Precarious Personal Relationships

Interviewees’ personal relationships were the area where the most obvious differences between men and women emerged, especially in relation to age. In line with previous research, I found that childrearing commitments and support from partners or families significantly impacted interviewees’ experiences of precarity (see also Bazeley et al. 1996; Laudel and Glaser 2008). The men I spoke with tended to view their non-academic partners as sources of emotional and financial support.4 For instance, Perry, whose account I have drawn on above, referred to his long-term girlfriend as a much-needed source of ‘stability’. When I asked him whether he would move elsewhere for academic work, he told me yes, as his partner also wanted to move and was able to work from most places. Perry continued:

Last year I applied for a heap of jobs: some of them would work for us, some of them wouldn’t now, but we said we’ll talk about whether or not I would take it [later]... But there’ll be points where I think we’d either have to do a bit of a long-distance thing for a while, which we did for a year anyway, so it’s not a big issue. But it’s not really ideal.

Interestingly, it was largely men who proposed or enacted long-distance relationships, with one woman complaining that moving her husband and child across Australia had prompted an extremely negative reaction from others, including her husband. The alternative, she said, was to divorce and take the child with her, alone.

Indeed, women frequently spoke of their partners as misunderstanding the nature of academic work and tying them to their current residences (or trying to), especially if they had children. Janine, for instance, had finished her PhD a few years ago. She had had a baby with her partner shortly after completing her thesis. I asked her whether her family and friends had been helpful, or not, in her pursuit of an academic career. She said—

Janine Well my family keeps me here so that’s a major factor, I think, if I don’t apply for anything outside of here. So that’s probably the biggest drawback. I would have been keen to work overseas, but I have a family. [So I] can’t really go anywhere.

Lara Is your partner working here as well?

Janine Yeah... he’s very bound to [here].

Yet Janine, and several other women, also spoke of how financial support, from their partners and families, had facilitated their academic careers, particularly during their PhDs. She said that her partner had supported her for years, and that ‘we had all these dreams of doing stuff but I was not making any money and my scholarship had ended’. As such, she had sought work outside of academia almost immediately after submitting her thesis. Janine now worked four days a week, while her partner worked full-time. Toward the end of our interview, she spoke about how this had impacted her academic aspirations:

It’s really challenging, not just working, but having a baby as well. Because time is really limited and I’m trying to work, to write, to manage a household, to look after my son, and to spend time with my family. And I’m doing some quite serious work here as well so it’s not just like I come in and do my work from nine to five. So it’s quite challenging once you kind of throw a family in to the mix. Which kind of adds to the allure of working for the university, because it seems to be flexible and family-friendly. Not that it isn’t here, but it’s just that you seem to be able to come and go more as you please than you do anywhere else.

Thus, it appears that, for women, having a family or partner while seeking an academic career was experienced as both productive and restrictive. Women who were unmarried or single generally described themselves as having ‘no responsibilities’, but were also less able to share the financial burdens associated with seeking an academic career.

Another significant concern of women was the impact that their financial situation had on their ability to have children. When I asked Evelyn, who had recently completed her PhD and had since been employed on short-term academic contracts in her department, about having children, she responded:

It’s on my mind a lot, and something I’ve really, my partner and I have talked a lot about. I would love to have kids: we’ve been together 11 years now, and we both really would love to have kids. But I honestly don’t see a way to do that at the moment. Financially, emotionally probably as well, having that insecurity in life, I just don’t feel audacious enough to do it. I mean people have done it for so long, and in all sorts of conditions, perhaps I’m being spoilt here, but I do feel like I can’t really commit myself to something like that. And I have noticed that my colleagues are waiting for permanent positions within academia, then having children, which at some point gets to be very complicated because of their age...

We were renting since I came here, so for probably six years, and that got too expensive, and at that stage we bought a house. But that was basically with the help of [my partner’s] parents. We can pay the mortgage, but for me that’s probably more that half of what I get at this stage. So yeah, it’s difficult.

Evelyn’s experience was mirrored by several other women that I interviewed. Interestingly, none of the men mentioned children as a problem, although one man had two mature children who had left home. This may, in part, be due to the difference in men’s and women’s ages when they have their first child: in 2013 the median age for women and men being 30.8 and 33.0 years old, respectively (Australia. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014a). Moreover, research conducted in the United States suggests that family formation impacts both women and men’s academic careers, but at different stages, with women being affected earlier (Mason et al. 2013) and therefore potentially for a longer time. Furthermore, ‘[n]ot only did academic women have fewer children than did women doctors and lawyers, but academic men experienced a similar gap’ (Mason et al. 2013, p. 3).

Both men and women raised concerns regarding the impact of academic work on their personal and domestic lives. Issues raised included the problems of relocating with a partner or child, troubles maintaining a work-life balance, and financial difficulties, which prevented people from buying a house or having children. Yet academia was also valued by women for its potentially flexible working hours (a virtue that was never commented on by men). Moreover, while men tended to identify their female partners as supportive, both emotionally and financially, women spoke of their male partners as both restricting ‘and’ supporting their academic careers.

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