The virus moved female faculty to the brink. Will universities help?

The pandemic has laid bare gender inequities across the country, and women in academia have not been spared. The outbreak erupted during universities’ spring terms, hastily forcing classes online and researchers out of their laboratories.

Faculty with young or school-aged children — especially women — had to juggle teaching their students with overseeing their children’s distance learning from home.

Many universities struggled to put meaningful policies in place to help faculty, especially caretakers and women. During the summer break ahead of this fall semester, administrators at some institutions began to reassess and develop strategies that experts say are a palatable start to stymieing crises stemming from the pandemic.

But the issues that women in academia are facing are not new. Instead, they are more severe versions of longstanding gender gaps that already cause universities to hemorrhage female faculty, particularly women of color, and will require measures that go beyond institutional responses to the pandemic.

Multiple studies have already shown that women have written significantly fewer papers than their male counterparts during the pandemic. Reports showed that at least one-third of working women in two-parent households exclusively provided child care after schools and day cares closed and babysitters quit or were let go.

Years of research have proven that female faculty struggle to balance work and family, often causing them to exit academia — or what experts refer to as “leaking from the academic pipeline.” For those who stay, anecdotal reports and Twitter outcries during the pandemic indicate that female faculty are suffering reduced productivity, which could affect their ability to get tenure.

Some women faced harsher student evaluations during the outbreaks, too. Research shows that gender bias is rampant in end-of-term evaluations, with women and people of color more likely than men to get comments related to “their appearance or the tone of their voice — things that are less closely related to the ability to successfully teach,” said Jenna Stearns, an economist at the University of California, Davis.

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