A Call to Action: Supporting Women Faculty in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond

By Emily Solari, Sara Hart & Tiffany Hogan

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities favoring men in academe were palpable. Multiple reports demonstrated that, despite progress over the course of the past 30 years, deep discrepancies remained between men and women across almost every academic discipline related to receiving tenure, grants awarded, and leadership positions. These discrepancies are felt even more by BIPOC individuals who also identify as women, who experience intersectional sources of inequities.

As we have settled into nearly four months of working from home with an unclear outlook on how long these working conditions will continue, there is legitimate concern that remote working, especially in the presence of children out of school and also at home, will exacerbate already existing inequities. Women in academe, who before the pandemic were already doing more of their share of household duties, even when both partners worked full-time, have been thrust into a precarious position. The lines between work and life have been blurred to the point where they are largely non existent. Academic moms are overloaded with household burdens coupled with an increase in work demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, both men and women agree that moms are doing more housework than before the pandemic began.

Already, there are signals that the current conditions will have a differential impact on women in academe. For example, more men than women are submitting papers to academic journals. For women, adding insult to injury, their male colleagues are reportedly submitting 50% more manuscripts than before the pandemic. The effect is most pronounced for women with young children. With young children in the home, interruptions are common, meaning it’s impossible to get the deep thinking time required for scholarship. These months of missed deep thinking time will have a compounding effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s productivity. Less productivity has devastating effects on the advancement of academic women in the near and more distant future in the academy where productivity is essential for job opportunities, promotion and merit, and notoriety in one’s discipline.

Coupled with women being less productive in ways that “count” in academia, women are also at risk for not being tapped for important professional opportunities. One of the present authors had a tweet go viral when she reported that she had purposely not been asked to be part of an important professional opportunity because the organizers assumed she would be too busy, because she has young children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This sort of infantilization, assuming you are protecting women from burden by not even asking them, blocks women from being able to make their own choices concerning their career. And we argue that similar interactions do not occur with academic men at the same rate.

It is possible that during the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more women in academia will be blocked, without their knowledge, from being able to add their voice to institutional decision making. Even if asked to be involved, women are more likely than men to say no to opportunities if they don’t think they are fully qualified and when they do say no, they are judged more harshly than their male colleagues. Taken together, being excluded and self-selecting out of opportunities will likely increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will in turn exacerbate the inaccurate view that academic women, and, in particular academic moms, are not committed to their work.

We certainly do not have all the answers; no one does in these unprecedented times. We offer some possible ideas of what universities can do. We urge individuals that hold positions of power within the academic structure to consider how the COVID-19 pandemic may differentially impact women as we move forward together.

Tenure and Promotion: Many universities have responded to COVID-19 by automatically (or opt-in) one-year extensions of tenure clocks. This is certainly a great first step, but, as we know, similar policies have led to unintended advantages favoring men, who sometimes utilize these extensions to work more, widening gender inequality. Moreover, a one-year extension does not reflect what will certainly be a multi-year effect. Such extensions are also focused on tenure track faculty only, and more women than men find themselves in tenuous university positions, ones that do not carry tenure-earning privileges. Now is the time to change how we think about what constitutes successful faculty productivity, not simply relying on a century-old method that was invented when men made up the majority of the professoriate. The effect of COVID-19 on a woman’s curriculum vita will be felt intensely in the next 2 to 5 years from now, not only this year. Trajectories will look different after COVID-19. We also encourage tenure and promotion committees, and letter writers, to contextualize tenure and promotion cases through a COVID-19 lens.

Engagement and Representation: If there is one constant in the academy, it’s committees. Lots of committees, and those committees make decisions. It’s especially important that these committees include women, with special attention to including BIPOC women, in roles where they have the ability to inform decision making around issues related to parenting and how it impacts productivity. Some women may not be available to serve on these committees due to their increased post-COVID responsibilities. Another option is to solicit information through surveys and listening sessions. Regardless, those making decisions should not assume they know what women are dealing with post-COVID. Those stories need to be told by those experiencing them.

Policy: Those in decision-making positions are less likely to be women (referred to as, ‘the higher, the fewer’) and less likely to have young children at home, and, as such, we urge those individuals to think about their decisions from the perspective of their junior female faculty. It is quite possible that the concerns and goals of junior faculty members are very different from administration. We encourage universities to create policy statements that acknowledge the hardships women in academe may be experiencing and state explicitly the supports offered. A recent non example of this was the announcement of a HR policy not allowing employees to care for children at home while working from home. While this policy was ultimately rescinded, it has potential to have disastrous effects on the well-being of female faculty, especially junior female faculty, who are more likely to have young kids at home and have no other childcare options during the pandemic.

Opportunities: Universities need to be intentional about including women in a variety of opportunities at every level of the institution. Universities should not simply assume their female faculty are not available during this time. Trust women to say no if they need to, and respect their choice to say no. Additionally, consider strongly if the ask to female faculty is of equal value to the ask of male faculty. Because social norms make it harder for women to say no, they tend to be engaged in more service overall than men, but not necessarily service that is viewed as high profile. Keep in mind that this can be exacerbated for BIPOC women, who often find themselves doing, ‘invisible labor’, which is often not highly valued and sometimes not even recognized by institutions. It is also possible that BIPOC women are also currently doing extra service, as they are being tasked to be part of institutional initiatives around diversity and equity. It is imperative that all women be invited to participate in opportunities that can lead to the advancement of their careers. Likewise, universities need to promote their female faculty’s voice. Communication teams should be thoughtful of who they recommend to engage with the media and policymakers. Administrators, and senior faculty, should consistently amplify women’s voices and give them appropriate credit, a strategy utilized in the Obama White House.

Childcare considerations: Most moms are working at home with no childcare. Every day is a balancing act between meeting the needs of children and work demands. It is important to take into consideration this balancing act when scheduling meetings and overall work expectations. For example, there should not be a requirement that people have their videos on during conference calls, and it is important to allow for breaks so that children’s needs can be met during the work day. Some institutions have provided free virtual summer camps, and while well-intended, this often means more work by mothers to organize and then supervise the “opportunity”. Institutions should not see this as solving the current childcare crisis.

It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling the gender gap already existent in academe. We argue that as institutes of higher education move forward, that they intentionally think about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact women, especially BIPOC women, in academe not only now but also over the next 3–5 years. We cannot allow our current situation to reverse important progress made over the past few decades on gender equality.

We don’t have all the answers! We would love to hear your suggestions about how to better support each other now and moving forward. If you are so inclined, and have the time, we are interested in crowd sourcing ideas from many different individuals with the intent of compiling ideas to provide clear guidance to universities around graduate student support, hiring, early career scholars, tenure and promotion, retention of women, etc. as it relates to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. You may do so here.

Emily J. Solari (@emilyjsolari) is a Professor of Education at University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.*

Sara A. Hart (@saraannhart)is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Research Faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University.

Tiffany P. Hogan (@tiffanyphogan) is a Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the MGH Institute of Health Professions.

*please contact for questions, comments, or concerns (ejs9ea@virginia.edu)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store