Female scientists in crisis

Why women working in academia cannot focus on their research in times of Covid-19 and what might help them

Alena Sander & Claire Grauer

This is the English version of a blog first published at FES Corona & Care blog, here.

Alena Sander is a Research Associate and PhD candidate at the Centre for Development Studies at University of Louvain (Belgium) as well as mother of a two-year-old son. During the time she is not taking care of her son, she is researching power relations and resistance in the context of international development aid.

Claire Grauer is a Research Associate and PhD candidate at the Faculty of Sustainability of Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany and mother of two children (3 and 6 years old). In her research, she is looking at the interrelation between time wealth, time shaping competency and sustainable consumption in the context of education for sustainable development (ESD). Apart from her research, she is a proficient reader of children’s books, sand-sweeper and apple slicer.

As soon as a female academic gives birth, she is losing ground compared to her male colleagues with regard to the number of publications she will likely be authoring. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis now seems to exacerbate this well-known tendency. According to various editors of international scientific journals the number of submissions by female authors decreased substantially during March and April 2020 compared to the same period of past years ­–­ while submissions by male authors increased by up to 25 per cent.

This is important since careers in academia follow the paradigm publish or perish with the number of publications in academic journals being a decisive factor for a career in science. Even before Covid-19, female scientists who have children published less frequently in academic journals than male scientists with or without children, the main reason being the perpetuation of traditional gender roles combined with an academic working environment rewarding working overtime and self-exploitation.

Today, women all over the world are affected disproportionately by the crisis. Female scientists, those who are also mothers especially, are no exception. Like other mothers, they have experienced a surge in care work, including mainly household chores and child care, resulting in losing precious time previously available for academic research and writing, and thus: publishing. This then may have tremendous (negative) consequences for their future academic careers.

Care work: a double-edged sword

Reporting on women’s care work in the context of Covid-19 over the past months mostly focused on the visible, physical part of this kind of work. This included taking care of young children and supporting home schoolers, carrying out an increased amount of domestic work as well as providing support to people at risk such as elderly family members or neighbours. We found it striking, however, that there were very few mentions of the invisible part of this care work, also called cognitive work, or mental load – which, as we suggest, has also increased massively since the pandemic started in the beginning of the year.

We understand mental load as the anticipation of needs, decision-making and organization of everyday life with regard to one’s family household. Put differently: Mental load describes the management of the household and the family, and is mostly carried out by women. It contributes to women’s mental exhaustion and increased stress. Next to the burden caused by increased visible care work, we assume that the mental load is one of the main reasons preventing female academics during the current crisis to devote as much time to their research as their male colleagues.

To illustrate our case, we spoke with 24 women from seven European countries in late June 2020, asking them about their everyday lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of them are currently working at academic institutions, holding various positions, and all have young children aged from infant up to young teen. We wanted to know which kinds of care work they have been carrying out since March 2020 and what kinds of challenges they experience with regard to their academic work and research during the past months.

While we are aware that most European researcher mothers continue to live and work under rather favourable conditions in comparison with other women, e.g. those who may have lost their job due to the current economic crisis, we feel that their situation is under-reported. Therefore, we want to raise awareness about the urgent need for solutions.

Researcher moms and physical care work

With childcare facilities and schools closed, and grandparents either being part of the so-called risk group or living far away, who takes care of the children? It’s the mother, of course.

Highly educated researcher mums are no exception, quite on the contrary: Many of our interviewees reported how their flexible working hours, otherwise considered an asset, now are the reason they were taking over as main family caretakers once many countries shut down most areas of public life beginning in March 2020. This was especially the case for women whose partners had less flexible employers, expecting them to continue working full-time from home, regardless of living with young children who needed to be watched.

Consequently, many researcher mothers were only able to work in the early morning hours or in the evening, or carve out one, two hours here and there in the course of the day. A scientist from Great Britain explained how once she finally got to sit down at night after twelve hours of child care and home schooling, she barely managed to open her laptop, and was often too tired to even take one look at her research. Instead, she mostly only managed to tick off little tasks from her to-do list and write emails. For her “the beginning of the crisis was the end of my research.”

Another reason many mothers had to take over as primary care takers is money: Many of the researcher mums we spoke to are earning less than their (male) partners. This is especially an issue affecting early career researchers whose work is often considered more as a course of study than a “real” paid job. A PhD-candidate from France told us: “My boyfriend earns a lot more than I. If he would earn less, we would experience serious financial trouble. Therefore, it was clear from the start that I would take over the main part of child care when our daughter’s primary school closed in March.”

Shouldering the increased burden of physical care work is especially difficult for single researcher mothers and those, who are among one of the risk groups. A Belgian researcher we spoke to experienced both at the same time: “My ex-husband is working in a so-called system-relevant job. Because I have asthma and am afraid of being infected, he could not see his children for the past weeks, and thus not take care of them. Me and the children are seriously suffering from cabin fever meanwhile – and I can’t find any time for working on my research.”

We would like to add that not all of our interlocutors experienced such a stark imbalance with regard to household and the physical care work. However, even those who managed to equally share their physical care work with their partners reported how they often find it impossible to regularly work concentrated and focused over longer periods. This however is an essential prerequisite for academic research and writing.

Why researcher mothers cannot concentrate: Impacts of invisible, cognitive care work

The interviews we conducted add evidence to our initial thesis whereby the crisis has greatly increased women’s invisible care work. Children, at home all day, needed attention and support with home schooling. Several family meals needed to be prepared daily, while grocery shopping during the pandemic required almost strategic planning. Holidays and other trips needed to be rescheduled, as did doctor’s appointments. Children’s birthday parties needed to be planned in line with pandemic regulations. What’s more, family life with everyone home around the clock may often cause stress and frustration among household members, which needs to be dealt with. And then add all the never-ending worries, for example about family members such as one’s own parents, friends who could not be visited, as well as insecurities regarding one’s own career.

All of this may cause an emotionally draining workload, which is constantly present in women’s minds, but to a large part, remains invisible to the outside. For those affected, it may result in a considerable decrease cognitive resources – which then are missing once the female academic is finally able to sit down at her computer at the end of the day.

During our conversations, we got many insights into how mothers are mostly taking on this kind of never-ending and demanding invisible care work. A female professor from Belgium said: “At the moment, I am thinking about so many things that, once I finally get to sit down at my computer, I need some time to calm down before I start working.”

But even once a mum’s racing mind has calmed, working from home with children present negatively impacts focusing on one’s work. A professor from Wales told us that because she was her children’s first person of trust she would never be able to work over longer periods. Even though her husband was doing his best, her two children “absolutely ZOOM bomb every meeting.” A British researcher added: “I need chunks of time to write and concentrate and I haven’t had that.”

Some researcher mums described themselves as a sort of “news centre” within their households. They are the ones keeping themselves and the whole family up to date with regard to current Covid-19 related news, like a British scientist mother explains: “I am the default carer when it comes to information gathering and strategic planning of what we half-jokingly call our ‘family corona policy’, day to day and week by week.“

Moreover, our interviewees said that they have been worrying a lot more than usual during the past months. They worried about their children, their parents, about their career and even about the state of the world. A British researcher living and working in Sweden put it like this: “What makes the situations stressful [for me as a mother] was the whole transition process, the instability, the constant checking for updates and updated guidelines […], the feeling of powerlessness, trying to balance everyone’s physical and mental health demands.”

The emotional care work does not end within the confines of female academic’s flats. Many reported how their students, too, are currently requiring more support than before. A professor from Germany said: “I am putting in a lot of effort into my teaching. I do not want my students to suffer from the current situation. It’s already hard enough on them.” Furthermore, many women are also feeling responsible for supporting their friends and other social networks. A PhD researcher from Belgium told us about the many long talks she had with the head of her son’s nursery, after said nursery experienced financial difficulties due to the crisis. The amount of time she had to spend with encouraging the other woman “is taking a toll on myself”, and she often could not stop thinking about it during her work time.

After more than three months in a state of emergency, many researcher mothers were feeling guilty, constantly having the impression of neglecting both families and work while “hardly keeping their head above the water”, as a German researcher put it. An Irish researcher confirmed: “Over the past three months I have felt constantly guilty as I have felt unable to give proper attention either to my work or my son’s education and have done justice to neither!”

The university has to change!

The Covid-19 crisis amplifies existing inequalities between male and female researchers, especially those who are also mothers. Not only are researcher mothers taking over a much larger part of the increased workload of chores and childcare, but they are also carrying out the bulk of the invisible care work.

This, in turn, is leaving many women short of mental resources badly needed in order to do research, and to write academic publications. This is causing a constant feeling of stress and frustration among female academics, none the least because many are highly insecure about the immediate to long-term future of their academic careers, on top of constantly feeling guilty towards their children and families.

We therefore want to draw attention to the importance of alleviating the consequences of the crisis for female academics. Since the pandemic already affects them disproportionately, they should not be further disadvantaged and experience negative impacts on their careers, which, as it seems now, is very likely going to happen.

We are therefore calling for a system change away from one that is measuring academic success mainly by counting the number of publications. Even before Covid-19, this system sanctioned women with children disproportionately and made many talented female scientists prematurely leave academic jobs out of frustration.

Based on their many years of work experience within academic institutions, our interlocutors shared many constructive ideas:

  • Adapting the so-called „academic age“ in application processes for those applicants who are carrying out care work (taking care of children or other relatives); also contracts, when temporary, should be extended for those in the role of carers;
  • The silently accepted practice of rewarding academics for working (unpaid) overtime has to end (not only for those doing care work – it is generally negatively affecting health and well-being);
  • Qualitative aspects, too, need to be included into academic evaluations and application processes, such as diversity of teaching, reports of students, and engagement in academic positions and administration – areas in which women often are excelling;
  • There should be quotas within those departments and positions of academic intuitions where women are underrepresented. Overall, sabbaticals and other forms of downtimes need no longer lead to sanctions or disadvantages;
  • Child care in general, as well as emergency childcare during crises such as Covid-19 need to be expanded and accessible for everyone at academic institutions (and beyond) who need it.

In addition, many female academics urged their employers as well as funding institutions to work on these solutions in the short- and middle term. Overall, institutions need to take on responsibility for ensuring that care work does not negatively affect (mostly women’s) academic careers.

Almost all of our research participants agreed that this is not only the responsibility of universities or other academic institutions. Policy makers, too, need to ensure that the importance of care work in general is becoming more visible and appreciated as being relevant for society – for example via more flexible, longer and better paid parental leave models which specifically motivate fathers to take over equal time to care for children. This would be one important step towards achieving a more equal distribution of care work between partners in the long term. Our interviews illustrate that this might indeed be an important measure: Those female academics who managed to more or less evenly distribute care work between themselves and their (male) partners during the Covid-19 crisis, while also finding more or less sufficient time for their academic work, all had partners who were either working part time (as in the case of one British and one German scientist) or on parental leave (two researchers from Sweden).

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