News | 02 May 2022

“Academic housekeeping”, the invisible and voluntary work (of women?)


Academic housekeeping takes time away from research, is undervalued and is the invisible work mainly performed by women.

"Care-academic tasks" are mostly performed by women on a voluntary basis / ICM-CSIC.
"Care-academic tasks" are mostly performed by women on a voluntary basis / ICM-CSIC.

“Housekeeping" refers to the tasks of caring for and managing the household, historically performed by women because of the so-called sexual division of labour, which considered men as the main breadwinners and women as caregivers. This was due to the attribution of stereotypical gender roles based on biological characteristics, although we now know that gender is socially constructed and the line dividing men and women between the public and private spheres has been blurred.

However, gender roles and stereotypes are still in place and are reproduced in other contexts, such as in the workplace, and in our case, science and academia. In this sense, the concept of academic housekeeping refers to the internal management tasks in the organisation, which are very necessary for its functioning, but which are made invisible. Moreover, these tasks tend to be voluntary in nature, and in most cases are carried out by women.

Yet, it is not only that academic housekeeping is feminised, but there is also a hierarchy based on the activities and who is performing it. According to Swedish researcher, Sara Kalm, these tasks can be classified into three categories: lower status tasks, service tasks and care tasks, which correspond to, among others, being a member of a committee, taking notes at a meeting or helping when pre-doctoral students need support.

According to a US study, a woman is 50% more likely to volunteer for such tasks than a man. The work also reports that women are asked to do these tasks much more often than men and are also more likely to say yes when asked to do them (Kalm, 2019).

Finally, although it has been shown that this type of invisible work is mainly carried out by women, the allocation of such work tends to be informal within teams, departments, and research centres, as it can arise unconsciously and is often naturalised and influenced by gender roles.

 “Academic housekeeping” in the ICM

The ICM is no stranger to this phenomenon. Thus, the results of the diagnosis carried out in 2020 show that most of the centre's working groups and committees are feminised, except for the Scientific Strategy group, which it is interesting to note that the only committee, which is not feminised, is the one with higher status.

This reality also extends to other areas such as participation in editorial committees, CSIC publications or projects and grant      evaluation committees. The bad news is that this greater commitment of women to the "community" does not improve their position, neither academically nor strategically, on the contrary, they spend more time on these tasks and less on their research compared to their fellow researchers. Ultimately, this has an impact on their chances of promotion and thus on their salaries, creating further inequalities.

A l'ICM,  la majoria dels grups de treball i comitès del centre estan feminitzats / ICM-CSIC.
At the ICM, most of the centre's working groups and committees are feminized / ICM-CSIC.

Another important aspect regarding the reality of the ICM, is that, in most cases, the academic housekeeping is carried out by technicians, which highlights the need to reclaim their key role in the production of science.

Therefore, although academic housekeeping is not rewarded, from the ICM Equality Group, through the centre's Gender Equality Plan, we intend to promote the visibility and value of these types of work, as well as to promote a more equitable distribution of these tasks. Thus, we assume that academic housekeeping contributes to a collective benefit that should be the responsibility of all staff. In this way, among the actions to be implemented in the Plan, we can highlight the implementation of a survey that allows us to know in greater depth the involvement of staff in academic housekeeping and the time dedicated to it, as well as a visual awareness campaign to set out the value of this type of work.

Finally, inequalities will not be solved if everyone ignores them, so it is important to look at what is at the base of the iceberg, which in this case is the efforts to sustain an organisation and community that promotes a more inclusive science, that recognises the work and merit of the people who care for it, and that promotes that this work, the academic housekeeping, is a task that should be done by everyone, and not just assumed by women.