A full year into quarantines, Zoom-everything, no childcare, and facilitating kids’ education at home, there is reason for concern about the long-term consequences for women in academia.
Within academic STEM fields, where women earn about half of the doctorates but are woefully underrepresented in advanced ranks, the impact may be particularly dramatic. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic directly affect individual women, but also academia itself. The pandemic has amplified inequities within academia and in society more broadly.
Will we recognize these impacts and seize the opportunity to make academia a more inclusive and equitable institution that welcomes the contributions of diverse academic women? If we want the best talent and most innovative research to advance knowledge, we must.
Even before a global pandemic abruptly moved our lives into virtual spaces, women shouldered a greater burden for care work in their families, communities, and workplaces, leaving less time to devote to their scholarship. As the immediate decline in the number of manuscripts submitted to scholarly journals by women demonstrates, the pandemic has exacerbated this inequity.
While some faculty and administrators still insist these are individual problems, the pandemic has confirmed what feminist sociologists have been saying for decades – we have structured our universities to reflect sexist and racist assumptions about who does, and should do, particular kinds of work, and how that work is valued, supported, and rewarded. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how far we are from equity and how easily we can lose ground.
Faculty worry that administrators will not “let a good crisis go to waste,” as they cut faculty, staff, and academic programs, and reorganize their universities. They also note that many universities have attempted to acknowledge this crisis and responded by extending the time to tenure for faculty and changing the use of teaching evaluations. Some faculty are concerned that these responses may exacerbate rather than alleviate gender inequality. But this does not have to be the scenario.
My research suggests we are in a critical time that may be a moment for those committed to feminist institutional transformation to push for change. My interviews with feminist sociologists indicate they should be at the decision-making table to steer the response of universities to the pandemic in feminist directions. Why single out feminist sociologists for a central role in shaping policy for a more inclusive academia?
Sociologists are trained to identify and analyze how institutional structures and cultures perpetuate or remediate inequalities. Their expertise can help others to recognize that the expectations, policies, practices, and culture of the university—not characteristics of individuals—maintain inequality. Feminist sociologists produce knowledge using the tools of their discipline and use that knowledge to inspire, inform, and demand structural and cultural transformation. They combine their disciplinary, methodological, and theoretical expertise with their political commitments to expose the ways these policies, practices, and institutional cultures reflect and reinforce white masculine privilege. This work can help us imagine a transformed institution.
The pandemic has revealed that despite decades of increasing numbers of women and minorities entering the academy, the organizational principles still presume a homogenous faculty composed of heterosexual white men with stay-at-home wives. The faculties have changed but the taken-for-granted assumptions about work and family often do not reflect this reality. Further, we must acknowledge that higher education includes a wide range of institutions serving very different types of students. My interviews with feminist sociologists who work on institutional change suggest that a just academy must reflect and support the lives of the diverse individuals within it. My findings encourage us to consider how our efforts to transform the academy should acknowledge and respond to this broad diversity, rather than impose a one-size-fits-all model of formal recommendations. Feminist sociologists have helped identify principles that could propel changes in policies and practices and re-shape institutional culture.
The current crisis requires change, and universities could use this moment to address the fundamental expectations, policies, practices, and cultures that have long reduced the possibility of meritocracy for women and people of color. Administrators must be aware that decisions made now will have long-term consequences. For example, tenure clock extensions may reduce pressure in the short term, but they will affect life-time salaries and retirement benefits for those who take that extra year now. Women cannot simply “catch up” on their research, and the consequences of the gender gap in manuscript submissions will further exacerbate inequalities.
My research suggests universities would be well served to listen to the experts within their own ranks. Feminist sociologists have the knowledge and skills to identify and analyze organizational problems. And, they have the political commitments that compel them to help change their institutions. While all faculty are tired and over-extended, many feminist sociologists continue to apply their disciplinary expertise to institutional transformation. They are already hard at work documenting and analyzing the effects of the pandemic. Research is revealing disparate experiences for parents and non-parents, with especially dire circumstances for mothers. We must seize this opportunity to devise policy and implement changes in practice, based on recommendations that can push us forward to a more just academy.
Heather Laube is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her research examines how feminist academics navigate their often-conflicting positions and identities as they strive to maintain their feminist ideals, achieve professional success, and transform the academy. She is also interested in the ways innovative faculty mentoring programs can help individuals thrive and contribute to institutional change. You can find Dr. Laube on Twitter @h_laube.