Women academics and COVID-19: A system of continued inequality?

woman academia © Pixabay 2021 image: Engin_Akyurt

As forward-thinking and innovative as many universities are, women in academia have not been immune to the discrimination and inequalities that women in all types of occupations continue to encounter.

Great strides have been made recently, but COVID-19 put an immediate halt to much of this progress. Just as the pandemic has exacerbated many of the pre-existing fault lines of our modern societies – the digital divide, access to education, healthcare and social safety nets, sexism and racism – so, too, has it brought into even sharper relief the challenges that women academics face.

It should already be clear that women carry a disproportionate burden of childcare, home-making and domestic chores along with their professional obligations. As COVID-19-related lockdowns and shelter-in-place mandates were issued around the globe in 2020, and school-aged children returned home, the extra responsibility of supervising learning also tended to land in women’s laps. Add to this the emotional labour that women typically perform in holding families together during crises and the COVID-19-related needs of ageing parents, and women are finding themselves in increasingly untenable positions and on the verge of burnout.


How are women academics being affected?

There has been a slew of interesting research that has emerged over the last six months, tracking the impact of COVID-19 on women academics in particular. Women in fields of health and medicine, physical sciences and engineering, and social science and economics seem to be penalised more.

The journal, Science, was one of the first to call attention to what they termed the “motherhood penalty” and demanded that institutions begin crafting policies and actions to mitigate this.

As the pandemic played out, data in the US began to show that women were leaving the workforce in far greater numbers than men, in what some are calling a “female recession”. “The pandemic has certainly poked the bear”, says NPR in just one article in a 2020 series called Enough Already: How The Pandemic Is Breaking Women. Women are angry and exhausted. They also know the long-term impacts can be severe.

Monitoring women’s scholarly production during the COVID-19 pandemic”, an ongoing collaboration between Dr. Philippe Vincent-Lamarre, Prof. Cassidy R. Sugimoto, and Prof. Vincent Larivière, clearly demonstrates the way in which women have suffered a significant drop in academic output. “We are all in the same storm,” say the authors, “but not in the same boat…” They demonstrate that “as the scientific workforce has moved en masse into the home, where male faculty are four times more likely to have a partner engaged in full domestic care than their female colleagues”, this unequal division of labour has impacted women’s professional productivity.

In August 2020, JAMA Surgery examined its own submissions and found a similar trend. They issued an editorial acknowledging this disparity and warning of long-term effects on career progression. Earlier in the year, The Lancet had already taken up the fight for equity for women in science, showing data for disproportionate burdens and proposing policies to remedy under-representation of women in the scientific academy.

But the impact is not only on publishing, especially for those women who are parenting as well. Taking over the primary caregiver role for stay-at-home children affects an academic’s ability to hold classes or conversations, consult with colleagues or participate in research.

The stress and potential burnout experienced by women academics during the pandemic has short- and long-term consequences. A faculty-wide survey conducted at Stanford University in late 2020, and published in February 2021, showed a remarkable level of stress among women academics. They found that women were spending, on average, four more hours a day on domestic duties, especially related to children, which in turn was having a direct impact on their research and writing. As a result, “75% of respondents anticipated spending less time on research, and 85% of those respondents said they expect to decline, cancel or postpone a publishing, proposal or research commitment because of COVID-19.”

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in March 2021, titled “Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine”, confirmed these concerns. Two of their major findings are that extending the tenure clock is not enough and that men are making many of the decisions in university environments about personnel policies that will impact upon women.


What can be done?

Low levels of publishing will inevitably impact career progression, promotions and tenure. The demands of childcare and home education support are enormous and may lead to burnout. If the economy opens but schools do not, more women are likely to have to exit the job market.

The journal, Science Advance, recently published a set of recommendations specific to women in scientific fields, taking lessons from the pandemic and using them to build robust policies to support and enhance equity across the career path, ranging from assisting trainees when they start families by providing high-quality childcare and paid leave to maintaining virtual seminars and trainings even after the pandemic has subsided.

There are other innovative and important policies being considered or put in place, such as modifying obligations and duties for primary caregivers, increasing paid parental leave,  creating new ways of evaluating candidates for promotion, and allowing for COVID-19 impact statements as part of this process.

However, as Rose Casey highlighted recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, when it comes to ideas such as extending the tenure clock, for example, it is trickier than one thinks and warns that “institutional policies must not be gender neutral if they’re to be gender equitable.”

For Alexandra Hui, associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and co-editor of Isis she suggests we seize upon the opportunity that COVID-19 has presented and further “normalise” the scholar-parent identity. “On Zoom meetings, I, for one, let my child wander into the frame,” she explains. “Yes, he’s my child, and he’s here because no one else can watch him.”

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light many of the weaknesses in our modern society. If we do not want to perpetuate or exacerbate these inequalities, now is the time to make changes.


© Pixabay 2021 / image: Engin_Akyurt