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Margaretha Järvinen

Nanna Mik-Meyer

March 8th, 2024

Compliance, evasiveness, barter and investment – why women do more academic service work

2 comments | 25 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Margaretha Järvinen

Nanna Mik-Meyer

March 8th, 2024

Compliance, evasiveness, barter and investment – why women do more academic service work

2 comments | 25 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Drawing on qualitative data and CV evidence Margaretha Järvinen and Nanna Mik-Meyer explore the gendered nature of academic service work and highlight how different expectations and strategies affect the workloads and career prospects of academic women.


Academic service consists of all the activities, other than teaching and research, oriented to the needs of a university department. We are not the first to show that women are more involved in academic service than men (see for instance key studies by O’Meara et al. 2017; Hanasono et al. 2019; Babcock et al. 2022). However, in our recent study we wanted to take these findings further and explore the mechanisms behind this unequal distribution.

To do this we used the concept of ‘relational work’ to analyse the balancing of individual and collective interests that faculty members engage in when agreeing or disagreeing, or being allowed to disagree, to take on service tasks. The study drew on qualitative interviews with 163 associate and full professors in the social sciences in Denmark, as well as CV-data on participants’ service contributions. What we found was a pattern whereby differences in relational work lead to women doing the bulk of low-status as well as high-status service activities.

We identify four types of relational work: compliance, evasiveness, barter and investment.

Compliance refers to situations where faculty, willingly or unwillingly, accept a high level of service activities because they feel obliged to do so. This form of relational work is most common among women who, to a higher degree than men, regard service work as a ‘natural’ part of being an academic and as something you cannot say no to. As one of the interviewed female associate professors says:

“I find it difficult to reject management’s requests because I think the conclusion that is drawn is that you as a woman are not able to work hard and you’re just whining and complaining.” 

Evasiveness is a typical male strategy. Hence, a considerable number of men actively seek to avoid service tasks, often with the argument that they are ‘poor at administration’. Evasiveness tends to be accompanied by a devaluation of service work, as the following quote from an interview with a male associate professor shows:

“It’s a kind of status thing to feel you are allowed to say no to organisational tasks, or maybe you are not even asked […] It’s all about convincing your HoD [Head of Department] that you’re more useful to the department as a researcher and let those who are interested in administration do the service work.”

Barter, another strategy practiced by more men than women, refers to a direct agreement to service by faculty in return for another service by management. The clearest examples of this are negotiations where an increased involvement in service work, for instance by accepting a position as centre leader or head of studies, is the price to be paid if a participant is to be hired or promoted to a full professorship. One of the male professors says:

“It turned out that promotion was a question of shouldering some leadership tasks. The HoD told me these things came hand-in-hand. I agreed, although I was anxious not to have too much administration on my plate, administration is not what I am here for.”

Finally, investment is a question of faculty taking on certain activities in the hope of a positive future return (from an undefined circle of other people). In this type of relational work, men excel in short-term investments with a more immediate connection between giving and receiving. Women, on their part, are more inclined to take on time-consuming academic service forms with expectations of pay-off in a distant future (without knowing in what form or from whom).

In essence, our research shows that men are more successful in pursuing individual interests against service demands and how this depends on their relational work as well as organisational role expectations, reducing women’s prospects of saying no.

Relational work is a question of handling exchange in a way that is ‘acceptable’. What is acceptable, however, is not solely defined by the involved parties but also by the social expectations attached to specific groups of faculty. Engagement in service work in academia follows a dualistic pattern where women are expected to show their worth as organisational team players, while men are allowed to pursue academic paths characterised as careerist and self-achieving. Related to this, women are more driven by feelings of obligation than men, meaning that they regard academic service as less discretionary than men do. In contrast, men are more likely to regard their organisational commitment as an ‘exchange relationship’ – that is, they are willing to go the extra mile for their organisation and colleagues, not because they feel obliged to do so, but because their workplace does something good for them in return.

While previous research has shown that women are overrepresented in low-status service work, we show that women are more involved in all forms of academic service functions, including those that used to be prestigious (committee chairing and editorships). We relate this to recent developments in academia where increased competition and intensified publication demands necessitate that faculty focus on research rather than teaching and service. By all accounts, this development benefits men more than women. Gender differences are particularly stark among associate professors, where men are intensely preoccupied with securing themselves research time (and in the process: improving their chances of becoming full professors) and women are stuck with an excessive burden of organisational work.

 


This post draws on the authors’ article, Giving and receiving: Gendered service work in academia, published in Current Sociology.

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Image Credit: ThisisEngineering RAEng via Unsplash.


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About the author

Margaretha Järvinen

Margaretha Järvinen is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.

Nanna Mik-Meyer

Nanna Mik-Meyer is a professor in the Department of Organization Studies at Copenhagen Business School.

Posted In: Equity Diversity and Inclusion | Featured | Higher education

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