The Virus Moved Female Faculty to the Brink. Will Universities Help?

The Virus Moved Female Faculty to the Brink. Will Universities Help?

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 the temporary shut down of 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.

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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.

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Credit…Moriah Ratner for The New York Times

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.”

When universities moved classes online, one of the reasons that women were hit hardest is that they have higher teaching loads and also take on more academic service roles than men.

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.”

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