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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of “wifework”, the term Susan Maushart uses for the hidden work expected of women in romantic relationships. Though her book is specifically about marriage, it connects to broader ideas about “affective labour” and “invisible work” which women carry out without acknowledgement. As the new university year approaches, I wanted to sketch a few ways in which this extra burden of work can be seen within university life, and ask for people’s own experiences.

Looking back at my own undergraduate days, it often seemed to fall to women to do the social maintenance within friendship groups. Remembering people’s birthdays, organising parties, ensuring that people weren’t left out, looking up whether there were tickets available for the play we’d said we wanted to see – these are the sort of things I’m thinking about. Of course it wasn’t always done by the women in the group, and some never did it, but I have a distinct feeling that these sorts of tasks tended to be taken care of by women.

The reason why I suspect that is I have a memory of them just sort of happening. And having booked theatre tickets and sent birthday cards since, I am aware that these things do not simply generate themselves spontaneously. From organising an end-of-term dinner to sending platonic chocolates to housemates on Valentine’s day, there are various nice things which my younger self was pleased to see, but which wouldn’t have occurred to me to plan or arrange.

This social maintenance blurs into the kind of emotional activity which has been described as “affective labour”. When someone became ill, someone turned up with painkillers and fruit juice, and that second someone was very often female. When there was a break-up, the person organising the commiseratory cocktails/ cookie dough session tended to be a woman. When someone had been having a lousy few weeks and there were discreet conversations going on about whether they needed some help…those were often happening between women.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that men didn’t do any of these things. Nor that all the women rushed round feeling that they had to tend to other people’s wellbeing instead of attending to their own art/ drama/ sport/ alcohol/ learning activities. But I think there was a definite slant in one direction. It might be objected that men simply have different social instincts. They don’t go in for talking about their feelings, or organising table plans, or showing that they care about a friend’s relationship gone wrong. But it’s striking that those sorts of “natural differences” between men and women resulted in women doing extra work and men…not.

This is not an argument that women should stop caring about their fellow students – far from it! Given the levels of rising anxiety being reported by undergraduates, maintaining strong social networks and talking about feelings are incredibly important things at university. But it’s worth thinking about the ways in which girls are trained to take on other people’s emotional and social hassle and to perform extra work that their male peers aren’t expected to carry out. Are we educating young women in an environment where they’re expected to do part of a “second shift”, in Arlie Hochschild’s term, which involves maintaining the social and emotional world which everyone benefits from?

I wonder how this also affects women in the faculty. Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I have a strong suspicion that female lecturers find themselves being asked for more affective labour than their male counterparts. More requests for the explanation of difficult ideas outside the lecture hall, more time spent talking through personal issues which are getting in the way of students’ work, more advice on careers and the world beyond study.

These are all vital parts of university life too, and personally I find pastoral work enormously rewarding. But I suspect that female academics work under the expectation that they will be more nurturing and understanding, that their time can legitimately be interrupted and put at the disposal of others. There may be an additional factor, in that female students feel – quite understandably – more able to discuss their problems and concerns with fellow women.

If we only extrapolate from stereotypes, male lecturers are allowed to be brilliant without being caring. The image of the aloof, terse, emotionally unavailable male intellectual is a role available to academic men, and they can inhabit it without social stigma. (Most, of course, have no desire to, though that’s beside the point here.) There is no equivalent image for women which carries the benefits of opting out of affective labour without the sanction of disapproval.

I’m not claiming that men don’t do any of these things, nor am I blaming individual men for the fact that we’re living in a sexist society. But I think it’d help if a lot of us looked hard at our lives in the university, and paid more attention to the unnoticed work being done by other people which makes those lives easier. Many men will have come straight from living at home to living at university, so the “wifework” done by our mothers may now be slipping into the “wifework” done by our female peers. Others will have acclimated so effectively to the unspoken rules of academic work that it genuinely never occurs to us to wonder why students tend to go to some tutors rather than others. Everyone’s working hard, so it makes sense that we’re not looking around and wondering if extra work is being done by others. But it is. I’d really like to hear people’s opinions and experiences of this.

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