Whatever big plans Lisa Warner had for the year, the pandemic scrambled them. It forced online the biochemistry classes she taught as an assistant professor at Boise State University in Idaho, and it temporarily shut down her laboratory. Her 4-year-old son’s day care closed, and Dr. Warner felt her productivity wane. She feared for her chances of receiving tenure, the long-term job security that most early-career academics ardently pursue, by the 2024 deadline in her contract.
Around the same time, Maria Fernanda Escallón, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and mother to a 3-year-old daughter, was working from a walk-in closet and occasionally a backyard shed to steal quiet moments away from the demands of caregiving. She was trying to write a book, one of many publications she feels she will need to secure tenure.
Late at night, she swapped horror stories of lost time and depleted research over email with other women faculty.
“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,” Dr. Escallón said.
The pandemic has laid bare gender inequities across the country, and women in academia have not been spared. The outbreak erupted during universities’ spring terms, hastily forcing classes online and researchers out of their laboratories. Faculty with young or school-aged children — especially women — had to juggle teaching their students with overseeing their children’s distance learning from home.
Many universities struggled to put meaningful policies in place to help faculty, especially caretakers and women. During the summer break ahead of this fall semester, administrators at some institutions, including the ones where Dr. Warner and Dr. Escallón teach, began to reassess and develop strategies that experts say are a palatable start to stymieing crises caused by Covid-19.
But the issues that women in academia are now facing are not new. Instead, they are more severe versions of longstanding gender gaps that already cause universities to hemorrhage female faculty, particularly women of color, and will require measures that go beyond institutional responses to the pandemic.
Unequal Balancing Acts
Multiple studies have already shown that women have written significantly fewer papers than their male counterparts during the pandemic. Reports showed that at least one-third of working women in two-parent households exclusively provided child care after schools and day cares shuttered and babysitters quit or were let go because of Covid-19. Years of research have proven that female faculty struggle to balance work and family, often causing them to exit academia — or what experts refer to as “leaking from the academic pipeline.” Anecdotal reports and Twitter outcries highlighted female faculty suffering from reduced productivity, which could affect their ability to get tenure.
At the same time, the country was reckoning with its history of racial injustice, placing an added burden on women of color in academia. They were faced not only with the pandemic’s fallout — which has disproportionately affected and killed Black and Latino Americans — but also the “emotional, physical and social ramifications” of police violence and unrest, said Michelle Cardel, a nutrition scientist at the University of Florida who has studied how the pandemic affects early-career women scientists. She pointed out that faculty of color often provide support and mentorship in such circumstances.
Some women faced harsher student evaluations during the outbreaks, too. Research shows that gender bias is rampant in end-of-term evaluations, with women and people of color more likely than men to get comments related to “their appearance or the tone of their voice — things that are less closely related to the ability to successfully teach,” said Jenna Stearns, an economist at the University of California, Davis.
Women are more likely to provide child care and step into caretaking roles than men. Because of that, experts have warned that evaluations might be more critical of women during lockdown.
Faced with these situations, universities have had mixed records in their attempts to alleviate the burdens of faculty and caretakers. Joya Misra, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies gender-related faculty inequities, said that at some institutions, “there’s not a thoughtful recognition of what is actually happening” to female faculty and how the pandemic has made existing problems more severe.
This summer, for example, Florida State University alarmed and upset employees when it announced that they were not allowed to care for children while working remotely. (The university has since amended its stance.) At the University of Michigan, unionized graduate instructors went on strike when the administration would not agree to a list of demands that included flexible subsidies for parents. It later established a temporary expansion of an existing child care subsidy.
But other universities have moved to address the issues more directly, instituting policies meant to help faculty achieve tenure and prevent women and caretakers from suffering short-term academic losses.
Tenure — an indefinite appointment that comes with a raise — is usually achieved based on a combination of research, coursework and service, with the heaviest weight placed on research. As recently as spring 2019, women accounted for 40 percent of all tenured faculty in American universities; and women of color accounted for around 11 percent of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the fall of 2018.
An interruption to research can hamper an early-career academic’s ability to gain tenure. And the coronavirus crisis is causing such delays for many faculty.
Most universities provide gender-neutral tenure clock extensions, which prolong the time a professor has to apply for tenure by one year. Back at Boise State, Dr. Warner was contemplating seeking such an extension. But the application was arduous, and she was mired in an endless to-do list of child-care duties, online coursework and one-on-one time with students.
She also worried about the implications of asking for an extension: What if, she feared, her decision was later held against her — framed as a woman, a mother, who couldn’t keep up? Some research bears out her concerns, showing those policies traditionally don’t benefit men and women equally.
The university’s interim provost, Tony Roark, heard rumblings that some faculty, like Dr. Warner, were hesitant to tap into the institution’s extension policy for “fear of being perceived as unwilling to step up or incapable of adapting to the circumstances,” he said. So, the university allowed faculty to opt in to a guaranteed extension, no questions asked.
Dr. Warner requested and received her one-year tenure extension in June. Twenty other faculty members, including eight women, have opted into the policy, too.
Boise State also allowed faculty to ask for their spring 2020 student evaluations to be expunged, as they might have been influenced by the pandemic’s disruptions to classes.
And instructors at the university won’t have to worry about subtle gender slights in future evaluations, such as comments about mothers bouncing crying babies during online classes. Dr. Roark said the university has completed a policy that was in the works pre-pandemic: Faculty can now request the removal of portions of student evaluations that evince such bias. At least three professors have taken advantage of the policy, he said.
At the University of Oregon, some new policies initially gave Dr. Escallón a sense of relief. The administration conducted a survey to better understand the toll of Covid-19 on caregivers and faculty of color, pushed most of its classes online and offered its own automatic optional tenure clock extension.
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But as time went on, she worried the university’s solutions didn’t address additional problems she and other caregivers were experiencing.
Dr. Escallón co-wrote a letter to the university’s administration in June, requesting additional action: repurposing funds to support caretakers; waiving all nonessential service, such as serving on committees and administrative duties; suspending standards for research productivity; and giving teaching relief to faculty with the heaviest caretaking loads.
So far, the university has taken some additional steps. It rolled out an Employee COVID-19 Relief Fund for all workers, funded by donations (which falls short of the letter’s request for reallocating unused funds to caregivers). And in September, it introduced two online networks where employees in need of caregiving and support can connect with one another or find others providing babysitting, tutoring or elder care.
Dr. Escallón said she is encouraged that the administration has been responsive, but she also remains on the lookout for additional policies more targeted to ensure that women don’t lag behind their male peers.
At Boise State, Dr. Roark said administrators will be planning for two calendar years of “disruption and recalibrating expectations.” They will also be fortifying existing policies and creating new ones to face up to the reality that women on the faculty need longer-term support.
“It’s really just been brought into stark, stark relief during the pandemic,” he said, “but those needs will remain, even when they are less intense.”
Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said teaching and service are often stereotyped within universities as more feminine than research.
“Caregiving and femininity are closely linked in U.S. society — seen as an inherent or natural feminine trait rather than a skill that is acquired,” she said. “This means that women are more likely to be asked to do this work, and may be more likely to agree or volunteer to fill these roles.”
Women are also more likely to mentor students, who “disproportionately come to women for advice,” said Maike Philipsen, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University whose research focuses on faculty work-life balance.
And during the strains of Covid-19 and lockdown, students are likely more stressed out than usual, something Dr. Warner said she observed as she “spent a lot of one-on-one time with students that I wouldn’t necessarily have spent with them in non-pandemic times.”
As universities struggle to retain students and push resources toward online teaching, experts say it’s important to change the benchmarks of success to move away from research and to recognize teaching and service work as more valuable criteria for tenure, promotion and salary increases.
“Not only is the pandemic not going anywhere, but work-life integration was the barrier for women’s success even before Covid-19,” Dr. Philipsen said. “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.”