This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large.
Impact on research time
“Almost overnight, COVID-19 turned me into an elementary school teacher, a housekeeper, a hairdresser, and a professional worrier — all things I am terrible at, with the exception of the latter,” wrote economist Olga Shurchkov on Medium in April. Looking back at her post seven months on, as many academics with children have gone more than half a year without the benefit of open schools or childcare, and mothers across the economy have borne the brunt of COVID-related disruptions, onlookers are worrying that the hairline fissures in academic mothers’ CVs that began opening up in spring and early summer may be developing into full-blown cracks.
In April, editors for three journals in political science and philosophy reported evidence that the volume of female authors’ submissions had declined since COVID-19. For many, anecdotal reports from journal editors were the first sign that something was wrong. More systematic studies followed. A team surveyed American and European scientists, starting in April, to see how COVID-19 was affecting their usage of time; the results were published in September. Those who chose to respond to the survey (a self-selecting group, to be sure) reported that overall, their working hours had dipped—in average, the group that used to work 61 hours a week was now working 54. Influencing this average was a much bigger portion of the surveyed scientists that were working 42 hours a week or fewer, as opposed to before the pandemic hit.
Time-pressed scientists seemed to be reducing hours devoted to research, rather than teaching or administrative tasks. And female scientists, scientists with kids under five, and especially female scientists with kids under five were the hardest-hit when it came to losing research hours. The survey results were echoed by other work on U.S. faculty members, among whom the professors with kids in the 0-5 age range reported having the hardest time doing work—a finding that anyone who’s taken full-time care of a kid under 5 could probably have predicted.
Tracking the rates of publication
Studies tracking rates of publication followed these time-use surveys. In May, a group of researchers reported on their look at 11 pre-print repositories and three platforms for registered reports in the sciences. Assigning gender to authors’ names using an algorithm, the group analyzed more than 300,000 submissions. Importantly, the researchers looked at author order, showing that the numbers of women in first-author positions had dropped, when compared to the previous two months and the same two months in 2019. In those fields, the group pointed out, first authorship often gets assigned to a junior scholar; the implication is that junior women’s productivity was taking the biggest hit. Women’s names were also less commonly associated with work done on COVID-19—the very work that, of course, was being rapidly produced in response to the pandemic.
Also in May, a group of economists reported the results of their study of rates of submissions of preprints and working papers in that field, breaking down the data by seniority level and gender, and looking in particular at whether women were authoring preprints analyzing COVID-19. Which economists, the group wondered, were able to jump on the interesting research situation the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns has produced? For economists, the pandemic is a natural experiment of epic proportions, but the people who find themselves equipped to take advantage, this group argues, are not those who have children at home, and/or are more cautious about abandoning previous research to start something new. “It is mostly senior male economists who are currently exploiting the myriad research questions arising from the COVID-19 shock,” wrote the group.
Since the flush of springtime and summertime interest in COVID’s effect on women doing academic research, institutions have been looking for solutions. An organization called 500 Women Scientists has called for funding agencies to give grad students and postdocs gap funding, departments to offer teaching releases, and for institutions to reduce the use of student teaching evaluations in considering decisions around hiring and promotion, since caregiving academics with little time to give seem more likely to get dinged on evals when students get dissatisfied with online teaching.
But of all the interventions, a common-sense approach to evaluating the parts of mothers’ CVs that represent 2020 (and 2021) may be the hardest to implement, but the most beneficial. One academic and mother who spoke to Science about her situation mentioned that she was having trouble imagining how she would represent the pandemic in official documentation summarizing her research career. “I can’t give as many talks, I can’t participate in conferences, I can’t do trainings, I’ve had to shut down collaborations,” she said. “How am I supposed to account for this on my CV?” In her case, as in so many others, a little understanding might go a long way.
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