By Aline Vogt |

During the coronavirus pandemic, the lines between our work and our private lives have been blurred more than ever. While we start to prepare our meals for lunch, we’re glancing with one eye at the last pages of an article we’ve been reading and try at the same time to listen to our partner, our children, or our roommate who need our emotional support. While this situation might feel new to some of us, it reminds others of the difficulties they face daily when trying to combine their roles as academics with their roles as private caretakers. A lot of these caretakers have shared their concerns within a feminist critique of society. Personally, I have become more invested in these discussions since a year ago, when I participated in the Switzerland women’s strike.

On the 14 June 2019, the streets of Switzerland were flooded with more than 500,000 people protesting and striking for gender equality: Equal pay, the fight against sexual harassment and the revaluation of reproduction work were just a few of the many demands made by women and genderqueer people. This women’s strike was the biggest political event in Switzerland since the general strike in 1918.

When I decided to become engaged in the organisation of the strike, I realised that there were a lot of groups organising themselves at different universities within Switzerland and I decided to form a collective at my own university. In order to convince a lot of people to join, I did some research on gender equality within academia. The more I got informed about the structures of universities, the more I got angry. As a historian, I realised that the way in which universities function today – that is, performance-oriented, demanding flexibility and mobility, and based on hierarchical relationships between an all-powerful independent professor and his or her very dependent students, has a lot to do with the patriarchal history behind that institution.

The university was historically made for men. Men who did not have to worry about who took care of their children, men who knew that their partner would always come along wherever they went to pursue their careers, men for whom it was considered normal to make sexual remarks to the women beneath them and men who would always find an almost magically clean home whenever they came back from a day of fully invested scientific work. At the same time, women were excluded from academia by constructing arguments about their alleged emotional instability, their physical and mental weakness, and their tendency towards gullibility and superstition. Women’s “natural” roles as mothers and wives and their “natural” qualities as caring and emotional were seen as incompatible with science.

Luckily, a lot has changed since then. Today a lot of women are studying; in some disciplines more than half of the students are women. Still, this number of students is not reflected in the top positions within academia. In 2017 at the University of Basel, 56 percent of the students were female, but only 23 percent of the professors were women. Universities try to close this gap by promoting women in science and by teaching them how to behave successfully within the academic system.

The problem is that the notion of “successful” in academia today is still based on the same image of the independent, non-emotional, career-bound male professor the university has historically been shaped for. But what if there are women who either are not able to or who don’t want to adapt to this system? What if they don’t want or cannot leave everything else in their lives behind for science? What if they want to take time to consider their emotions, their mental health, their social lives? And what if there are greater numbers of men joining them, by challenging historical notions of masculinity and reconsidering the sacrifices they would have to make for their full-time careers? These are questions we should not only ask ourselves because the pandemic challenges our work-life-balance, our independence, our mobility and our focus on our research. These are questions we need to ask ourselves because the world has been changing for a while now and so far, the universities have failed to adapt.

Finally, we also need to ask ourselves who does all of the care work if we manage to get women into the scientific professions and out of their homes. Work like childcare and cleaning will always be necessary not only in order for the society in general to function, but also for academia. Academia is not a magical place independent of the rest of society, where everyone can just chit-chat about discourse theory or whatever other topic is not beneath them without having to worry about anyone outside this ivory tower. After all, the university is cleaned as well, as are the homes of the professors. This does not happen through magic, but because of work. If we really want to make universities a better workplace, we have to think about who does this work and how it is hidden behind the shiny face of a new female professor who finally made it and now seems to blend in perfectly into a male world of performance and power.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many PhD students to reconsider the working conditions they face. We also need to think about how we can be allies for the struggles other workers face within academia, even if these struggles are very diverse. We need to think about the kind of institution our generation wants to inherit. This can mean a lot of different things and there are already great initiatives out there. To me personally, it means to be political. It means to believe in change and not to accept the world how it is. And it means not only to be an academic, but to be a feminist as well.

Aline Vogt is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Basel. Her research focuses on gender aspects of human-animal-relations in late Enlightenment France.