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How COVID-19 measures are impacting women in academia

May 29, 2020
By: 
Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal
Full Professor
Mount Saint Vincent University
NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Atlantic Region)

There has been some media attention on how COVID-19 is impacting working parents. This editorial focuses on the impact on women, particularly the impacts on academic female faculty. As a Full Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, I run a medium sized research laboratory, comprised of six trainees, and an outreach program. I am not currently teaching, unlike many of my colleagues. I am a mother. I also hold the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Atlantic region) and many female academics who are struggling at this time have reached out to me. Social distancing is not the only challenge for us. Most of us are dealing with multiple unprecedented responsibilities, which are having a cumulative and significant effect on our careers and our mental health and wellness.

Women are most often the primary caregivers at home. They are the people who children run to when they need help or don’t feel well. Women are also taking on the brunt of home schooling. Female academics are doing all this while also trying to teach their courses online (often for the first time) and trying to maintain some semblance of research productivity. Both of these mean supporting and engaging with our students. Single mothers face additional challenges as there is no second person to share their childcare and homeschooling responsibilities - yet they are still expected to teach online and to do research like all other faculty.

Teaching, research and service are how academic workloads are described and all three are required to be fulfilled. Some married women have reported that their non-academic partners have been told to report to work, leaving them to manage all these responsibilities themselves. Employers should be asking employees if they have child-care support at home before calling them back to the workplace and should not assume that their wives are available. Families that have lost loved ones during the last few months are additionally impacted. Women that are pregnant have concerns about their pre- and post-natal healthcare and, about how their deliveries will be handled during the pandemic. Individuals who are immigrants or permanent residents in Canada are far away from their extended families; watching from the sidelines as their native countries battle with COVID-19. While both men and women face some of these challenges, the majority of women are facing multiple such challenges all at the same time – a young family, teaching online, trying to do research, dealing with loss of a family member – the impacts of this on one’s mental health and wellness are huge. Not to mention, if you or any of your children have medical or mental health issues of their own or require specialized care or are disabled. The challenges keep coming.

The need to maintain research productivity is important for an academic because it directly affects one’s ability to obtain promotion and job security. Individuals who are doing the above mentioned roles (home-schooling, child care etc) while also conducting the required academic work (online teaching, committee work), are unable to attend or present at the virtual seminars and conferences that have sprung up and which are essential for maintaining one’s connections within the research community. Finding the time to read or write research articles or grant applications is impossible with young children at home who are requiring your attention. Therefore, it is not surprising that the research productivity of female faculty is and continues to be significantly impacted by the COVID-19 measures that are in place across the country. Indeed data has emerged that the number of manuscripts submitted by female authors has declined compared to those by male colleagues since the start of the pandemic.

Researchers who depend on trainees to conduct research in a science laboratory are impacted differently than researchers in other disciplines. We have no alternative options to be able to continue to do our research. We simply cannot collect new data, and many types of laboratory analysis rely on continuous production of data from new experiments. We do not have a supply of existing data to analyze. Furthermore, like many other science researchers, I have trainees dependent on me for funding to support their living expenses.

Not engaging in research impacts one’s future ability to secure research grants; these grants support scientific discoveries and train future scientists. Some granting agencies have provided extensions to research grants (sometimes with funding), which alleviates the pressure to maintain a “normal” research productivity during this time, however this does not ease the burden on trainees. While financial support to trainees is expected to come, we are eight weeks into the pandemic and the impacts are getting more significant with each passing week. A lower research productivity directly influences one’s ability to obtain tenure (permanence) and promotion within academia since research is one of the major criteria that is evaluated by Tenure and Promotion Committees. While some universities have granted faculty the ability to delay their tenure and promotion, the individuals who may want to take this option are likely to be mostly women. Anyone taking this option will then be a year behind their colleagues in terms of securing permanent employment and/or promotion. With promotion comes an increase in salary. An alternative solution would be to encourage individuals to apply for promotion on their current track and then ask the Tenure and Promotion Committees to take into consideration how the pandemic has affected the candidate. Candidates should be allowed to explain this impact in their files as every individual’s situation will be different.

I hope that employers will start to recognize that the impacts of COVID-19 are different for women than for men and that they should work with individual employees to find the best solution that works for their households without making assumptions about their current situation.

Sources and further reading:
Flaherty C. No Room of One’s Own. Inside Higher Ed. 21 April 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-...
Kitchener C. Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus. The Lily. April 24 2020. https://www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-pape...
Minello A. The pandemic and the female academic. Nature 17 April 2020 doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01135-9. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01135-9