Postgraduate students get organised: for women it’s out of the kitchen and into the university

By Jenny Thatcher: PhD student at the University of East London and a co-founder of the Postgraduate Workers Association (personal capacity).

As a PhD student, I’m often told that there is a surplus supply of intellectual labour in today’s market. In times of economic recession, people can frequently turn on each other maintaining and reproducing hierarchical structures through individualistic and competitive ways of working. As such there is a dangerous tendency to marginalise less powerful groups through one’s own self-promotion, in which women, like men, use hierarchical ways of advancing their own careers including working for free in the university. Working on an unpaid basis in the university – whether through ones own free will or as a compulsory requirement of the university – is just one of the issues the Postgraduate Workers Association is fighting.

The Postgraduate Workers Association (PGWA) has recently been set up by a group of PhD students (including myself) from across the country who have united to collectively resist the increasing misuse of our academic labour. It is a grassroots campaign and is in its early days, but its aims are simple: to work in University College Union (UCU) and with National Union of Students (NUS) to ensure fair conditions for research students employed by universities and to help facilitate self-organisation of postgraduate students to oppose their exploitation.

Women also need to become part of this movement and not allow their voice to be subsumed under those more powerful others, essentially the ‘white’ middle-class man. As an individual in The Postgraduate Workers Association, I may regularly have to scrutinise myself – as I hope others will also do – by recognising our own power and privileges when fighting for the oppressed, and by not objectifying those we proclaim to be standing up for. The only way to do this is to become as open as possible to postgraduates from all backgrounds, which includes having a balanced gender make-up. Therefore, I would encourage as many women as possible to contact PGWA and get involved.

Although, more women than men today are going to university in the UK men still outnumber women in doctorial research study. This has important implications for gender inequality in British society, as those with a postgraduate level qualification are more likely to be employed in managerial and professional occupations. Recent research has revealed that those with a PhD earn on average 23% more over the course of their lifetime than those with just a Bachelor degree (1994 group, 2012).

Men still dominate economic and political leadership, and no more so than in the university where women experience discrimination through access to academic hierarchies. The problems that women academics face are shared by women PhD students. Like that of women academics, women postgraduates often lead more complex lives, juggling both domestic and academic responsibilities. Research has revealed that women academics often feel marginalised and excluded in academia and the university, leading them to suffer from issues of stress and low self-esteem (Brown and Watson, 2010). As a female PhD student myself, I can relate to this and suspect my voice as a woman is often a marginalised voice in all areas of my life, including in activist and campaigning commitments. Indeed, at the 2010 national student demonstrations I was told by one male protester ‘to get back in the f**king kitchen with the children’.

There are many reasons why both men and women fail to complete their PhD. However, women face additional structural and attitudinal obstacles in academia, which is essentially still dominated by masculine culture. Research by Lorraine Brown and Pamela Watson at Bournemouth University reveals that academia is still a ‘boys’ club.

Women are more likely to enter PhD study later than men and study part-time to cope with the dual demands of home and family responsibility. Certainly, the unequal domestic division of labour and gendered nature of childcare responsibilities deter some women from even considering studying at a postgraduate level. Women also tend to be the main carers for disabled or elderly family members. Men are more likely to go directly from degree study to doctorial study in the UK. Late entry to PhD study for women can have a significant ripple effect on the higher education sector as a whole, with women spending less time overall in university employment and having more career breaks than male colleagues. As such, universities suffer from a gender imbalance in its managerial make-up (Brown and Watson, 2010).

So what for those women PhD students who are lucky enough to complete? If they decide they want a career in academia they will experience a range of discriminations, one of which is in contract status. There has been an increasing casualisation of academic labour in recent years, with many people employed on hourly paid and continuous rolling fixed-term contracts. The University and College Union (UCU) estimated that there was a record-number of 77,000 hourly paid teachers in Higher Education in the UK for the period 2009-10 (UCU, 2011). Knights and Richards (2003) argue that women are disproportionately affected by casualisation in higher education as they are more likely to be employed on insecure fix-term hourly paid contracts. Diane Reay (2000) also points out that women are more likely to be employed as contract researchers on temporary, fixed-term contracts. This form of insecure employment can affect their career development, as in some cases contract researchers are not even eligible to apply for advertised permanent lecturing positions in the university they work at.

Women academics are also twice as likely to work part-time (Lipsett, 2009). Since the 1950s, almost all the increase in women’s employment was in part-time work. Rising numbers of women undertaking higher qualifications is associated with the increase in the number of women returning to paid employment after child-related career breaks (Crompton, 1997). Part-time employment is often the choice for women having to balance work and family obligations. However, re-entry into part-time work is also associated with occupational downgrading. It is often insecure and has limited opportunities for career advancement. Working part-time also has an important impact on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE has failed to recognise equal opportunities and consider the time women academics need to take out of their career for childbearing and domestic childcare responsibilities. The RAE can have serious implications on a person’s career progress, as it is often used as a mechanism for employment and academic promotion in the university (Knights and Richards, 2003). Indeed, the period when male academics are making their major intellectual achievements coincides with women’s main childbearing years. Furthermore, employers also perceive family-related career breaks in a negative light (Brown and Watson, 2010).

The number of women lecturers and researchers at British universities is rising. Yet the 2011 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index revealed that the UK ranks 33rd for economic participation and opportunity, but shared the top spot for educational attainment with more women enrolling at university than men (Martinson, 2011). Undeniably, universities still suffer from a substantial amount of vertical segregation in which women are continually underrepresented in higher grades and senior positions. In 2009, only 18.7% of university professors were female (Lipsett, 2009). The power and control of higher education is still very much in the hands of men.

Furthermore, despite the fact that it has been illegal to pay women less than men for doing the same job since the 1970s, women are consistently underpaid at all levels in the university, facing a gender salary gap of on average 15% (UCU, 2007). People in modern society are dependent upon the sale of their labour. The question might be; is there a ‘surplus in intellectual labour’ or is the system just becoming more exploitative? Many feminists such as Walby and Hartmann would probably argue that women are the first ones to be subordinated in the masculine institution of the university, because of the system of patriarchy (Crompton, 1997). As Reay (2000: 20) argues, ‘academia is founded on exploitative hierarchies.’ Is it any wonder that ‘a recent report reveals that only 12% of third year female PhD students want a career in academia’? (Rice, 2012)

As a woman PhD student, I’m therefore proud to be one of the co-founders and an activist in PGWA, which is attempting to collectively resist exploitation in the university workplace as early as possible in a person’s academic career, standing in solidarity with, not against, our colleagues and fellow students.

We believe that students who work in higher education are professionals like any other, deserving of the respect, pay and conditions which should also be afforded to their non-student colleagues. Postgraduates are not free or cheap labour to be exploited, or to be used to undercut our colleagues’ pay and conditions.

PGWA also believe that they ‘exist to nurture and coordinate the struggle for improvements in the conditions faced by postgraduate students working in higher education. It aims to organise as postgraduate students into a mass, democratic movement that fights to advance their interests using every appropriate method, including industrial action, protest, non-violent direct action, and institutional negotiation and lobbying. PGWA will work with all relevant campaigns and organisations, including UCU and other trade unions, NUS and student unions, UCU Left, UCU Anti-casualisation, the Education Activist Network and the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts.’ (Read more about what the PGWA stands for on the blog.)

As someone in PGWA, I will work with others to ensure that PGWA is a non-sectarian campaign. Sometimes as a person newly involved in political activism – but as someone who took part in the large scale student movement of 2010 against the Conservative-Liberal coalition government tuition fee increases – I feel that student politics and the student left are rampant with factionism, so much so that it has driven away many people that I know. I personally find this division on the left unproductive, and while people are consuming themselves with arguing amongst people who essentially support the same opposition to the coalition government’s austerity programme, the right continues to push through the cuts largely unchallenged. My hope is that PGWA can overcome this factionism through welcoming students and activists from all different backgrounds and political spectrums to get involved with it in as big or small way as they like.

If you would like to get involved with The Postgraduate Workers Association (PGWA), you can email us on:

For more information and upcoming meetings find the PGWA on Facebook, or the blog. You can also follow the PGWA on twitter: @PG_worker


Additional references:

  • Brown, Lorraine., Watson, Pamela. (2010) Understanding the experiences of female doctoral students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(3), p.385-404.
  • Crompton, Rosemary. (1997). Women and Work in Modern Britain. New York. Oxford University Press.
  • Knights, David and Richards, Wendy. (2003). Sex Discrimination in UK Academia. Gender, Work and Organization, 10(2), p.213-238).
  • Reay, Diane. (2000). “Dim Dross”: Marginalised Women both Inside and Outside the Academy. Women’s Studies International Forum, 23(1), p.13-21.

One thought on “Postgraduate students get organised: for women it’s out of the kitchen and into the university

  1. Pingback: Publications, Presentations and Conferences | postgraduateworker

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