APRU on Nikkei: COVID has made a bad situation worse for women academics
February 11, 2022

Pandemic has shone a glaring light on disparities old and new

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Written by Joanna Regulska and Sabrina Lin
Original post on Nikkei

COVID-19 has added new challenges for women.   © AP

Joanna Regulska is co-chair of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities’ Women in Leadership (APRU APWiL) Program and vice-provost and dean of global affairs, professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, University of California, Davis. Sabrina Lin is co-chair, APRU APWiL, and senior adviser to president of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

COVID-19 has brought with it the blurring of our personal and professional lives. In the field of higher education, where career advancement depends so much on hitting numbers, including publication numbers, citation numbers, grants earned, students advised, women have been hit the hardest.

At the onset of the pandemic, the virus resulted in women’s decreased research productivity. Initial evidence suggests that while women academics working from home are submitting fewer manuscripts and external funding submissions, their male counterparts are submitting more.

Despite assuming fewer leadership positions in general, the pandemic has also given rise to the glass cliff effect, or the overrepresentation of women advancing to leadership positions during periods of crisis when the risk of failure is highest.

Indeed, COVID-19 has added new challenges for women in academia. But to peg the pandemic as a vacuum out of which these implications arose would be narrow-minded. Social inequities in academia have existed for decades. The field itself emerged at a time when, typically, male academics received the support of their stay-at-home spouses.

Once women did enter the field, they were often met with gender-based obstacles to achieving tenure, being granted promotions, or simply earning the same respect afforded to their male counterparts.

The pandemic has shone a glaring light on disparities that date back longer than we wish to admit. We can begin to make amends by first acknowledging the full spectrum of complexities that women face, ones that are inextricably linked to other systemic barriers.

Women are the backbone of the care economy, what might be better termed as the “actual” economy, and the reality is that most women do not have the luxury of separating work from home.

The care economy can be defined as any care — child care, social or domestic services — provided in formal and informal settings. Women around the world, particularly in Japan, were already doing most of the world’s unpaid care work prior to the pandemic, and COVID-19 has only amplified this burden.

A report by the International Labor Organization identified unpaid care work as the biggest impediment to women’s formal employment, affecting 21.7% of women compared to 1.7% of men. Such obligations often result in women devoting less time to their career advancement. In some cases, causing them to postpone promotions or leave the field of academia altogether.

One step in the right direction could be incorporating care work into teaching evaluations, which tend to disfavor women. As it stands, many academic institutions put too much weight into evaluating professors based on their research output. It is time for us to ditch the publish or perish pretense that has become so prevalent in academia.

This method is simply not viable today and especially disadvantages women who are contributing to multiple areas of university life in addition to research.

While women make up the majority of undergraduate and master’s degree holders, their representation in research is only 28% globally. Such underrepresentation varies by country and discipline, and while in some cases gender parity in research is almost achieved, in many other instances there is a long path ahead to meeting such a benchmark.

How can we better support women in academia? It comes down to dialogue.

During the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) virtual annual presidents’ meeting, international experts in higher education came together to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on women academics. The conclusion we came to was simple: there is no such thing as a best fit solution.

Challenges women face in academia are not always plain to see, often materializing in subtle ways, like when women are not considered to serve on certain committees, when their contributions during meetings are appropriated, or when they are silenced by louder voices.

Rather than assuming you know what is best for your women faculty, ask them. What do you need? An extra year in your tenure clock? Additional material support? Childcare and mental health support resources? New, nondiscriminatory criteria that make it possible to appreciate the contributions of all faculty members? Commitment to hiring dual career partners?

Similarly, not all academic institutions are uniform, with different universities boasting different institutional cultures and access to financial and personal resources. While some institutions maintain an equal footing in research, teaching and service, others are more focused on one cause. We must remain committed to gender, racial and social equity while recognizing the nuanced constraints of each individual institution.

We have presented a snippet of the full picture of women academics’ experiences, which differ vastly across racial, ethnic, cultural and other contexts.

As exemplified during the APRU senior international leaders’ meeting, which brought together leaders from 18 different countries, it is increasingly important to leverage international networks like APRU in order to adopt global solutions to issues of inequity. And to bear in mind that equity is different from equality.

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