties into teaching, mentorship, and student success. This work supports students by helping them contextualize family expectations and pressures; mental and physical health issues; and assault, racism, colonialism, and other aggressions. It teaches skills such as navigating power dynamics, conflict resolution, and leadership. Invisible labor responds to students’ needs and generates crucial relationships such that they feel that faculty—and thus departments—welcome them, value them, and care about them as a person. This labor therefore directly contributes to student recruitment, retention, and success.

Yet, invisible labor can be exploitative for women because they are predominantly assumed to take on caregiving roles associated with gender stereotypes and motherhood. Furthermore, this exploitation often is exacerbated by the incompatibility of academia and motherhood, which holds women back professionally and requires them to “solve” work–life balances (Ginther and Hayes Reference Ginther and Hayes2003; Hesli, Lee, and Mitchell Reference Hesli, Lee and Mitchell2012; Hochschild and Machung Reference Hochschild and Machung2012). Beyond their standard professional obligations as faculty, working mothers thus are faced with two additional “second shifts” in which women are relied on for caregiving and homemaking for their family at home and for the “care of the academic family” (Guarino and Borden Reference Guarino and Borden2017). Women thereby incur compounded invisible-labor responsibilities in both private and professional settings that remain uncredited, devalued, and ignored.

Yet, rather than suggesting that faculty avoid this work (Pyke Reference Pyke2011), departments should offer credit for it. They could assign a departmental committee to create a consensual, explicit definition of invisible labor that fits the unique needs of the department, faculty, and students. Defining invisible labor should consider that faculty vary in terms of the types of services they are able to provide, are comfortable providing, and are expected to provide. Furthermore, the types of invisible labor that faculty engage in can shift over time. Hence, defining this work within a context of existing faculty engagement in invisible labor may be helpful. Definitions should be inclusive, expanding upon traditionally narrow, masculine conceptions of “work” (Budd Reference Budd, Crain, Poster and Cherry2016) and including racialized tasks that require faculty of color to preserve white privileging systems in academia (Wingfield and Skeete Reference Wingfield, Skeete, Crain, Poster and Cherry2016). As built and largely controlled by white men, academia has entrenched and perpetuated social inequalities that maintain white men as the default for scientific inquiry, “objective” observation, moral authority, and work ethic (Reid and Curry Reference Reid and Curry2019; Thomas Reference Thomas2017). Definitions of invisible labor therefore should expand beyond traditional notions of service and work as performed by white men.

Because all crediting strategies depend on the distinction between basic faculty responsibilities and invisible labor, definitions likely will vary by department. Some departments may select to include (1) mentoring marginalized students to assist them in navigating college and potentially racially hostile environments; (2) assisting students with application materials for graduate programs, jobs, scholarships, and internships; (3) offering professionalization training for resumes, interviewing, and salary negotiation; and (4) being a caregiver, “listening ear, shoulder to cry on, mentor, tutor, life coach, stand-in parent, friend, therapist, financial planner, etc.” (Grollman Reference Grollman2015).

However it is defined, credit must be consistently acknowledged within faculty evaluations, perhaps within teaching or student mentorship dossiers. The purpose is not to add service requirements or penalize faculty not engaged in this work but rather to give credit to those engaged and ensure that other service obligations are distributed more equitably. For example, faculty can record the number of hours engaged in this work. Alternatively, faculty can provide summaries of their work or impact, which avoids quantification, promotes self-reflection, and provides information about student needs. Faculty can receive equal or more credit for “more” work in either method. Perhaps the best strategy is to create a voluntary committee for faculty engaging in invisible labor in which all faculty receive the same credit and an equitable reduction of other service obligations. The benefits of this strategy are that it requires no extensive recording or self-assessment, avoids inflexible bright-line rules, reduces potential faculty competition for credit, offers a supportive faculty network, and makes this work equivalent to other service requirements in terms of priority and importance. Regardless, each department must have an honest discussion to determine how best to recognize its faculty. These strategies are not exhaustive and can be amended to fit departmental needs. No one should be mandated to engage in invisible labor, but faculty who do should receive credit for their work, like any other service commitment.

In addition, departments should consider reinforcing more systemic connections with campus resources, including counseling and health centers, disability services, and veterans’ affairs. Similarly, universities must ensure adequate funding and accessibility for students to use these campus resources and ensure that they focus on student assistance rather than merely university liability. These connections will reduce the need for faculty to engage in the types of invisible labor that they may not be comfortable with or trained to provide. Furthermore, to reduce the exploitation of women via compounded invisible-labor responsibilities, universities must ensure that policies designed to protect mothers’ careers are communicated transparently as well as consistently and equitably applied rather than ignored or bargained for (Windsor and Crawford Reference Windsor and Crawford2020).

While individual allyship and acknowledgment of invisible labor is necessary, it is not sufficient. It must be institutionalized. Allyship requires that we take on the self-education and self-reflection to improve our understanding of the gendered nature of academia and society and then find ways to address them within ourselves and the environments that we inhabit. Hence, institutions also must be reformed to adequately include, value, and credit everyone. Although invisible labor may be disproportionately undertaken by women, many (white) men are highly engaged in invisible labor and provide substantial support to women and faculty of color. Similarly, being a woman does not automatically imply solidarity with other women or engagement in invisible labor. Hence, providing credit for invisible labor acknowledges the work that all engaged faculty are doing. As such, finding ways to generate institutionalized credit for all forms of contributions means that we have faculty who feel seen and valued by the institutions within which they reside.

Allyship requires that we take on the self-education and self-reflection to improve our understanding of the gendered nature of academia and society and then find ways to address them within ourselves and the environments that we inhabit.

Allyship thus requires active work to identify bias within institutions and initiate dialogues to reform them—not simply waiting for women to “lean in” or speak up and not only when convenient or socially advantageous (Sandberg Reference Sandberg2013). Allies ensure that women are given the opportunities they need to be heard, feel heard, and be credited. Allies lend their platform to raise up women’s voices without requiring women to assimilate to (cis, white) male standards (Cunningham, Crandall, and Dare Reference Cunningham, Crandall and Dare2017; Orr Reference Orr2019). Allies do not allow women to be present; they make space for women—including women of color, queer women, and transwomen. All of these rules apply equally to our institutions. Hence, allyship assigns to each of us the responsibility to change institutional structures to value and credit everyone’s contributions. Invisible labor is a good place to start.


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