Covid’s collapsing of work into home life has made clear that what Tithi Bhattarcharya calls “
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Covid’s collapsing of work into home life has made clear that what Tithi Bhattarcharya calls “life-giving reproductive labor” frequently falls on female shoulders. With schools closed, child-care provisions reduced, and care for other family members increased, pandemic time has heightened academe’s existing gendered inequalities.
Research across many disciplines — economics, public health, sociology, biology, medicine, gender studies, and more — has documented Covid-19’s detrimental impact on women. Multiple papers have shown that women’s unpaid care work, including child care, home-school supervision, emotional support of household members, and all manner of domestic tasks, has increased more than men’s during the pandemic. While many faculty and staff members in North America have been lucky enough over the last year to be able to telecommute, working from home during a pandemic brings its own set of difficulties.
One study in the United States found that, in heterosexual partnerships with both parents working virtually, mothers with children under 12 have reduced their work hours four to five times as much as fathers have. Another study found that mothers are more likely to spend their work hours simultaneously trying to care for children; they get only one-third of the uninterrupted paid work hours that fathers do. And multiple studies have determined that in heterosexual, two-parent families, mothers are more likely than fathers to have left paid work due to the pandemic.
Institutional policies must not be gender neutral if they’re to be gender equitable.
These research papers show only a small piece of the inequities exacerbated by Covid-19 in an already deeply unequal system. Few studies undertaken during the pandemic have adequately addressed the racialized division of reproductive labor in academe. Much of the existing research is heteronormative and assumes a gender binary that negates queer and trans structures of caring labor. And most research fails to account for single parents like myself. In the United States, 17 percent of all households are single-parent families, and 70 percent of these households are run by single mothers. To put this another way: Of the 73.5 million children under 18 in the United States, 21 percent live only with their mother, while only 4 percent live only with their father.
The pandemic has also revealed how deeply many of us still rely on socialized bonds of care — like public schooling and, in my case, free (albeit limited) after-school clubs for middle schoolers, along with low-cost, means-tested after-school care for elementary-school children. We need more of these socialized forms of care in ordinary times.
And Covid-19 has made stark what socialist and Marxist feminists have been arguing for years: The work of social reproduction takes more time than is available. As Nancy Fraser puts it, our political-economic structure “externaliz[es] care work onto families and communities while diminishing their capacity to perform it.” As Kathi Weeks explains, we need less work so that we can undertake the reproductive labor required to sustain our communities.
We’re already overworked in academe, and those of us who have been forced to take on extensive additional care work are now at a breaking point. But colleges can take concrete steps to ameliorate the social and structural conditions that have exacerbated gendered and raced inequities during this pandemic.
Many if not most institutions have automatically extended the tenure clock for all faculty members on the tenure track. But the tenure-clock fix, which administrators have widely touted as generous, in fact exacerbates existing gendered inequities. A 2018 study shows that adopting gender-neutral policies to extend the tenure clock decreased women’s likelihood of getting tenure in their first job by 19 percent, while increasing men’s likelihood of getting tenure by 17 percent. Pausing the tenure clock, in other words, makes female faculty members more precarious. What’s more, it “decrease[s] long-term earning potential,” meaning that, over time, women earn less than men.
Some institutions have offered slightly more help, but these places are rare. The English department at Michigan State University offered all caregivers service releases as well as a funded graduate assistant. Other institutions have provided the option to teach remotely, if needed, for caregiving purposes — although, as I’ve outlined, this option comes with its own problems. And Macalester College is providing a one-year retroactive pay increase with its tenure-clock extension so as to redress the gendered distribution of pay stagnation.
These important efforts to address academe’s gendered inequities don’t just help mothers. Discrepancies in unpaid carework mirror the situation of the paid workplace, where male faculty members do less student advising and service — and where racially minoritized faculty members, especially women of color, bear the heaviest load.
So what should academics and administrators do in the face of worsening inequality? First, we need to organize if we’re going to change the paired cultures of overwork and gendered inequity. Second, we must recognize that addressing discrepant caregiving loads during the pandemic, and the devaluing of reproductive labor in general, is beneficial for all female academics, childfree and parents alike. And finally, the published research is very clear: Institutional policies must not be gender neutral if they’re to be gender equitable.