COVID-19, Academic Mothers, and Opportunities for the Academy

The pandemic's toll on women faculty caregivers.
By Mary A. Hermann and Cheryl Neale-McFall

mother and child working

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faculty members in the United States continues to unfold. Professors with caregiving responsibilities, especially academic mothers, are experiencing intensified challenges. Mothers with young children are a significant percentage of the professoriate—almost 25 percent of faculty in our field, counselor education. Thus, continuing to address the barriers experienced by women academics is essential, particularly if campus leaders are seeking equitable outcomes from university budget revisions in response to this crisis.

As leaders in diversity efforts in our professional organizations and at our respective universities, we have focused much of our scholarship on addressing the leaky pipeline for women in the academy and on encouraging systemic change. Researchers have studied the challenges for women in academia for more than two decades. For example, in 2005, ten presidents and chancellors from major research universities observed that the tenure system was designed for a different generation of professors and was too inflexible for faculty in the twenty-first century. These leaders advocated for immediate action in creating more flexible tenure tracks in order to address faculty work-life integration challenges and to recruit and retain a diverse professoriate. Yet, in spite of continuous recommendations for systemic modifications, recent scholarship has revealed that not much has changed in the academy. Instead, researchers have found that balancing academic work and motherhood was becoming more difficult even before this current crisis, as academic workloads continue to rise and expectations about the “second shift” for domestic and caregiving work remain inequitable.

Our studies demonstrate that the barriers academic mothers encounter include overt and covert discrimination, which is even more pronounced for women with multiple marginalized identities. Compared with men, women in the academy also do more teaching, mentoring, and service—activities less valued in university reward systems that prioritize research and publications. And after the economic downturn related to the 2008 recession, both scholarship and teaching expectations increased. Because women report less support for scholarship activities in addition to higher teaching and advising loads, these increasing expectations have had a disproportionately negative impact on academic women. Furthermore, universities have few policies that support combining parenthood with academic work. And when policies do exist, the use of these policies is often perceived negatively by colleagues and administrators. Academic mothers balancing caregiving responsibilities with their professional careers were in a precarious position even before this pandemic.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 health crisis, we have observed the vast differences in the experiences of mothers compared with those of professors—women as well as men—without caregiving responsibilities. Stay-at-home directives led to an immediate shift to emergency remote instruction. Professors with higher teaching loads, often women, experienced greater impact from the time-consuming process of restructuring courses during the immediate transition to remote learning. And, because they generally provide a disproportionate share of mentoring, advising, and emotional support for students, women faculty have likely spent more time interacting about nonacademic matters with students who are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on their health, incomes, and housing situations and on those of their relatives and friends. The emotional burden is arguably greater for mothers and other women in caregiving roles.

Academic mothers’ experiences at home shifted as well. Day-care facilities and schools closed. Parents needed to oversee their children’s schooling. Because mothers engage in more childcare than fathers, the impact of this crisis on mothers has been immense. Professional work has become an activity performed simultaneously with mothering. We have observed mothers who are attempting to be productive scholars and teachers while engaging their children in the constant activity to which they are accustomed— attempting at the same time to heed societal norms such as recommendations about limiting screen time for children. They are also helping their children cope with the stress resulting from the profound changes in their lives. Additionally, mothers are navigating the current circumstances while dealing with their own stress and the emotional impact of knowing that they, along with their families and friends, are facing an invisible, highly contagious, potentially deadly disease.

As they manage these new responsibilities, academic mothers’ uninterrupted blocks of time to plan classes and do research have disappeared. Conversely, we have observed some faculty members without caregiving responsibilities benefit from a silver lining of this crisis: time to engage in more scholarship activity. The differences between faculty members with caregiving obligations and those without them have increased exponentially.

The circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic amplify the need for academic and societal culture change. We recommend that the impact of the pandemic be taken into consideration in annual evaluations of faculty work for as long as the effects of this crisis remain. Furthermore, policies that automatically stop the tenure clock should be extended to include automatically stopping the clock for faculty members with caregiving responsibilities during this crisis. Policies invoked automatically protect faculty caregivers and allow individuals to opt out and to apply for promotion on their original timelines if their work was not adversely affected by this pandemic. It is important to remain cognizant of the fact that there is no stigma related to opting out of a stop-the-clock policy, whereas there is a reported stigma for opting in. Stop-the-clock policies also need to include guidance to ensure that members of promotion and tenure committees understand that faculty members were not expected to produce scholarship during a stop-the-clock period.

For more than two decades, researchers have addressed academic motherhood and called for changes in the academy, yet barriers to the success of academic mothers remain. Mothers in the academy continue to experience increasing workloads while navigating discrimination, inequitable assignments to devalued work, and a disproportionate amount of time-consuming second-shift activities at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided another opportunity to address the negative impact of current university systems on women’s advancement in academia. Enhanced understanding of academic mothers’ experiences can help ensure that impending budget cuts do not perpetuate the existing gender inequities in higher education. The reward system needs to be recalibrated to account for teaching loads, mentoring activities, and service responsibilities, especially as faculty work activities shift during this crisis. Administrators need to equitably assign teaching and service duties as well. And family-friendly initiatives— including paid-family-leave policies and the provision of high-quality, affordable childcare—need to remain a priority as institutions support the recruitment and retention of a diverse professoriate.

The traditional reward system and lack of work-life integration initiatives are not consistent with the values of engaging in meaningful academic work while also experiencing a fulfilling personal life—values important to the younger generation of both men and women in academia. Men’s lack of access to family leave maintains systemic inequities by reinforcing the historical and cultural norm that childcare is women’s work. Without policies and norms that support faculty caregivers, the casualties of the COVID-19 crisis may well include the careers of professors with caregiving responsibilities and the resulting loss of a diverse professoriate. This crisis presents a renewed urgency and a corresponding opportunity to restructure the academy in a manner that supports the success of all faculty.

Mary A. Hermann is associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Cheryl Neale-McFall is the interim associate provost for academic affairs at West Chester University.

AAUP Policies Related to Family Responsibilities and the Tenure Clock

In conjunction with the American Federation of Teachers, in the spring the AAUP issued AFT and AAUP Principles for Higher Education Response to COVID-19. Principle 12 states, “Tenure-track faculty members whose work is disrupted by the institutional or governmental response to COVID-19 should have the option to stop their tenure clock for the duration of the disruption.” AAUP guidelines for stopping the tenure clock are contained in the Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work. As an alternative, department faculty and other faculty personnel bodies may wish to cooperate with academic administrators in adjusting standards for tenure to reflect the impact of the pandemic on teaching, scholarship, and service. Under the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, “Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal.”