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These and other questions were on the table when The Chronicle’s Liz McMillen spoke with five leading thinkers about the pandemic’s differential impact on female academics: Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University; Vineet Arora, the dean of medical education at the University of Chicago; Robinson W. Fulweiler, an associate professor of biology at Boston University; Henrika McCoy, an associate professor of social work and interim associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Joya Misra, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.
Liz McMillen: Jessica, I’d like to set the stage for this conversation with something that you said last year. You said, “Most countries have safety nets; the United States has women.”
Jessica Calarco: Social safety nets are supposed to give people a sense of security, give them the resources and the support systems that they need to survive and thrive.
Things like paid family leave, paid sick leave, affordable child care, living wages, and universal health care — these are what we think of when we think of a social safety net.
In the U.S., the paltry safety net we do have doesn’t provide that kind of security. It’s designed to be as stingy and even as punitive as possible.
The work of that social safety net falls to women. Women are the ones who run the bake sales so schools can have an art teacher. They’re the ones who run church-outreach programs, who check in on sick family members, who help their colleagues at work feel like part of a team. Women do all of that unpaid service for institutions, including academia.
And then they go home to do even more work in their families.
My colleagues and I found that these patterns became even more pronounced during the pandemic, which just ripped a giant hole in the threadbare net that we already have. Before the pandemic, we were following a group of 250 mothers with young children through the early years of parenthood, and when the pandemic hit their lives were just completely turned upside down.
McMillen: So you’re really describing second jobs, if not third jobs, for many women. I think you mentioned that you had done a survey of faculty members at Indiana during this period.
Calarco: Back in December and into January of 2021, we surveyed about 350 faculty, staff, and graduate students.
Across the board, even if they also had increased caregiving responsibilities at home, they weren’t slacking off on their core tasks for the university. What was getting cut instead was research.
There was also stress. We saw that those with caregiving responsibilities — who were disproportionately women and especially women of color — had amplified stress during the pandemic. Burning the candle at both ends, waking up at three or four in the morning to work for a couple of hours, before the kids woke, then staying up until midnight.
McMillen: Vineet, as the dean of medical education and a doctor, you are literally on the front lines of what’s happening with Covid in Chicago. You also had a really big life change last year, right at the beginning of the pandemic. How did you cope?
Vineet Arora: I was eight and a half months pregnant when the pandemic hit.
I delivered my second child in my hospital at the height of the surge while we were converting Covid units and redeploying our staff. As a hospital leader, I was aware of the numbers. We didn’t have vaccines, and we didn’t know what was going on, so we just rolled the dice and did the best we could. I had a C-section; I went home within 48 hours, which is kind of record speed to get out of the hospital after major surgery.
So in the early surge period I was back at home. I did come back and serve in the fall; hilariously, I felt guilty that I was going to miss the action.
McMillen: Robinson, I wonder if you can talk a little about day care, which I know you’ve been writing about.
Robinson W. Fulweiler: What motivated us was that we saw one more paper being published by a man saying, “Hey, look, women are disproportionately impacted.” We know this!
Data is important, and it needs to be gathered, but we know this. It is not a surprise. We felt very much like we want solutions. We felt pretty frustrated and fired up, because these are all solvable problems. They’ve been solved in other countries; it’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel here.
I think it was Elizabeth Warren who said that day care is infrastructure. High-quality day care keeps women in the work force, and when women are employed, everyone does better. Those are clear data from a variety of countries, so if you are fiscally oriented, and you only care about the economy, day care makes sense.
To me, it’s a crime against women. I’m surprised we don’t revolt.
McMillen: Henrika, you made an interesting comment about how there is more uncertainty now than there was before the vaccine.
Henrika McCoy: It might sound odd to people, because in some ways vaccines make people feel more certain, but I think the reality is we know there are exemptions, and we know that children can’t be vaccinated. I’m at a university with a very large population of first-generation students of color, who are often parents. Every day we see increasing breakthrough cases, even though we’re requiring vaccines.
This is kind of a rolling problem. We see the Delta variant. We know Lambda is coming.
McMillen: Joya, I’m interested in hearing about the grant work that you’ve done with the National Science Foundation project and the kind of structural impediments you’ve been identifying that slow the progress of women.
Joya Misra: It’s a very strange situation to be on a large grant project to mentor institutions to make them more equitable racially and for women and then to be hit with this pandemic and realize, “OK, now we really need to retool. How do we think about transformation in this setting?”
You need to provide resources in the short term to the faculty. Let’s get those elder-care resources in people’s hands; let’s make sure people have the technology that they need in order to do things online; let’s make sure that there’s some child-care support.
But we also need to be rethinking evaluation. How we evaluate the faculty is a huge issue. When I am asked to write for tenure and promotion cases, I’m often asked to compare people to others from institutions that I know have very different situations — lower teaching loads, more research resources.
We really have to rethink and recalibrate how we evaluate the faculty. That’s much of the work that I’ve been doing.
McMillen: I was interested to hear you address elder care, which is not on many institutions’ radar.
Misra: Absolutely. It’s a huge problem. We need paid family leave so that you can actually take off time to care for your spouse, or your parents, or your siblings — people other than your children that need care.
We had those, but it really took the pandemic before UMass started giving us money to get elder-care workers. We’ve been bargaining over it for at least a decade.
McMillen: On defining and redefining what success looks — Vineet, I think you came up with a really interesting tool, the “Covid contribution matrix.”
Arora: One of the most demoralizing things about this pandemic for me has been seeing younger faculty, particularly women, minorities, or those with hardships at home, whether it’s elder caregiving or other disruptions, reflect on the past year and say, “Gosh, I haven’t accomplished anything. I didn’t make any progress this year on my grant.”
For a lot of our younger faculty, especially the ones that are also deployed on the front lines, or in education where they spent all of their time converting all of that coursework or that field work to a virtual experience, or to connect mentors to students, or to launch a telemedicine program and teach people how to use it, or to open a vaccine clinic — all of these things are important contributions to society.
As a promotions committee, you look at gaps on CVs, and the gaps are always in the publications. That’s the metric people look at — either that or funding.
When looking at gaps, somebody might say, “Oh well, you know, they had a baby.” And I’ve always thought, “Well that’s weird — what if what if we didn’t know that?”
Why not make this sort of information a little bit more transparent? So we started thinking about a tool for academic clinicians, particularly in the medical field, to use to document their contributions and to present them to promotions committees in a better way.
McMillen: I’d like to open this up to the broader group and ask you: What has your institution done to modify standards or practice?
McCoy: I’d like to talk about what should be done. We’re in this Covid-19 pandemic, but we are also in a racism pandemic, which we’ve been in for 450 years. I found myself, like many others, shuttered in my home while watching the TV, faced with countless acts of violence against Black people. I wasn’t emotionally able to read stories of Black men talking about the violence they experience, including state violence.
I represent many people, both women and other people of color, who do research that is close to their community. I think one of the things that institutions have to recognize is the impact of that.
I’m not a full professor, but I’m not an assistant professor. I would like to be a full professor, but I have had to stop my work to protect my emotional and psychological health. Institutions have to reckon with that.
Fulweiler: One of the things that I want to shine a light on here is this idea of laying out what expectations are and what they should be.
The expectations, even for maternity leave, are not clear. Are you really supposed to not go to faculty meetings? Some people go and some people don’t. Mentor your undergraduate, advise them for classes? A lot of institutions do not have clear expectations of what leave looks like.
I can imagine an upper administrator right now saying to me: Well, we can’t do that because of legal reasons — we can’t make that clear. I think that’s a cop out. We have to figure out a way.
I also want to point to a paper that Sarah Davies wrote (I’m one of the co-authors), “Promoting Inclusive Metrics of Success and Impact to Dismantle a Discriminatory Reward System in Science.” It has this idea of looking beyond papers and grants — because there’s all this other work that women do. We’re just expected to keep the machinery going, and that is not evaluated properly.
McMillen: What do you see downstream over the next decade?
Misra: It’s critical, for the next 10 years, to have the impact of this pandemic documented. Somebody who’s a postdoc now, or a graduate student now — people will forget. “You know, this cohort just isn’t as productive.”