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‘On the verge of a breakdown.’ Report highlights women academics’ pandemic challenges

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and policymakers have raised serious concerns about impacts on women, including those pursuing careers in academic science. Today, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine adds to the chorus with its report on how women academics in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine are faring.

In the 253 pages of the report—which reinforces existing concerns, particularly for women who are caregivers—some of the most resonant pieces are survey responses from women faculty members about the challenges they faced during the first 6 months of the pandemic. “The experiences described in the survey are heartbreakingly vivid and all too familiar,” says Reshma Jagsi, an oncology professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the committee that commissioned the report. Here is a selection.

Caregiving challenges

“I have a workspace set up in my walk-in closet, and I purchased a folding screen to put behind me so others can’t see my dirty laundry or items all over the floor. I’ll shut the door to the closet so the cats and kids stay out when I’m ‘at work.’ But if I need an extra level, the closet door leads into the bathroom so I’ll close the bathroom door, which has a lock on it for extra assurance. However, my 5-year-old has figured out how to stick a bobby pin into the knob to pop the lock open when she’s desperate.”
– assistant professor

“Because my husband and I both work full time, jobs that require meetings with other people, we constantly have to switch back and forth between roles. I get an hour or two for some Zoom meetings, then it’s my turn to play kindergarten teacher for two hours, then I might get another hour or two to work. The constant task switching is mentally challenging and makes it hard to dive deep into any work task or accomplish anything that requires sustained attention for a longer period of time.”
– associate professor

“This is bonkers. I cannot find childcare for my youngest (three years old) and my older two children are remote learning for kindergarten and second grade. … So since March, my husband and I have been simultaneously performing parenting full time and working full time. It is fundamentally exhausting.”
– associate professor

“I am on the verge of a breakdown. I have three children doing virtual schooling full time who need my attention throughout the day; they all have different break schedules and seemingly interrupt me every 10 minutes. I want them to learn and thrive and I try to make these difficult circumstances for them as positive as possible, which means giving more of myself and my time to them. I try to wake up before them and work after they sleep, but this is hard given they wake up at 7 AM for school and don’t go to bed early.”
– associate professor

“I teach synchronously via Zoom. My husband is home and does the same thing. He and I have some classes that overlap, which means that I must frequently teach with my daughter in the room with me. She’s too young to understand how much I need her to play independently during class time, and I have lost a lot of a sense of professionalism with my students, because they see me getting constantly interrupted with comments like ‘Mommy, I went poop!!’”
– associate professor

“As a professional engineer working in academia, and single mother of three girls, the pandemic has radically changed everything. … I simply do not have the mental bandwidth to be a full time homeschooling mom, housekeeper, instructor, researcher, and family member.”
– associate professor

“I have children in school attempting to do virtual learning; this has been very difficult to manage while still trying to work myself. I have had to spend anywhere between one and three hours per day managing their virtual school activities. My husband does not feel as obligated and does not perform these tasks related to checking their schoolwork. I have lost sleep trying to make up for these lost working hours after the kids are in bed.”
– assistant professor

“I need to shop, cook, and provide all support for healthcare visits for both parents, one who died unexpectedly in July and has left us grieving on top of all this. Now mom is at home alone and needs more support and love in the middle of all this.”
– assistant professor

“My husband and I are both pre-tenure faculty and we have two young children at home. We are both trying to maintain jobs that want to demand 150 percent of our time when we are having to split shifts (two hours in the home office then swap and two hours with the kids).”
– assistant professor

Workload and health

“I feel like my workload has increased by 50 percent. I’m not able to keep up. I am worn out and tired of having to constantly apologize for being late.”
– faculty member of unknown rank

“There’s a major increase in stress and anxiety as I feel like I’m working more/harder and accomplished less. This stress has taken a serious toll on my personal well-being.”
– assistant professor

“I’m always at home. Everything occurs at home. It’s harder to turn off at the end of the day because there is no longer an end of the day.”
– assistant professor

“I’m constantly stressed that the lack of lab productivity will cause me to not get tenure.”
– assistant professor

“Currently, with offering flexible solutions for students, I am pulled in too many directions and spend 2–3 times the amount of prep time on lectures and materials. Trying to deliver content to students in class AND online has been a tremendous challenge and I feel like I waste about 20 minutes out of every 75-minute lecture just trying to get the technology to work properly. I’m working at least 12 hours a day. … Even my weekends are now rarely my own, since this is the only time I can record content for some of my courses.”
– senior instructor

“Early in the pandemic (March and April), there was so much communication (much of it contradictory) from department, college, and university level admin that we were jerked every which way almost every day. Admin seemed to think you could totally redesign your course on a dime in the middle of the semester, and sent us ads from third-party vendors, as well as constantly changing policy edicts and requests for information. This pushed me to work 10–12 hours per day, seven days per week, and resulted also in very unhappy students. The stress was unbearable, and by June I was in ICU [intensive care unit] with a stroke. Thankfully I have recovered sufficiently to keep working. But I fault the university for the amount of stress they caused.”
– unknown job title

“I have had to reduce my sleep to a bare minimum (2–3 hours), forgo exercise or time to myself, and endure significant stress and anxiety.”
– assistant professor

University policies

“I’m not feeling my institution is encouraging work-life integration as a whole. My immediate supervisor is very supportive of my decision to work exclusively from home. A few “atta-boys” are tossed by the Provost to thank faculty for their flexibility with coping with challenging times, but no real differences implemented EXCEPT allowance to take 2 personal days this semester. That’s nice BUT the semester is already one week longer than in the past. And, if you teach every day, which day am I to take off??”
– senior lecturer

“In reality, the flexible work schedules, reduced schedules, job-sharing and alternate work duties options [university administrators] offer simply do not apply to teaching faculty, especially those that rely on their income to support their family.”
– assistant professor of practice

“Our institution is facing mandatory 10 percent budget reductions. I am in a vulnerable position as a nontenured academic lecturer (despite 25+ years’ experience at this institution, women faculty member in STEM field). So, who knows? I try to be grateful I have a job, a job I enjoy, and I am healthy.”
– senior lecturer

“Our on-campus childcare situation is terrible, too little capacity and historically not high-quality care. With the onset of the pandemic, it was closed and some schools at the university stepped up and provided additional childcare subsidies to families who needed them, but it was not centralized or universal across the university. … There is in general an utter lack of proactive care of people’s needs.”
– faculty member of unknown rank

“My university does not care about families. They don’t even mention issues with childcare in messaging and blamed the lack of affordable childcare on ‘community partners.’ It has always been a problem here, which is probably why we have so few women as professors.”
– faculty member of unknown rank