Pregnancy and academic precarity: why we need to change the system

I am seven months pregnant. I did not intend to share pictures of my pregnancy or my baby on social networks, especially Twitter, that I usually use for “professional” reasons. It seems something very private and my pregnant belly might be mistaken for a clickbait or a cry for attention.

But, truth is, I shared my pregnant belly exactly because I wanted it to be a clickbait and a cry for attention. It was on the occasion of a national campaign in the Netherlands to raise awareness on the precarity of lecturers in academia, something that affects me, my family, and my future baby profoundly, and about which I no longer want to stay silent.

A bit of explanation: Casual Academy is a group of lecturers who started at Leiden University after a temporary employee successfully sued his department and obtained a permanent contract. Starting as Casual Leiden, the group published a very interesting report about the exploitative conditions of university employment at Leiden University. Followed by the creation of groups in several other Dutch universities (such as Maastricht and Groningen, and I hope my university Erasmus will join soon), Casual Academy launched a campaign to demand better working conditions in universities. This was done in cooperation with 0.7, a group that fights for labor rights of academics and focuses on the elimination of part-time contracts, and WOinActie, which protests the cut of funding for higher education. On the 20th of December, lecturers, professors, students and allies around the Netherlands took to social networks with signs saying “Time’s Up! Let’s get ready for action”. This is when I decided I wanted to be part of the campaign with this tweet.

Me, and my pregnant belly

In sharing my picture and my support, I decided to be open about the struggles I am having as a pregnant woman who is denied a permanent contract in academia. In this post, I want to give a bit more context to my tweets.

Some background about my academic career: I have never had many issues finding employment in academia, luckily. After my Ph.D. in the U.S. I immediately entered my dream postdoc in Germany. It has been a great experience, but unfortunately German academia is often unwelcoming with non-Germans and makes it hard for people to get permanent contracts. To have some context, the #IchBinHanna campaign is precisely denouncing the long precarity of so many academics in Germany. After three years in my postdoc, my funding was finishing, and I decided to leave the country for good. I had personal reasons to do so, but also my only chance to stay was to be in competition with other postdocs I was friends with (the “winner” of this academic Hunger Games would have won more precarious contracts, the others unemployment). So, I decided to get a job in the Netherlands, and the decision hasn’t been easy: I often feel that all the hard work I did in Germany was for nothing. When you’re a postdoc and you leave, your work stays at the institution that lets you go. For instance, I worked very hard to start organizing an international conference in my field at my institution, and now the conference will take place without me having anything to do with the organization and being credited in any way.

In the Netherlands, I really enjoy working as a lecturer, but unfortunately my career situation hasn’t improved. I am in a teaching-only contract (with only small research time I had to insist to gain), and my position won’t be made permanent. This is something quite common in Dutch universities: since the Collective Labour Agreement states that people can only have a limited number of temporary contracts, many departments prefer to let people go instead of making them permanent. This is clearly against all laws (Dutch and EU) that protect workers: in theory, temporary contracts should be used only for replacements or non-structural work, and they can be terminated only if there is an objective reason to do so (for example, the number of students in a department is decreasing). However, unfortunately the situation in the Netherlands is that most of the lecturers are on temporary contracts (often hired for very short periods and with part-time salaries, but then given tasks that can only be carried out by working full-time) despite performing structural and vital work for the department, such as course coordination and graduate thesis supervision.

This is also my situation, and I have been clearly told that no matter how good I perform, or how hard I work, the department isn’t interested in making me permanent. To the point I was even denied applying for a national grant for “fear” that I might win and they will have to make me permanent. To clarify, I have very good student evaluations, and my academic supervisor is very happy with my teaching and research work. Despite being on a teaching-only contract, last year I have published 6 peer-reviewed articles and been invited to 7 international conferences, including a keynote. I also participated in podcasts and public scholarship events, I am on international advisory boards for projects, and I am part of my department’s Faculty Council. I’m in no way “failing” as a scholar, whatever scholarly success means (and, needless to say, everybody should have a decent contract even if they aren’t rising stars in their fields). However, my department informed me that they would renew my contract for two years but that would be the last renewal, because they aren’t interested in my specific expertise and the classes I can offer, even if they are popular among students. They want me to stay as a temporary lecturer, but they also make sure I don’t proceed in my career further. I know a lot of amazing and incredibly smart colleagues are in the exact same situation. This seems a very clear HR policy to make sure we don’t complain and don’t sue, but totally lacks any form of vision to make talented and hard-working people grow. This system makes me feel completely worthless: I am not a human being, a teacher, a colleague, I’m just a machine providing a service, a machine that will be thrown into garbage and replaced with an identical one after the due date. The HR department in my university often sends standardized little gifts like chocolate bars or nice emails saying “what would we do without you?”, but this does sound very hypocritical when is not followed by any effort to improve our working conditions. We worked during a pandemic, through losses and grief, we didn’t take any day off when loved ones were dying of COVID, and you give us chocolate bars instead of permanent contracts?

This situation is even more frustrating now that I am pregnant and about to start a family. This is why I shared my story on Twitter, where I made three main points:

  • First, often as lecturers we are infantilized, considered “early career”, in a way that somehow implies we’re 20 something living with roommates. Aside from the fact that everybody deserves a good working contract despite age and family condition, that’s often not true. Many lecturers are in their 30s and 40s, they have been through YEARS of temporary contracts and they struggle to start families and to take decisions for their families. I’d like for my child to grow up in the Netherlands, but I have no idea if it is possible: maybe I’ll have to move where my next contract brings me. The same goes for life decisions such as buying houses or getting married or settling somewhere: often we’re prevented from all of these things for lack of financial stability or simply because we need to keep moving. I’ve been living in 2 continents and 3 countries since 2016, I’ve often been separated from my partner, and now that I’d like to settle and start a family it still seems impossible. Many in academia would suggest starting families after scoring permanent employment, but this is sometimes impossible: I remember reading on Twitter (unfortunately I do not have the original tweet here to quote) about someone complaining that her pregnancy was considered “geriatric”, but she was called an “early career” as an academic. The timing of our biological clock coincides with that of our most important career moves, and this inevitably leads to a very difficult decision: we (and especially women) are still stuck in the “career or family?” conundrum.
  • Second, as a woman in higher education I know that I have it harder than men. I teach in a university where women professors make the 25% (and this after a LOT of efforts, and is celebrated as if being a quarter of all professors is remotely enough). And, as someone pointed out on Twitter, this 25% is very likely made by white, middle-class, cishet women; in recognizing that I have at least these privileges, I know that it is so much harder for black, queer, and/or working-class women in academia. I suspect that the low percentage of women professors has A LOT to do also with the fact that we have children/families (clearly, not all people who give birth are women, but I do suspect that all people who give birth have it hard in academia). This is not necessarily direct discrimination (even if, sadly, they do exist, but others already talked about this issue better than I can), but depends on the fact that women with families need to say “no” to a lot of opportunities that childless colleagues (or colleagues with a stay-at-home spouse) will take. This is without mentioning the huge culture of overworking in academia, where you’re often expected to work during leaves (including maternity leave) or you’re left behind/excluded from projects. In the competitive mentality of academia, I know that I will be back from my maternity leave and I’ll be in the worst possible situation: my contract will end and I’ll have a six months “gap” (i.e., creating a human being) on my CV, and people who could take the opportunities I didn’t have in these six months will be seen as much more attractive for the job market than I am. This is not even to mention the structural lack of maternity leave policies and lack of support from agencies and employers worldwide, as this heartbreaking story shows very well.
  • Third, I often feel like I need to show myself as a “strong” person and that, being always the relatively new temporary lecturer, I don’t have a space for my struggles (personal and professional) to be acknowledged and supported. Being pregnant means being more tired, physically and emotionally. My midwife, when I said I was struggling with brain fog and nausea, suggested I could legally ask to reduce my workload, but I didn’t dare do it. I will take parental leave to work part-time after my maternity leave, as it is more affordable than paying for daycare and I want to have time and space for my baby, but a voice in my mind keeps repeating that so many female colleagues managed with much less parental leave. And this is not only true for pregnant people, but for people with all kinds of struggles, especially now that we’re all living through an emotionally draining and traumatizing pandemic. I suffer from chronic migraine, but I never asked for accommodations, as they aren’t mentioned in any HR policy plan and rarely granted even to students. In the last two years I grieved the loss of my grandmother, uncle and father to COVID and illnesses, and I still carry this immense pain, without feeling I ever have the luxury of stopping working. This has a lot to do with having a temporary contract: I have meaningful personal connections with some wonderful colleagues, but I feel completely unseen and unsupported as a member of the department, and I fear that sharing my struggles will only make me seem “weak” and unfit for a permanent contract. I do not write this because I want to be praised as a wonder woman; I am not, indeed, strong or admirable. I’m writing this to say that working through grief and pain is shitty, and I have no choice but to do it.

My tweets got several comments, and I get personal messages from people (especially women) who are/were in similar situations. We are passionate teachers and researchers, we want to dedicate our lives to university, but we’re often rejected by academia. I am heartbroken at the idea of giving up my career, even if I know I might have to apply to non-academic jobs for the sake of my family. But I refuse to just accept this: this is not my personal problem, this is a systemic issue and too many of us are exploited and mistreated in academia to continue to stay silent. I believe we need to unite, to strike, to have our voices heard.

So, what can we do?

First, it is important to join a union to know our rights and how we can be supported (also legally). So many lecturers and academics with temporary contracts are illegally exploited without even knowing it. A good start for people in the Netherlands is AOb.

Then, be vocal with the Faculty Council, the University Council, or the administrative board of your university. Make sure your voice is heard also by connecting with local groups of lecturers and temporary academics. In the Netherlands, look at Casual Leiden, 0.7, and WOinactie. Casual Leiden has here a good list of things you can do. Next day of action is the 14th of February.

Finally, if you are in a similar situation like mine, know you are not alone, and for what it’s worth, I am keen to listen to your story and amplify it: feel free to connect on Twitter, send me an email or a DM, leave a comment here below. And if you are a professor or an academic with a permanent job, or a student, remember that SO MANY academics are in this precarious position, and you can use your voice and your power to support them and raise the issue. Mention it in the student evaluations, bring the issue up with HR, complain with heads of department, refuse to participate in exploitative hiring practices.

Also: I have learned a lot about the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Higher education, and I have compiled some notes to help temporary staff members to negotiate their rights and contracts. They are available here.

Together we can do a lot.

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