Academics who are parents and caregivers will likely be adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly women. As so clearly articulated by Yolande Strengers and Alessandra Minello, the impact of extended working from home will impact women who work in a wide range of fields.
During these difficult times, we are doing our best to support our students, to be caring colleagues, and to provide calm leadership. But longer term, this pandemic will impact many careers if we don’t advocate for change.
I am writing from a position of privilege with full time employment as tenured faculty, the space to work from home, and a husband who is also splitting his day between work and family.
As we finish our fifth week of working from home, with schools and day care in Canada closed until September, we have found a bit of balance: I work in the mornings and he works in the afternoons; each takes care of the children when not doing our paid work.
As COVID-19 hit Canada in mid-March, my employer has acknowledged that these were challenging times and that faculty may not be able to work at full capacity. While this messaging helps, it has quickly become clear that research contributions would get pushed aside – although these contributions are essential to promotion and long-term success. Our limited work hours are spent putting courses online for classes, supporting our (amazing) graduate students, and reworking the next semesters to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our students’ advancement. We have also received some messaging at work, from colleagues, and in social media that encourage us to “take advantage” of working from home: write up findings, analyse more data, and find new ways to continue ongoing projects. During these times of increased stress and anxiety, we need to practice self-care – and should not expected to spend our evenings and nights writing and researching.
I have observed this split between the administration/teaching versus research while on maternity leaves. During these leaves, administrative and teaching responsibilities were assigned to colleagues or sessional instructors; yet support for supervising research students and overseeing ongoing research was not available. I felt a strong tension between being on leave and losing momentum in my research. I resolved this tension by working during most of my leaves. While I kept the pulse of my research going, I published less in the subsequent years, missed conferences, had to turn down collaborations and offers to lead workshops. On one hand, there was institutional support for the administrative and teaching parts of my work (support that I refuse to call “lucky” as it should be the status quo); on the other hand, the research parts were left dangling and resulted in a loss of “productivity” that has been felt in lowered H-indices, fewer publications, and less visibility in my field overall. I anticipate that COVID-19 will cause a long-term dip in research productivity across the board (most everyone will experience the “maternity leave” dip), but with a deeper trough for women who are parenting younger children. Since these women are most likely in early to mid-career positions and have already experienced decreases in productivity associated with recent maternity leave(s), this dip will have long-term consequences.
Can we use this shared experience with reduced productivity to build a more generous academic community? We can advocate for change within our institutions by advocating for extended timelines for doctoral students and pausing tenure clocks, and within our research communities by advocating for extended funding. These are essential steps that acknowledges the widespread impact that COVID-19 will have on our work. However, the productivity of parents who are academics will still be compared to our colleagues who did not have to home school their children or provide full-time care for family members during this pandemic. Metrics of research impact are cumulative and reduced output during limited periods impacts us throughout our careers.
In her recent book, Air & Light & Time & Space (2017), Helen Sword advocates for pro-social writing activities as essential components of successful academics. I see these activities as broader based actions that can lead towards a more generous and inclusive academic community. Colleagues who are able to work can reach out to those of us who are overwhelmed with balancing responsibilities. Perhaps invite us to remote shut-up-and-write sessions or to contribute to a paper that you are drafting, or share our work on social media. Small steps can make a big difference in the longer term.
The pandemic is bringing about radical changes in the way we work and the way we lead our lives. The impact of these changes will be long lasting. We should take this time of radical change to build towards an academic community that values different career trajectories.
For those of us who’ve made it through tenure and are now ‘guarding the gates’, we should take this time to reflect on the path to these gates, the gates themselves, and the path beyond. We can build towards generous scholarship.
Author Bio: Andrea MacLeod is a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, where she is the Chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders department.