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COVID-19 is still exacerbating the gender gap in academia

Even before the pandemic, women professors had to deal with a different set of expectations.


The first sign of trouble was the hashtag. In the spring of 2020, #CoronaPublicationGap began circulating on Twitter, with academics publicly sharing how COVID-19 had slowed the rate of academic journal and paper submissions from women in their areas of study.

This is likely not surprising to many women and racialized faculty across the country, who have reported working longer hours and feeling less productive during the pandemic. That was a consistent finding Jennifer Davis, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, discovered when analyzing the results of two surveys she conducted with colleagues. The first survey, in 2020, asked nearly 700 respondents from across the country questions about the effects that COVID-19 had on their research, and their wellbeing. The next year, Dr. Davis’ team followed up, gathering insights from 750 respondents, which cemented their earlier findings and pointed out tangible ways universities could help their faculty.

Dr. Davis’ research, which focuses on applied health economics, found that many women academics were hoping their institutions would recognize non-traditional forms of productivity. Rather than putting all the emphasis on publications and grants, some respondents noted that community engagement might be one way to measure the impact of their work. Many also reported working double, or even triple their regular hours over the pandemic, “just to keep up with work and life,” Dr. Davis said. “How long is that path sustainable?” And could the risk of burnout factor into what’s often called the “leaky pipeline” to tenure?

A December 2021 study from Statistics Canada found that nearly half of the PhDs awarded in the country go to women, and that the number of women in tenure-track positions has shot up 80 per cent over the last 30 years. However, women still account for less than 40 per cent of academics in tenure-track positions, and they are often older than men when they do get tenure. The study went so far as to acknowledge that recent research suggests that COVID-19 may “have implications on gender inequalities for academics, in terms of productivity and the likelihood to obtain tenure.” As evidence, it referenced a 2020 literature review which found that “evidence from research initiation reports, preprint servers, and journal submissions points to clear gendered differences – differences that are expected to become more pronounced over time and which will impact academic women’s career advancement in years to come.”

Read more: Women academics worry the pandemic is squeezing their research productivity

Indeed, preprint submissions from men actually increased in 2020 over the previous year. That may be due in part to women taking on more of the housework and childcare during the pandemic. Data from the United Kingdom, for instance, shows that women perform an extra 90 minutes of household chores a day over men, or spend nearly 2.5 additional hours with their children each day. Women without young children aren’t exempt, either; Statistics Canada has found that women are more likely to be caregivers for sick or elderly parents, and they often spend more time on these responsibilities than men.

Once women are able to get down to work, however, they still face more hurdles than men. One small Israeli study found that when both men and women work from home, men are more likely to have a physical door in their workspace, while women are more likely to set up in common areas. “That’s an illustration of the degree to which one can actually draw a physical or conceptual or symbolic boundary between your work and the other demands,” said Sylvia Fuller, a professor of sociology at UBC. “It seems men are afforded a little more freedom and latitude to have those boundaries while they’re working at home.” As a result, women are also more likely to be interrupted during their workday. They complete a third of the uninterrupted work hours that men do, a U.K.-led study found.

Pressure on early-career academics

Roughly 15 per cent of women leave academia between obtaining their PhD and getting a tenure-track position. But there are concerns that rate may increase due to COVID-19. For many young academics, the pressure to “publish or perish” persisted during the pandemic even though research was difficult to complete for some graduate students, given travel and distancing restrictions.

Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, has noticed those issues with her own PhD students. “In the social sciences, a lot of our researchers go talk to people, actually go do field research. All of that has stopped.” In the short term, that could mean that women are more likely to accept whichever jobs are offered, regardless of long-term stability, she said. “They are what we call limited-term appointments: lecturers, adjunct professors,” explained Dr. Momani. “I think women, and racialized women, often have more responsibilities at home, and it makes it very difficult for them to afford the time to get that stellar CV that makes you competitive on the job market.”

Read more: Women are getting less research done than men during this coronavirus pandemic

There are also questions about what the impact will be for those in leadership roles. With women more likely to become caregivers of elderly parents, there can be a drop-off in the highest ranks in the university sector. “I know of at least one [woman] president and a handful of administrators who have either stepped down entirely or had to take extended leave, in large part because of the challenges of COVID,” said Wendy Cukier, a professor of entrepreneurship at Ryerson University, and founder of the school’s diversity institute.

Pre-existing challenges

Even before COVID-19, women had to deal with a different set of professional expectations than their counterparts. Dr. Fuller noted that she is often approached by students to talk about issues outside of coursework, or to consider assignment extensions, in a way her male colleagues are not. She said she is seen as more empathetic and flexible, and the pandemic only heightened those requests, as students balanced virtual learning and social isolation. As campuses are now returning to more in-person learning, Dr. Fuller wonders how universities are going to correct those imbalances.

One option is an equity framework developed by the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) that challenges institutions to achieve gender parity in senior faculty positions by 2030. “Targets are important ways of combating the structural and systemic issues that have come up historically, but will undoubtedly be compounded by COVID,” explained Donna Kotsopoulos, a professor of education at Western University and secretary-general of SWAAC. “It’s been challenging… We are pushing universities to be genuine and committed to setting targets.”

Going into the third year of the pandemic, most if not all Canadian universities have implemented policies in the short term, such as flexible work arrangements and extensions for research projects, to help deal with the added strain. Many institutions have extended their tenure clock, giving applicants more time to get on the tenure track. However, Dr. Davis’ research suggests that step may have had the opposite effect, prolonging job insecurity, and adding to the stress levels of early-career women in academia. Instead, respondents asked for a chance to provide context for hiring committees. “They would prefer the opportunity to story-tell, to share the impact of the pandemic on their research and productivity, and any other roles they’ve taken on that they feel might not be measured,” Dr. Davis said.

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