Colleges must acknowledge the challenges facing female academics who juggle work and parenting from home (opinion)

The early research is clear. Academic women — especially Black, Indigenous and people of color — and other caregivers are shouldering the burden of domestic life in this pandemic. As the crisis continues, and K-12 schools have adopted virtual and hybrid models, “Faculty parents are once again being asked to perform a miracle,” as Colleen Flaherty has written in Inside Higher Ed.

The boundaries between work and home — already tenuous before COVID-19 — have been increasingly and rapidly erased. And as such, this pandemic has the potential to eradicate hard-earned gains toward equity that have taken decades to secure.

Pandemic life challenges the problematic assumption that academics are, as Christopher C. Lynn, Michaela E. Howells and Max J. Stein describe, “unencumbered scholars.” An unencumbered scholar is one who can do their work anywhere and anytime. This assumption was often true in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, as the professoriate was mostly made up of white, cisgendered, able-bodied males in homes that divided parenting and household along gender lines. But that is no longer the case. While Ph.D. recipients have only recently represented a more diverse cross-section of the global population, those clear delineations no longer exist.

Our preliminary research on the challenges facing scholars who conduct research programs that require juggling fieldwork and family demands has shown that female-identified academics disproportionately struggle when boundaries between home and work blur. Those stark realities did not surprise us. Although the link between taking children to a field site to do research and a family stuck at home in a pandemic is not immediately obvious, the current challenges, in fact, feel eerily familiar to us.

Researchers who take their children into the field live and work in blurred physical, mental and emotional spaces. For example, as an archaeologist working in Italy who has taken her daughter into the field for 17 years, one of us, Gretchen Meyers, has lectured to students in museums while trying to keep one eye on a toddler hiding behind terra-cotta sculptures. She’s also cataloged pottery by hand because her computer was needed for a viewing of Toy Story 2. The other of us, political scientist Stephanie McNulty, moved with her two young children to Latin America for many years and remembers taking a screaming baby to rallies in Bolivia and carrying her toddler to meetings with community activists in Guatemala. Such experiences resonate and are exacerbated for many faculty members now during the pandemic, when our home is our office and emotional labor merges with academic labor.

Our interdisciplinary survey of field researchers from 2016 found that fieldwork as part of a person’s scholarly agenda increases the mental load for women, particularly around the issues of formulating a research agenda, navigating family decisions and managing tension with their partner over household management. That finding highlights the gendered impact of emotional labor for female academics in these disciplines. As researchers have shown, this unseen impact can create levels of stress that eventually force overwhelmed scholars out of academe. We believe this is happening now, during this crisis, and worry about the long-term effects on the professoriate.

As these trends magnify in scope and scale for female academics who juggle teaching, research and parenting from home, what can we learn from discussions about fieldwork and family balance?

For starters, every institution must acknowledge the problem and openly address what can appear invisible and ignored to those of us living in this reality. The academy risks emerging from this pandemic with less diversity and gender equity than before unless we change course. The first step is initiating a conversation and listening. Once people have a space to talk openly about their challenges, a lot of problem solving and solutions naturally emerge.

Additional institutional responses will naturally vary. Realistically, financial difficulties severely constrain most colleges and universities right now. Some are able to reduce course loads or create tutoring programs for children of faculty and staff, while others are not. Alternative, lower-cost strategies that may mitigate the inherently gendered and inequitable nature of the pandemic include:

  • Creating community tools for resource sharing, co-ops, tutoring and/or affordable childcare options. Institutions can use technology to help create lower-cost online communities for educational projects and tutoring programs, for example, among employees and students.
  • When research funds exist, allowing them to be used for childcare so academics can conduct their work knowing that their children are safe.
  • Reviewing policies and procedures to ensure equitable treatment for female academics who are coping with significant personal as well as professional responsibilities during the pandemic. Tenure extensions are a good first step, but we also know blunt extensions disproportionately and negatively affect female and minority academics. We join Jessica L. Malisch and others in their call for institution-specific committees to discuss and create equitable policies. Our own institution wrote this letter with a path forward for tenure and promotion committees and chairs, including reducing nonessential meetings, creating a process for people to request a reduced service load for the year, setting up meetings between tenure candidates and the promotions committee for updates about process, asking chairs to meet with nontenured faculty to determine whether the clock extension is the best option, and flexibility in using student evaluations for tenure cases.

Our research on fieldwork also suggests that integrating family demands into our daily work lives has unexpected benefits. For example, many interviewees noted that their children gained resiliencies and knowledge about new places after traveling to the field with a scholar-parent. They developed new skills, like language proficiency or learning how to test water samples. In a household in which one parent traveled to the field alone, the child who stayed home often had the chance to forge stronger bonds with a different family member. People who had taken their children to their research sites decades ago reported that the experience had led their adult children to take more risks, by joining the Peace Corps or becoming scientists, for example. Obviously, the specific benefits for pandemic families won’t be the same, but we found that some parents witnessed increased adaptability and innovation in their children when family routines changed as a result of fieldwork. Our hunch is that some positive outcomes from this unique time will be apparent when we can finally go back to our regular schedules.

This pandemic will end. And like some of those whom we surveyed, many scholars will come out of this closer to their families, with more resilience and with new ways of thinking and creating knowledge. That just one more reason that it’s important for higher education institutions to create an equitable work environment that supports all academics and their families as they navigate this crisis.

Inside Higher Ed