I celebrated this day, as I do every year and indeed every day, by doing unpaid work at home. pipeToday I hung out some wash for the first time this season; I love hanging out laundry and usually put out the first load when snow still covers the garden, as is the case today. Last year part of my celebration was unclogging the kitchen drain at 8:30 at night. I don’t feel unappreciated in my unpaid work. The children and the spouse often thank me for it, and notice how much I do. This work is not invisible nor is it unappreciated.

What I’m thinking about most today is my paid work. You may have noticed the long gap in posts last fall. I stepped out of the slow lane and took a job teaching second-year history  during the fall term at Carleton University here in Ottawa. I had taught there from 2003-2008, starting when the teenager was one year old and I was finishing my dissertation, and stopping just before the birth of Little, our third child. I was inspired to reapply as a contract lecturer (also know as a sessional) last spring, when I took the children to Discovery Day at the Carleton University Library. I remembered how much I love just being at a university; I like being around students and books and learning. Carleton is also an especially pleasant university. There is an atmosphere of kindness, coupled with a rigourous degree of administrative competence that I find very appealing. This was the Christmas decoration in the library this year. Nice, eh? tree

So I applied to teach Early Modern European History, a course I had taught before in a somewhat different guise. I’m a medieval historian, so it’s a pretty good fit. I prepared my course over the summer and in September started to teach my 35 students in a nice sunny classroom. I was able to bike to work well into November. Lovely.

I’d like to get the question of white privilege and intersectionality out of the way right now. I positively reek of the middle class. I am white and university-educated, married to a university-educated man. We live in a detached house. My parents are university-educated, and so are my inlaws. I make no claims here to being oppressed on the same scale as women enduring privation and oppression around the world, coping with poverty and lack of advantage. And yet… and yet I am noticing that I am working in a pink ghetto. The pay is terrible, the benefits are minimal, the pension provisions non-existent, the chance of advancement zero.


The job itself was as I remembered. I was nervous at first but then settled in. My class helped a lot with this, since they were energetic, engaged, enthusiastic and talkative. I was so impressed with them. I had been worried that they would all be on their phones the whole time, but most of them looked straight at me for the entire class, waiting for enlightenment. They were very surprised when one day I enlightened them about types of British medieval sheep breeds. Man, I love that stuff. I became comfortable with lecturing again, and this time because I am older perhaps I allowed myself a more informal style. I can happily confirm that I still know how to think and write and advise, and I still love thinking about history as much as ever.

I can also confirm that being a contract lecturer is just as irritating as always. At one point a few weeks into the term I thought, “Ah, yes, I remember this. Doing a job you love, and pretty well at that, with no job security, poor pay and no hope for advancement is really annoying.”  I am appreciated and noticed at home; at work I feel invisible. The only reason I can afford to work as a sessional at all is that my children are old enough so that our household has no daycare costs. Otherwise, it would not be even remotely worth it. And why do I want this job? I trained for it, I can do it, and I want the flexibility of a part-time job. All those degrees mean that we came a bit late to starting our family. All female academics face this dilemma. The end of the PhD often coincides with the beginning of panic about procreation. The few years that women have left in their thirties to bear children are also supposed to be the years of the further apprenticeship leading to the tenure-track job: post-doctoral fellowships, conference presentations, the writing of articles and books. I chose to spend my thirties in raising children, and now I would like to teach part-time. But I also want to be paid well for it.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail put it very well: “if you pay women less than men, they feel devalued in the workplace….” (Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management). That’s just it; I feel devalued in the workplace.

Let me explain. I make exactly the same amount as my male counterparts who work as contract instructors: about $7000 per half course. Before the latest round of collective bargaining, CIs at Carleton were the second worst-paid in Ontario.  Details of the new contract are not yet available. A full course load for a tenured or tenure-track professor is two courses. If I taught that much, I would gross $28,000. I had a look at the figures, published by Ontario law, of those faculty at the university paid over $100,000 per year. On the low end: $121,000; on the high end, $141,000. Some faculty of course do not appear on this list, since they earn less than $100,000. The starting salary of an assistant professor in 2016 was $68,590. Tenured and tenure-track faculty supervise graduate students, serve on committees and do their academic research. They work hard. But are you seriously trying to tell me that those additional duties are worth at least $40,000 a year more than teaching two courses?

It is galling to work as a university instructor with the same level of education (almost all of us have PhDs) side by side with people making so much more money. I bear no animus against tenured faculty. They got lucky; I didn’t. Contract instructors don’t wear signs, so the students can’t tell us fake professors apart from the real ones. I try to bring humanity into my instruction in the humanities, and students respond to that. Over the years I have had people coming to my office hour for career advice (don’t ask me, I got myself into this dead-end job by studying history with skill and enthusiasm) and reassurance. This year, for the first time, a student who had not been in class for a while came in to tell me that he had attempted suicide a number of times over the last month. I sat there stricken with fear for him. Now, luckily, I have a little experience with suicidal people, and was able to treat him as gently and kindly as I knew how. I have worried about him ever since. I’m not teaching this winter, so I never see him on campus. I think that sort of responsibility might be somewhat above my pay grade. I have no training to deal with that; I am not even really part of the institution. Once my contract is up, that’s it.

Among sessionals there is no gender inequity in terms of pay.  The gender inequity at universities exists elsewhere. According to a report on academic staff by gender at Carleton University for 2014-2015, across the university, women made up 40.8% of contract instructors, while their proportion of full professors was 22.1%. The starting salary of a full professor in 2016 was $113,180. We already know what contract instructors make. Recent research notes the following about the situation across Ontario.

A HEQCO [Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario] survey of contract faculty at 23 universities across Ontario in 2014 similarly found that women are overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty, with 63% of survey respondents identifying as female (Wiggers, 2015). The findings from both of these recent surveys of contract faculty show that the overrepresentation of women in low-paid and precarious academic jobs has increased dramatically in recent decades. While the gender wage gap among tenure-stream academics is narrowing, women are increasingly overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty. This dynamic is cause for concern because the number of contract faculty positions is increasing, the availability of tenure-stream positions has stalled, and there are few provisions in place to convert contract faculty into full-time positions. OCUFA estimates that the number of courses taught by contract faculty has doubled since 2000. With women overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty, their opportunities for career progression and increased earnings potential are greatly limited.

Sarah Kaplan noted that there are serious consequences for devaluing women in the workplace: “They’re more likely to drop out of the workplace. You then lose a productive worker in an economy where we’re desperate for talent … There are plenty of economic reasons why we should have equal pay.” Canada’s economy needs me to work, but it is not to the university’s advantage to pay women well enough to keep them in the work force.

What are the prospects for change in gender inequity in universities? Very dim, I think. Universities control the demand for people who study literary theory, or eighteenth century intellectual history, or Greek archaeology. They also control the supply. In recent years, the supply tap has been gushing out PhDs with very little chance of employment. I started graduate school in 1994. The prevailing wisdom then was that masses of tenure-track jobs would be opening as the baby boomers retired. Then compulsory retirement was waived, and universities started to replace courses taught by tenured faculty with those taught by sessionals.  The students think they are getting real professors, but they are getting underpaid facsimiles. I don’t mean that the quality of teaching or level of intellectual sophistication is markedly different between the two types of teachers; what is different is that one sort is well-paid and can live a middle-class life, and the other is paying off student loans, worrying about saving for their children’s education and not living the middle-class dream available to the previous generation. I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what it’s like to be a university instructor and one statement struck me especially hard: “English departments are the only employers demanding the credentials that English doctoral programs produce. So why do we invite young scholars to spend an average of nearly 10 years grading papers, teaching classes, writing dissertations, and training for jobs that don’t actually exist? English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.”

Universities have created a dual track system. Contract instructors make their budgets go much further. It is in vain to hope that the universities will change a system that works so much to their advantage.  Where I live, the Government of Ontario is in charge of the universities. It is also in charge of labour legislation. I really hope it will take on the responsibility of ending the pink ghetto on Ontario campuses. What I would like to see is meaningful part-time position in Ontario universities, in which the level of remuneration between part-time and full-time positions is aligned. I was astonished to discover that part-time occasional teachers in the Ottawa public school board are paid a pro-rated amount, from the same pay grid used by the full-time employees. Schools and universities both need to pay all employees fairly.

I feel like a fool. I feel like the university is taking my love of my subject and using it against me. I feel even more like a fool because I saw my mother, an anthropologist, go through the exact same thing when I was a child. I am a second-generation sessional. I saw my mother’s PhD hanging on the wall at home; I saw how smart and literate and well-spoken and energetic she was, and I thought, “I want to be just like my mummy.” My eight-year-old daughter announced recently that she wants to be a math professor. Luckily, I have several years to try to sway her opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s