Many female academics say juggling their career with coronavirus childcare is overwhelming
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Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.27 EDT
In April Dr Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noticed that the number of article submissions she was receiving from women had dropped dramatically. Not so from men.
“Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month,” she posted on Twitter. “Never seen anything like it.” The response was an outpouring of recognition from frustrated female academics, saying they were barely coping with childcare and work during the coronavirus lockdown.
“I was taken aback by the nerve I seem to have hit,” she says. “I have now heard many stories from women of abandoned projects, collaborations they have felt unable to continue with, and so on. It’s extremely worrying, especially so for philosophy, which already has so much work to do in terms of gender equality among its ranks.”
Having articles published in academic journals is key to being promoted at many universities, and is a critical measure of success in the government’s all-important Research Excellence Framework, which distributes around £2bn of annual funding to universities.
Hannon is worried that the additional lockdown childcare, as well as caring for older family members and an increase in chores such as cooking and cleaning, is slowing up female researchers far more than their male colleagues.
Meanwhile, though, at another leading research publication, the Comparative Political Studies journal, submissions from men were up almost 50% in April, according to its co-editor, David Samuels.
Dr Jenny Hallam, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby, who is currently home schooling her two boys, aged seven and four, while trying to do her job, isn’t surprised. She loves doing research, but it has become a luxury she can no longer squeeze into her exhausting lockdown schedule.
Two days a week she is the sole home teacher, snatching the chance to work where she can. The other three days she and her husband, who is also an academic, do relay childcare. In the evenings she catches up with emails from students who are struggling to adjust to online teaching. She is coping, she says, but it is “overwhelming and tiring” and the days feel very long.
“Research has fallen by the wayside,” she says. “It’s important and I want to do it, but it’s not as urgent as supporting my students. My students and my children have to be my priority.”
On top of that, Hallam has heard back from a research journal to which she submitted a paper before the lockdown, wanting her to make revisions by early June that she can’t find the time to do. She notes the journal took two months less than usual to respond. “Perhaps the reviewers aren’t parents,” she says drily.
“I wrote back explaining why I would struggle to make the deadline. The editor declined an extension, saying deadlines were important,” she says.
Dr Anneli Jefferson, a lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University who is also home schooling her two boys, of nine and 12, agrees that research is the first thing to suffer when time is short. “Research is really important, but it’s not urgent. It’s not usually the thing that someone’s breathing down your neck about.”
She thinks anyone with a family will be slowed down by lockdown – “but women will probably be disadvantaged more strongly”.
“Many female academics will have partners with a more structured job with online meetings that are non-negotiable,” she says. “And it must be even harder for single mothers, because they are doing all this on their own.”
Prof James Wilsdon, director of the new Research on Research Institute based at the Wellcome Trust, worries that the coronavirus is skewing a playing field that wasn’t ever level in the first place. “We have to be very cautious that we are not privileging those who are able to use the coronavirus situation as time to race ahead of their peers, who are held back not by talent or aspiration but by the need to do homeschooling and put three meals a day on the table,” he says.
He agrees that research is not really compatible with family life in lockdown. “Research requires headspace and the ability to immerse yourself over a prolonged period.”
Wilsdon, who is himself juggling work and four children at home, says: “This is also about the division between those who have caring responsibilities and those who don’t. But I’d be the first to admit that women bear the brunt of the problem.”
And the issue goes beyond journals, he says. UK Research and Innovation, the national funding body for research, and other funding bodies, are fully aware that many women will also be struggling to find time to enter competitions for new research funding.
Wilsdon points out that raising money for new research is extremely important to universities, but it is less of apriority than the challenges of shifting teaching online. “No one is standing over you saying you must apply for a grant, so in a sense that becomes even more of a luxury than writing a research paper for a journal.” This worries funders, he says, but there is no easy solution.
Dr Viki Male, an immunologist at Imperial College London, says there is “definitely a danger” that female academics might be taking more of a hit in the lockdown than their male colleagues and competitors. She is looking after her children, aged three and six, as well as trying to run her lab, give lectures – including a new one on Covid-19 immunity – and check in with her research students. She often notches up 16-hour days of work and childcare.
She is quick to point out that her husband has taken on a lot at home too, but because she earns less, and can be more flexible about when she works, the bulk of the childcare falls to her.
“It made sense for me to be on domestics from 9 to 5,” she says. “I suspect, around the country, couples have had the same sorts of conversations we had. It probably reflects systemic ways in which men’s and women’s jobs often differ.”
She is concerned that women might be falling behind in the race to publish their research, and argues that even if all universities and funders agreed to make allowances for researchers who couldn’t publish during lockdown, those with caring responsibilities would still be left behind because others had had extra time to progress their research.
Wilsdon, however, says that in his more optimistic moments he hopes some good might come out of the lockdown for women, and that universities might be forced to confront calls for more flexible working.
“All the juggling and the hidden labour of domesticity that is part of many academics’ real lives is now being brought into view ,” he says. “Maybe when those things are raised in the future, universities will be better at understanding.”
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