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Women in Academia Report Increased Gender Gap Amid COVID-19

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Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond typically enrolls over 33,000 students, though enrollment is slightly down during the fall 2020 semester. (Photo: Noah Fleischman)

This article by Katharine DeRosa is posted as part of VPM's partnership with Capital News Service

Political science professor Deirdre Condit put up a sheet as a makeshift door for her home office to maintain privacy when she started teaching from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Condit, who has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond since 1994, knows what it’s like to juggle work and home life. She said that while the house is often thought of as a woman’s space, women tend to have less places designated for productivity. “Man caves” have existed in family life, Condit said, and women are beginning to claim spaces such as “she shacks” to cultivate home territory.

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Deirdre Condit, political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Photo Courtesy of VCU)

“It’s harder to build that separation,” Condit said.

Women in academia are publishing less than they were before COVID-19. Gender gaps have long existed in the workplace, but the pandemic appears to be exacerbating them, according to a recent review authored by Merin Oleschuk, a sociology professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.

Oleschuk tracked the gender gap with research publications. She found that reports about international studies, political science, economics, medicine and philosophy have increased in number, but these reports are being authored by women at lower rates.

In heterosexual partnerships, women tend to bear more childcare labor, according to Oleschuk’s study, which focuses on gender inequities in academia. Oleschuk’s study also pointed out that studies about childcare burden and gender equity often assume heterosexual, nuclear families, which leaves out large demographics of women without children; women with nonmale partners and single women.

Condit said that women in queer nuclear families face the same situation as heterosexual families, since “somebody has to pick and choose” who will watch the children. She added that queer nuclear families are already at a disadvantage since women on average make less money than men. 

U.S. men’s median weekly earnings were $1,104 in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s median weekly earnings totaled $902 during that time period, or 81.7% of men’s earnings. Women face career interruptions in the workplace due to motherhood more often than men do due to fatherhood, according to the Pew Research Center. Reduced hours, taking time off, quitting jobs and refusing promotions all contribute to more career interruptions for mothers.

“The really tough situation is for single parents or single elder care providers, since you have no one else you can hand off every part of it to,” Condit said.

Kimberly Brown, an associate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at VCU, said that as a professor, her performance is based most heavily on research. 

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Kimberly Brown, gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Photo Courtesy of VCU)

Research is one of the three criteria considered for VCU faculty seeking tenure, an indefinite academic appointment. The other two are teaching and service, according to VCU’s website

Brown said that in addition to racism in the workplace, women of color disproportionately bear the emotional labor of students which can contribute to a lack of productivity. She said Black students were coming to her in increasing numbers this summer due to “dealing with overt racism, overt images of police brutality being often put in their face on social media.”

“I was trained to be a literature professor, not a psychologist,” Brown said.

Brown described emotional labor as emotional support without compensation and said that as a Black woman the labor is exhausting. 

“I’m feeling the same sort of ways,” Brown said.

Brown suggested that student evaluations of professors be reconsidered during this time, since many professors haven’t been trained in online teaching. She said that students should be more lenient with professors if professors are expected to be more lenient with students in the face of online learning.

In light of the pandemic, teaching faculty in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences will receive a default “excellent” rating on evaluations, according to an email Jennifer Malat, the college’s dean, sent to faculty. 

However, faculty who don’t perform their duties will not receive “excellent” ratings, Malat said. Evaluations include “multiple dimensions,” Malat said in a statement to Capital News Service. Faculty will receive feedback on their performance as well as recommendations for how they can improve their research, teaching and service in the future.

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Jennifer Malat, dean of the VCU College of Humanities & Sciences. (Photo courtesy VCU)

“A strategy for evaluations during the pandemic was challenging,” Malat said to CNS. “Many faculty, like students and staff, faced challenges in their work and personal lives. The committee recommended reducing stress on the particular rating of the evaluations and focusing on comments that will help improve performance in the future.”

Brown also suggested that universities extend the amount of time between promotions, colloquially known as tenure clocks, to allow professors more time to research. 

There have been more than 50 requests for tenure clock extensions by junior faculty on the Monroe Park campus at VCU, according to Mary Kate Brogan, public relations specialist at VCU.

Oleschuk’s publication created 10 suggestions for universities navigating tenure promotions, including providing a one-year extension to tenure track faculty, taking teacher evaluations out of consideration during the COVID-19 pandemic and excusing nonessential service requirements for those with caregiving demands.

“I don't think that it's fair to evaluate a person for a situation nobody predicted was going to happen,” Brown said.