Care-Taking, Gender & Scholarly Productivity During the Pandemic

In normal times, research suggests that women faculty take care of the academic family, providing more institutional service and student care work than their male colleagues.  This cuts into time for scholarship.  In a world where scholarship leads to rewards and advancement, studies document the problematic nature of this division of responsibilities.  Emerging research suggests that pandemic related care-taking responsibilities exacerbate the problem.

In many families, women carry a heavier burden when it comes to childcare, housework, grocery shopping, meal planning, and other household responsibilities. During the pandemic, these responsibilities have increased. While both spouses may be home, anecdotal stories suggest that employer expectations are resulting in gender inequalities when it comes to pandemic household and child-care related responsibilities.

The pandemic also has not alleviated the need to work with students or perform other institutional service.  In fact, for some faculty, those responsibilities have increased because many of us have seen an increase in student care needs.  While no data exists during the pandemic, pre-pandemic literature suggests students have higher nurturing expectations from female faculty.  There is no reason to expect the pandemic turned the table on this gendered expectation.

The upheaval caused by the pandemic, including increased care-work,  likely is negatively impacting some faculty members’ ability to engage in scholarship and the impact may not be evenly distributed across the board.  Initial data in higher education, based on journal submissions, suggests that the pandemic has had a more profound effect on women’s scholarly productivity than on that of their male colleagues.

The ability to be as productive a scholar as colleagues less burdened by familial, student, and institutional needs and expectations is an admittedly small problem compared to those dealing with deaths, significant health challenges, lack of food and shelter, and a host of other pandemic related issues.

It also is important to note that in some cases, the care burdens are falling to male faculty and that many women faculty have been incredibly prolific in the last couple of months.  Nonetheless, initial data suggests that, on average, women faculty members’ ability to produce scholarship during this pandemic is not equivalent to that of their male colleagues, thus potentially exacerbating a system already rife with gender inequities.

While the data looks only at gender, given the pre-pandemic literature on heightened student care work and institutional service expectations for faculty of color, it is reasonable to think that further study will show disparities there, too.

Below are some suggestions for addressing the added disparities created by this pandemic.

First, many universities have extended the tenure clock by one, and in some cases, up to two years.  Faculties should press those universities that have not yet done so to change their tenure clock policies. To help persuade those reluctant to make the change, it may be useful to point to emerging studies on how the pandemic exacerbates already existing gender inequities when it comes to time available for scholarship. Pushing back the tenure clock policies acknowledges the unique circumstances all faculty may face, and helps lessen some disparities resulting from pandemic-related care-taking.  Faculties also should ensure that those who take the extra time are not judged poorly for doing so.

Second, faculties and universities, in assessing tenure and promotion portfolios, should generally acknowledge that biases exist in evaluating faculty with similar qualifications.  In the Covid-19 era, it is even more important to identify the realities facing many faculty members, and the implicit biases that affect judgments about scholarly quality and productivity.

Third, in making promotion, tenure, or merit award decisions, those assessing scholarly productivity need to consciously fight the instinct to engage in comparisons of faculty members’ scholarly productivity during the pandemic.

Finally, all faculty need to take a deep breath and recognize the stress we all are under.  We need to give ourselves, and each other, permission just to get through this and not also feel the need to be prolific scholars in a time when, for some folks, making it through the day takes everything they have.


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