Illustration by The Chronicle
By Emma Pettit
Female academic parents — especially those with younger children — have disproportionately lost research time during the pandemic, according to a new working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
When Covid-19 began to spread in the United States, and K-12 schools and day cares closed, experts worried that women would assume more child-care duties. Unable to sacrifice their service or teaching work, they’d have less time to write grant proposals, submit essays, or conduct studies, potentially hampering their careers in the long term.
That initial prediction seems to be bearing out, at least among nearly 20,000 respondents to a new survey conducted by Tatyana Deryugina, an associate professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Olga Shurchkov, an associate professor of economics at Wellesley College, and Jenna E. Stearns, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Davis. Their findings still must undergo peer review.
The authors emailed a survey to about 900,000 people who had published at least one academic article in the past five years. Between late May and mid-July of 2020, respondents could answer questions about how they spent their time before Covid-19 entered their lives and after. Ultimately, the authors used data from respondents who identified as male or female, held doctoral degrees, and whose time-use answers added up to 24 hours per day — a total of 19,905 people. Below are four notable findings:
- In pre-Covid times, women reported spending about 30 minutes less per day than men on research, and 20 minutes more time on other job-related activities. They also spent about 40 more minutes per day on child care.
After Covid-19 struck, everyone, with or without children, took a hit to their research time. But female parents were disadvantaged “to a significantly greater extent,” the paper says. On average, childless male respondents reported that they were spending about 25 fewer minutes on research per day. By comparison, female parents lost about an hour of research time per day on top of what childless men lost, meaning nearly an hour and a half total. Male parents reported losing an average of 30 minutes of research time more than childless men, or nearly an hour total per day. (Childless women lost an average of 31 minutes per day.)
- The worst disruptions were for families with children under the age of 7. Male and female parents of children under the age of 3 reported losing about an hour and 15 minutes and over an hour and a half of research time per day, respectively. Women with children who were under 1 year of age fared the worst, losing nearly two hours of research time per day. And single mothers reported spending about an hour and a half less per day on research than they spent before Covid-19, coupled with spending nearly an hour more on housekeeping and nearly two and a half hours more on child care and schooling.
- Respondents were also asked if their institutions had enacted certain policy changes for the faculty. Less than a quarter said expectations for their research had been explicitly changed. Forty-four percent said that deadline extensions had been granted. Slightly more than 30 percent said that student evaluations of teaching for the spring-2020 term had been made optional or eliminated.
- About 47 percent said that pre-tenure faculty were either given the option to add time to their tenure clocks, or that time was automatically added for all tenure-track faculty. Of those who had the option to stop their clocks, 14 percent of men and 18 percent of women said they would definitely take it.
When the pandemic first rattled higher ed, the authors note, many colleges extended tenure clocks and reappointment decisions, either automatically or through an opt-in policy. But scholars of faculty equity have argued that those extensions are delays in pay raises and job security. Such an approach may “further exacerbate gender gaps, as has been shown to occur with universal parental leave policies,” the paper says.
Instead, equity experts have urged colleges and universities to think proactively about how to change policies and procedures so that caregivers, women, and faculty members of color don’t slip out of an already leaky pipeline. (Though the NBER paper does not analyze race, previous studies have shown that scholars of color shoulder more time mentoring students of color and often perform diversity work for their institutions, detracting from research time.)
Some institutions are already executing changes, like rethinking promotion standards, allowing faculty members to submit personalized documentation of the pandemic’s impact on their work and home lives, and finding ways to alleviate the caregiving burden. Barnard College, for example, matched work-study students with faculty parents so that the students could virtually tutor the scholars’ children while the parents taught.
As the pandemic rages on, those solutions, and an institution’s willingness to think through these problems, will become paramount to their faculty’s future success.
It’s likely, the authors note, that their results actually underestimate lost research time, for a couple of reasons: The most overloaded scholars would be less likely to fill out a survey in the first place, and parents often simultaneously mind their children while attempting to do research, “making them less productive in both.”
At the time of the survey, 17 percent of respondents said that their institutions had made no policy changes at all.
Emma Pettit is a senior reporter at The Chronicle who covers all things faculty. She writes mostly about professors and the strange, funny, sometimes harmful and sometimes hopeful ways they work and live. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at email@example.com.