Women in academia were contending with gender and racial inequities well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the research disruptions, child care demands, and overall strain of the last seven months have taken an especially large toll. Speaking with The New York Times, a number of female faculty described the roadblocks threatening their academic research and careers—and called for increased support to ensure women in higher education can thrive now, and for the long-term.
The New York Times reports that at least one in every three working women within a two-parent household has shouldered the responsibility of child care on their own in the wake of school and daycare shutdowns due to COVID-19. And even for families that attempt to coordinate work and child care shifts, schedules and needs can shift without a moment’s notice.
“With a 4-year-old, there are interruptions even when it’s your time to work,” Magdalena Osburn, a geobiology professor at Northwestern University told The New York Times. “Mommy knows where everything is. Nothing can proceed without Mommy’s permission.”
Women also tend to shoulder more teaching assignments, academic service roles, and mentorship responsibilities; they are both more likely to be asked to take on that work and more likely to say yes. Professors of color, in particular, have stepped up in recent months to provide an added layer of support to their students, colleagues, and communities amid police violence and efforts to address racial injustice.
‘I don’t need a clock extension’: Tenure deadlines loom
Women in line for tenure are facing an especially steep climb right now. In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 40 percent of all tenure appointments across American universities were women. Yet, a 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health shows that women’s academic publishing has waned significantly during the pandemic compared with men’s, noting that the pandemic is threatening to undo long-awaited progress in leveling the gender playing field.
“Increasing the prominence of women and minorities in academia is crucial to the fight against COVID-19,” the study states. “Furthermore, ensuring that women’s academic output is not disproportionately affected by COVID-19 might safeguard women’s career trajectories.”
Tenure attainment hinges on research, service, and coursework—work that has been severely interrupted due to campus closures. And while some colleges and universities have sought to alleviate pressure by providing extensions for tenure-line faculty, some, like Osburn, are saying that misses the mark.
“I don’t need a clock extension,” said Osburn. “I need an acknowledgment that this year is trash.”
Other female professors like University of Oregon anthropology professor Maria Fernanda Escallón echo Osburn’s call for more comprehensive reforms to address hurdles that sideline women in academia—even when there isn’t a pandemic. Many faculty are urging college leaders to revisit tenure evaluation processes, teaching responsibilities, administrative duties, and child care subsidies with an eye toward retaining a diverse professoriate.
“I hope the administration realizes that anything they do now to alleviate this issue for caregivers will directly impact how the professoriate will look five to 10 years from now — how diverse it will be, and how many women will be in positions of power within academia,” Escallón says.
Some institutions taking steps
Recognizing the pressures at hand, some administrators are prioritizing flexibility and some are instituting changes. The University of Oregon, Escallón’s institution, surveyed faculty about COVID-19’s toll on caregivers and faculty of color and created online networks to connect employees in need of caregiving and support.
Boise State University, meanwhile, approved a policy allowing faculty to remove portions of student evaluations that indicate gender or racial bias. According to The New York Times, some female professors and professors of color have received harsher student evaluations regarding “their appearance or the tone of their voice—things that are less closely related to the ability to successfully teach” during the pandemic. For example, some evaluations at Boise State included comments about mothers bouncing their babies during online classes.
Colleges and universities are also working to provide greater long-term support for women.
“Not only is the pandemic not going anywhere, but work-life integration was the barrier for women’s success even before COVID-19,” says Maike Philipsen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “And if there ever is an era of after COVID-19, work-life integration will continue to be a barrier to women’s success unless we begin transformative change.”