Higher Education Must Support Women Scholars

Women exhausted by the stresses of the pandemic

New data is shedding a different light on women’s work-life balance during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to January/February 2022. Many women have found remote and/or hybrid work (splitting one’s time between a remote location and an on-site location) to be beneficial for several key reasons. One, the absence of a commute has meant that some women were able to reduce stress. Second, some women reported feeling a sense of greater control over the ever-elusive work-life balance. Third, some women felt fewer financial pressures that come with a frequent commute to work, such as expenses for parking and public transportation, gasoline, takeout food and beverages, and clothing. Lastly, some women reported feeling less targeted for microaggressions, racism, sexism, and sexual harassment.

Yet, despite these self-reported positive outcomes from some, the data now illuminates another stark reality for women. Gender disparities and violence against girls and women appeared to increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a global “shadow pandemic” according to UN Women. Hispanic women seem to be impacted the most by job losses as several members of this group are employed in hospitality, tourism, and leisure activities, sectors that came to a near halt as the result of mandatory COVID-19 lockdowns to contain the virus’s spread. These data are alarming and require a multi-sector approach and policy to support women in the workplace.

Women in the academy did not fare much better than women working in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors during the height of the pandemic. Women faculty, administrators, and researchers* indicated experiencing higher degrees of stress, burnout, and overwork than their male counterparts. Moreover, women’s scholarship productivity appeared to suffer significantly as their energy turned toward increased domestic labor, caretaking, and other personal complications such as COVID-related illness. Some STEM women researchers and faculty are reporting their desire to leave their professions due to exhaustion from combatting patriarchy and racism, which, from their vantage point, heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Battling exhaustion, racism, and sexism during the “twindemic” of COVID-19 and heightened awareness of racism globally has been expressed in detail by some BIPOC scholars and, most specifically, Black scholars. In a 2020 piece for Inside Higher Ed, Henrika McCoy (Univ. of Illinois, Chicago) describes her own experience, as well as those of other Black scholars, as “tired and terrorized.” This is a heartrending example of how some Black women scholars feel a grave sense of fear while simultaneously lacking the energy to provide themselves with the necessary psychosocial protections.

There is a lot to unpack on how higher education can improve workplace/working conditions for women, and at least a few initiatives are aiming to do so. Researchers Philippe Vincent-Lamarre (Univ. de Montréal), Vincent Larivière (Univ. de Montréal), and Cassidy R. Sugimoto (Indiana Univ.) have created a digital dashboard that collects and analyzes 327,902 publications to measure women’s scholarly outputs. Encouragingly, Nature has taken a principled stance on aiming to track the diversity (including gender) in research journals through more intensive computational audits. Additionally, Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and their Office of Faculty Development, Diversity, and Engagement are conducting research and exploring corrective measures in support of women scholars

One only has to scan social media to read that many women in higher education are quite familiar with the perceptions of our jobs being easy and idyllic, a pervasive misconception even among our family members. Some close relations believe we spend our time in pensive, intellectual thoughts, surrounded by lush ivy and beautiful campus settings. We find ourselves routinely addressing false notions that we have summers “off” to explore our research interests and that the higher education sector is more supportive of women than other sectors.

I often wonder the extent to which these misperceptions of women’s work in the academy (along with the fear of retaliation from peers) may serve to inhibit women scholars from being more vocal about the gender disparities within higher education that make it extremely difficult to conduct and publish research.

It is essential for higher education to embark upon and support more insights-to-action research to improve the working conditions of women scholars and researchers. We must lead in one of the most important efforts in the history of humankind—ensuring that women’s work and lives are treated equitably and with dignity.

*Special note: Current data on women in the academy does not appear to survey the working conditions of women staff. If someone has this data or is embarking upon research to capture information about this group, please consider submitting a post for Toward Inclusive Excellence.

Sign up for Toward Inclusive Excellence (TIE) new post notifications and updates.

Interested in contributing to TIE? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice dvillavicencio@ala-choice.org with your topic idea.

Rowman & Littlefield logo

We gratefully acknowledge underwriting support from Rowman & Littlefield.

Rowman & Littlefield publishes high-quality college texts, entertaining and informative books for general readers, and professional and scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.

Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.