COVID-19 Makes Transforming the Academy More Urgent

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.

The Research

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.

Gender Division of Labor during COVID: Can Remote Work Improve Gender Equality at Home?

The closure of schools and childcare centers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified pressure on U.S. parents already struggling to balance employment and family caregiving in a country that provides little social support. The move of schooling and childcare into the home – along with the still-unfolding effects on women’s employment – has raised questions about the long-term consequences for gender equality in the U.S.

Some are optimistic that these large-scale disruptions – which, for some, have included new opportunities to work from home – offer a chance to increase gender equality in the division of care and domestic work. As remote work decreases the need for “face time” at the office, classic rationales justifying an unequal division of domestic labor may also recede. Others, however, remain skeptical, noting that if the increased unpaid work falls disproportionately on mothers, the loss of childcare and on-site schooling will only exacerbate existing gender inequalities, especially given women’s greater risk of job loss in the current “shesession.” Additionally, even if remote work offers an opportunity to increase gender equality for remote workers, access to this arrangement remains a largely white-collar privilege that limits such potential gains to a privileged few.

In our study, published in Gender & Society, we ask how families experienced and responded to sudden changes in paid and unpaid work in the early months of the pandemic, focusing in particular on how these experiences varied by parents’ ability to work remotely.

Analyzing nationally representative survey data from 478 partnered parents, collected in April 2020, we examine how the loss of childcare and in-person schooling affected the division of housework, childcare, and children’s remote learning as well as how pressured parents felt about the sudden responsibility for their children’s schooling.

Findings

Our results indicate that among couples with children, the consequences of these pandemic-induced shifts in schooling and childcare largely depended not just on individuals’ own work circumstances but on their partners’ as well.

In families where both parents worked from home, the response to the increased domestic workload was generally egalitarian – mothers and fathers alike reported almost identical increases in housework and childcare and in responsibility for housework and child care as well.  Mothers and fathers in households with two teleworkers also reported feeling nearly equal amounts of pressure about their children’s schooling.  Even in the scenario where both parents worked from home, however, women still bore disproportionate responsibility for unpaid work since similar increases left pre-pandemic inequality intact. Mothers were thus more than twice as likely as fathers to say they were primarily responsible for housework and childcare during the pandemic and over 1.5 times more likely to report taking on the bulk of managing their children’s home learning.

Disparities in housework, childcare, and home education were even greater when only one spouse worked remotely. When mothers worked from home alone, they were more likely than mothers in dual remote-worker couples to have increased their housework time, absorbing the additional domestic work. In contrast, when fathers alone worked from home, they reported far less involvement in domestic work than either mothers working from home alone or fathers in dual-remote working couples.

When domestic workloads increased and neither parent worked from home, mothers mostly picked up the slack – especially when it came to housework and home learning. Among couples not working remotely, mothers were twice as likely as fathers to have increased their household time and were three times as likely to report being primarily responsible for housework. These mothers were also seven times as likely as fathers to say they did the majority of children’s home learning and, consequently, were twice as likely to report feeling pressure related to their children’s remote education.

The takeaway

We cannot yet know the longer-term consequences of the rise in remote work post-pandemic. Taken together, however, these findings suggest that gender remains a powerful force in organizing domestic work despite the greater flexibility that working remotely allows. In the most optimistic scenario, where both partners worked remotely, the gender division of labor remained relatively stable with both mothers and fathers contributing more to housework and childcare in the wake of school and childcare closures. In couples where neither parent worked from home or where mothers alone did so, mothers became the stopgap who absorbed most of the additional caring and schooling of children. For reasons that need greater exploration, fathers who work from home were generally better able to protect themselves from the incursions of unpaid care work. Going forward, our findings suggest that whether remote work fosters more equality or exacerbates preexisting inequalities will depend on the varied forms it takes in families.


Allison Dunatchik is a PhD student in Sociology and Demography at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research centers on gender, work and family, with a focus on how public policies affect gender and class inequalities inside and outside of the household.

Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Arts & Science and Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is the author of “The Science and Art of Interviewing” and “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family,” among other books. She is currently writing a book on the collision of work and caretaking in contemporary America.

Jennifer Glass is the Centennial Commission Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Sociology of the University of Texas–Austin, and Executive Director of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her recent research explores how work–family public policies improve family well-being, and why mothers continue to face a motherhood pay penalty as their income generating responsibility for their children grows.

Jerry A. Jacobs, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the co-founder and first president of the Work and Family Researchers Network. Jacobs has written extensively about women’s careers and work-family issues. His six books include The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality (2004) with Kathleen Gerson and the Changing Face of Medicine: Women Doctors and the Evolution of Health Care in America (2008) with Ann Boulis.

Haley Stritzel is a PhD candidate in Sociology and a graduate student trainee in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Haley uses a range of quantitative and demographic research methods to study the family and neighborhood contexts of child and adolescent health. Her dissertation focuses on the geographic distribution and correlates of foster care entries associated with parental substance use.

The Pandemic Reveals: Home, Work, and Health Care Disadvantages for Women of Color

What do we miss when we don’t bring an intersectional lens to analyses of the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how we, as women of color, occupy crucial spaces and confront oppressive systems in multiple spheres of our lives on a daily basis.  

Gendered and racialized inequities have unfolded in front of ours eyes, bringing to bare the harsh and unjust realities that many women of color experience. These challenges have not changed due to the current pandemic; many of these inequities have simply been amplified.  In our recent article in Gender and Society we suggest that we must look at racism and sexism in tandem to understand the root cause of health problems and inequities facing women of color in the pandemic. We focus on the impacts of COVID-19 on three (3) important settings occupied by women of color: home, health care, and work.  

Women of color as devalued in the home.  

With shelter in place orders starting in March 2020, home was presumed one of the safest places for people to be to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus. Despite home being a safe place for many, this privilege did not apply to all. Reports of domestic violence increased dramatically, often in the presence of children and other family members. Talha Burki reports that “Some 243 million women are thought to have experienced sexual or physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner at some point over the last 12 months”. These instances will have lasting impacts, introducing a number of public health implications. Even in homes without physical and mental abuse, home may not be a space of refuge. Since the beginning of the pandemic, women, especially women of color have reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression due to an overburden of labor in the home. This labor includes traditional household duties (i.e. cleaning) in addition to homeschooling responsibilities. These added expectations coupled with social isolation and resource insecurity foster an unhealthy living experience. Finally, women of color have also experienced increases in housing insecurity and homelessness due to financial constraints (i.e. loss of income) and abuse.  

Women of color as disposable in work settings.  

It is evident that the pandemic has impacted jobs and employment. For example, we prioritized and encouraged workers in positions deemed essential to work outside of their homes. However, being essential was far less than equitable. For women of color, being essential did not mean increased pay, benefits, and respect; being essential often constituted increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and working under even more stressful conditions. Women of color in health care make up a large percentage of the COVID-19 deaths. For example, nurses of Filipino descent account for a shocking 31.5% of the workforce’s COVID-19 deaths, yet make up only 4% of the workforce. For women of color in non-essential positions, loss of job security, loss of income, and loss of health insurance were prominent concerns that have a direct impact on one’s physical and mental health. 

Women of color as dismissed in health care settings.  

There is a long history of women of color being mistreated, dismissed and ignored in health care settings. This has been no different during the pandemic, as we are presumed incompetent, even if we are in positions of perceived power and privilege. For example, many are again outraged after Dr. Susan Moore, a Black woman, filmed herself in the hospital and reporting on mistreatment and the rush to send her home: “This is how black people get killed when you send them home and they don’t know how to fight for themselves”. Sadly, she died at another hospital after advocates pushed for her transfer—though perhaps “murdered by the system” is a more accurate description. Unfortunately, this example is one of many and we continue to see occurrences of neglect and silencing of Black women in health care settings. Access to quality and equitable health care disparities are visible on a daily basis and have been brought to light during this pandemic with testing, treatment and now vaccines.  

We as a community should continue to advocate for women of color in home, work, and health care environments. We challenge scholars, advocates, journalists, and wider publics worldwide to consider how we have embedded both gender and racial inequities into the very fabric of our society and the perpetually negative implications that has for women of color.  The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed already stark inequality… what’s our next move?  

Dr. Whitney Pirtle (sociology) and Tashelle Wright (public health) are researchers at the University of California, Merced (UCM). Their most recent work takes an intersectional approach to exploring and analyzing preventable health disparities among Black women and women of color. Pirtle and Wright address the implications of racism and sexism on women of color during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Whitney Pirtle was recently recognized as one of the newest John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chairs and Tashelle Wright was recently awarded a UCM Black Research Fellowship.  You can find Dr. Pirtle on Twitter at @thePhDandMe and Tashelle Wright @WrightTashelle.

Working in the Post-COVID World: Does Coworking Offer Greater Gender Equality?

It has been nearly a year since the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a worldwide pandemic. Accompanying this declaration were massive changes to how and where men and women perform their paid work, with substantial numbers of workers transitioning from working on-site to working remotely.

As a result, organizations and their employees have begun to question whether workers really need to work on-site in all occupations, and whether engaging in alternative work arrangements might work as well, or even better for both employees and their employers. If organizations decide to allow employees more alternatives to working on-site full-time, after the pandemic, what might these look like? Also, what might these changes to alternative work arrangements mean for gender equality at work?

Our study, published in Gender & Society with colleague Rosalyn Sandoval, asked exactly this question. Specifically, we investigated one alternative work arrangement, coworking, on the rise in the U.S. prior to the pandemic. Coworking is a work arrangement where employees from different companies come together to work in a shared space. The purpose of coworking is to bring people across occupations and industries together in one space to network and build community as they conduct their work. Coworking organizations maintain little organizational control over their members, lack management oversight of member activities, and have few rules in place to dictate member behavior. Coworking spaces, thus, are a new organizational form that blends the benefits of working inside a traditional office (i.e., social interactions, networking, etc.), with the autonomy and flexibility typically associated with working independently.

Substantial research has been conducted regarding the dynamics of gender (in)equality in traditional organizations, but how might gender dynamics differ in alternative work arrangements, like coworking organizations? We spent over 700 hours inside nine different U.S. coworking spaces and interviewed 78 men and women coworking members to find out.

Findings

We found that certain aspects of coworking organizations reduced inequality among men and women in coworking spaces, whereas other aspects facilitated gender inequality.

Reducing Gender Inequality in Coworking Spaces

Taking an intersectional approach to analyzing our data, we found coworking spaces were perceived by white women and racial minority men and women as places where they experienced less gender and racial inequality on an everyday basis.

Three major factors contributed to the reduction of inequality in coworking spaces.

First, affordable pricing policies made coworking organizations accessible to more diverse groups of people and reduced feelings of tokenism for some minority women.

Second, most coworking spaces had an open space design that encouraged regular interactions between members, effectively diversifying member networks. Work areas (offices and desks) were assigned on a “first-come, first-served” basis which resulted in members of diverse gender and racial statuses regularly working side-by-side during the day or running into each other in the common spaces. These spacing practices, as respondents reported, fostered cross-gender and cross-racial collaborations. Together, these two factors enabled men and women of diverse backgrounds to benefit both socially and professionally from one another’s expertise and networking connections.

Finally, the absence of policies that created rankings of members by occupation or job role facilitated more equal, everyday interactions among men and women inside coworking spaces. Several women, including women of color, we interviewed mentioned feeling more equally positioned to men because their occupation or rank (e.g., manager level) did not matter in the space, as it typically would in a traditional organization.

The fact that women perceived more equal interactions is important because people who regularly face microaggressions in workplaces tend to also be isolated and excluded from career opportunities and are more likely to leave their organization.

Increasing Gender Inequality in Coworking Spaces

Not all coworking spaces offered positive gender-related work benefits. One coworking organization we observed fostered gender inequality among its members. This coworking site  was different from others as it had the largest proportion of members who were men and it was in a high-profile location. But the factor that seemed to matter most for gender inequality e was the pricing policy.

Unlike other spaces, where prices were kept affordable, this space had extremely high membership fees, with some internal office spaces renting for thousands of dollars per month. The high prices to access this space restricted membership to only those who could afford it. Those who could afford this cost were mostly men in high-paying jobs (like finance or IT) working for large companies willing to pay the fees, or men running or working for already-successful entrepreneurships.

The result? Men generally had the means to access the best space inside the coworking organization which effectively segregated them from the few women working there. Additionally, the higher presence of teams from larger or already successful companies, already segregated by gender, meant that workers perceived few organizationally sanctioned reasons for men and women to interact with one another. Consequently, men and women interacted much less inside this space, possibly precluding women from certain opportunities to grow their careers and businesses via exposure to men’s powerful networks.

Major Takeaways

The post-COVID world may look very different from the pre-COVID world if organizations embrace alternative work arrangements for their employees. Coworking may be a viable alternative to working entirely on-site or entirely at home, as coworking organizations provide many social and professional benefits for workers as well as affordable options to access space for businesses.

Our study suggests coworking spaces may also have potential for reducing some of the unequal gender dynamics often found in traditional organizations which is a positive aspect of  opting to cowork. On the other hand, coworking organizations that enact exclusionary pricing policies or practices that restrict membership by income level may ultimately perpetuate gender inequality.

Amanda C. Sargent is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas are gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace; supportive supervision; and justice/fairness in organizations.

Jill E. Yavorsky is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Organizational Science at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas focus on patterns and mechanisms of workplace inequality; gender, work and family; and economic elites.

Working Mothers and the COVID 19 Pandemic in the US

photo from Splash

Working mothers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Recent studies show that mothers are more likely to be managing their children’s remote schooling, are interrupted more when working from home, and have reduced their paid work hours or quit jobs to cope with their additional responsibilities (Carlson, Petts, and Pepin 2020; Collins, Landivar, Ruppanner, and Scarborough 2020). An analysis by the National Women’s Law Center shows that over 800,000 women left the work force between August and September 2020, compared to 216,000 men.

As qualitative sociologists, we wanted to investigate the gender, family, and work dynamics that were shaping this situation. In June and July 2020, with a Quick Response Grant from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, we conducted in-depth virtual interviews with 33 parents (23 women, 10 men) in the Boulder/Denver area. The interviewees were mostly highly educated, married, heterosexual professionals with children under 18.  We coupled the interviews with a national online survey that received 300 responses.

The working mothers we interviewed felt overwhelmed by remote schooling and lack of childcare, and voiced frustration, anger, stress, and sadness. Many were concerned about their careers and some discussed tensions in their marriages. Yet nearly a third of the working mothers reported that their families were managing the additional labor more equitably. The interviews revealed that that the differences between working mothers who reported being substantially more burdened and those whose households seemed to be managing more equitably hinged on parents’ job flexibility, particularly for men in heterosexual households.

Most working mothers in our sample said their husbands were very involved in childcare and housework, yet when schools closed, these mothers found themselves handling more of these tasks. This seemed to happen for two reasons. First, in this emergency, couples often prioritized the higher paying job, and this is typically the man’s job. Husbands’ jobs were also usually perceived as more demanding in the sense of needing to work for longer periods of time without interruption. Second, some working mothers prior to the pandemic were working less than their husbands, often 25-30 hours per week. This was often because mothers wanted to spend more time with their children as well as because of the high cost of childcare. We found few working fathers who had made such a choice. In fact, several of the eight heterosexual men we interviewed called their jobs “more than full time.”  They described a pre-pandemic division of labor in which their wives handled most child-related tasks, and thus, not much changed during the pandemic except for the addition of remote schooling.

For a minority of working mothers, the household division of labor seemed more equitable. They reported greater satisfaction with how childcare and school related tasks were being shared (or in a few cases, done primarily by husbands or partners). These households tended to share one or more of several characteristics: the working mothers were more likely to be breadwinners or have jobs that they and their partners considered more demanding; husbands were unemployed; children were older and more self-sufficient; husbands’ workplaces were sympathetic to childcare needs; and in some cases, there was an existing commitment to gender equity in the household. Nevertheless, many of the working mothers who felt that their division of labor was more equitable said that they still did more of the emotional labor and school related tasks, both before and during the pandemic.

Conclusion

Before the pandemic, working mothers in the US were already disadvantaged by lack of family friendly workplace policies, the gender wage gap, and expensive childcare. The pandemic took away school and childcare, exposing the arrangements within households that childcare had previously alleviated.

In most of our interviewees’ households, the amount of unpaid labor has increased, but the gendered division of labor has not shifted greatly. The pandemic has amplified the inequities that already existed, including mothers doing more childcare. The scholarship on disasters and epidemics shows that such events tend to magnify pre-existing inequalities, and this seems to be the case with the current pandemic as well.

Research shows (Gerson 2011) that without structural changes, individual commitments to equity cannot necessarily be carried out. Many working mothers in our study were aware of the dynamics in their households but felt unable to resolve inequalities related to husbands earning higher wages and having less flexible jobs. As one interviewee said: “It’s not that he is not used to doing that type of work or he thinks that he is above that…I truly think that he thinks that he is participating and making that effort…I don’t believe that he is thinking that [its] my role…  but that’s how it plays out.”

Rachel Rinaldo is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests include gender, culture, religion, development and globalization, and qualitative methods, with a focus on Southeast Asia. 

Ian M. Whalen is a 4th year Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research interests include Gender, Men and Masculinities, and Virtual Methodologies.

Who does the ‘housework of the university’ during a pandemic? The impact of Covid-19 on precarious women working in universities

Several academic publishers in both the UK and US have revealed that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of articles submitted by women has tanked. Recent research indicates that while in lockdown, women in heterosexual relationships continue to provide the bulk of housework and childcare. However, it is not only at home that women do most of the housework; as Ann Oakley argued in 1995, they do it in the university as well. 

There already exists significant gender disparities within universities and most notably with regard to the valuing of work, career progression, pay and working conditions. Cleaners and caterers are typically paid minimum wage and work with few benefits. By contrast, senior managers – mostly men – are paid six-figure salaries. Teaching and the accompanying administrative and pastoral work is considered less prestigious and beneficial to career advancement than research and publishing. Frontline engagement  with students is the housework of the academy and it usually falls at the feet of women, women who are junior, women of colour and especially women who are precariously employed.  

The deeply gendered nature of this work is further exposed when we look to the academic ranks of the casually employed. In the UK, for example, women hold only 39 percent of full-time teaching and research positions but 67 percent of part-time research-only positions.

While part-time teaching is sometimes contracted on a sessional basis (similar to the US adjunct model), in Ireland and the UK there is a marked overreliance on hourly paid work (where workers are not paid per course but typically only per classroom hour) – a form of work that comes without any rights, protection, and is extremely poorly remunerated, with workers in our study often earning less than 10.000 euro (USD 11.000) per year. Official figures typically exclude many hourly paid workers, student workers and those employed through agencies and ‘partner’ corporations.

Our research in Ireland indicates that women experience precarity more acutely than male counterparts and for longer. They are trapped in the most exploitative forms of precarious work – work that earns less than the minimum wage comes with no job security, sick leave, or other entitlements.

Precarious Bloc at Dublin MayDay march, 2015 Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The gendered impact of Covid-19 

As universities tighten budgets, they target the most vulnerable category of workers: the disposable, precarious workers on short-term contracts who can be dismissed without resource-consuming formal processes. Being over-represented in this category, women are heavily impacted. In the UK, many universities chose to dismiss rather than furlough teaching staff. As campuses in both countries were emptied of student populations, catering and cleaning staff – overwhelmingly women on precarious contracts – were made redundant. Furthermore, many hourly-paid workers were fearful of contracting Covid-19 with no sick leave or entitlement to pay should they be unable to cover designated hours.  

Secondly, ongoing gender equality campaigns have come to an abrupt halt. While gender inequality and casualisation were two of the ‘four fights’ UK higher education staff recently striked over, unions are now prioritising workers’ health and safety, fighting redundancies and spiralling workload inflation.  

Thirdly, due to imbalances in workloads and expectations, women – and often those on precarious contracts – have had to shoulder the bulk of the additional work of switching to online teaching. Creating online lectures is extremely labour intensive, yet hourly paid workers are not usually compensated for preparation. Pastoral care work has also increased significantly as those who interface with students must now support increasingly distressed students anxious about the completion of coursework in the middle of a pandemic. When this work falls to hourly paid staff it is often done without remuneration and at a personal expense as institutions do not pay for internet and phone charges, computer or office equipment.  

o photo description available.
Protest action against casualisation Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The future  

As was the case in the last recession, women may also be disproportionately affected by austerity measures that even the wealthiest universities are likely to implement, such as redundancies, pay reductions, increased workloads and further casualisation.  

In the highly marketized and competitive context of higher education, it is likely that universities decide to offer face-to-face teaching to attract students while maintaining existing levels of fees and profitable campus accommodation occupancy rates. There are indications that come September, academics will be instructed to offer ‘blended learning’, a mix of online and small group face-to-face provision; with increased individual student support to make up for the diminished campus experience. This will increase workloads considerably – likely more than a full move to online teaching. Some institutions have curtailed unfunded research to increase teaching workloads, leaving only those winning large research grants time to conduct research and publish. Given the existing imbalance in the distribution of teaching, and systematic biases against women as well as against Black academics in the allocation of research grants, this will again disproportionately affect women, and Black women even more so. 

Questions also remain as to who will be assigned the administrative coordination and health and safety work necessary for a return to campus. Will this fall to the disproportionately female administrative staff? When campuses reopen will cleaners and caterers be brought back to do more risky work under the same exploitative conditions?  

Covid-19 brings into sharp focus existing injustices that shape the lives of women and especially women of colour, women who are trans, migrants, working-class or from other marginalised communities. The Covid-19 fallout reveals the fragility of the gains for gender equality in the university. It also shows the extensive damage done by decades of casualisation. Yet, in these bleak times there is still hope. Precarious academics are organising in many institutions in the UK and Ireland as the issue is more visible now than ever before.

Going forward, any conversations about gender inequality in the university must centre the most marginalised of women if we hope to affect real change. If we wish to de-gender the housework of the university, we must prioritise fighting for better working conditions for all, not just those in secure academic posts, and resist attempts to further casualise and outsource work in any corner of the university. 

Dr. Theresa O’Keefe is a Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at University College Cork in Ireland. Theresa writes on precarity, feminism in conflict zones, the gendered violence of the state and has published in a range of feminist journals including Feminist Review, International Feminist Journal of Politics and Women’s Studies International Forum. You can follow Theresa on twitter @theresa_okeefe.

Dr. Aline Courtois is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath. Aline writes on precarity, higher education and elite schools and has published in the Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, The British Journal of Educational Studies and other sociology of education journals. You can follow Aline on Twitter at @Aline_Courtois.

As long-term precarious workers, they founded Third Level Workplace Watch in 2013, a collective of precarious academics who came together to resist casualisation in Irish higher education institutions. Their joint publications on academic precarity can be read here (open access) and here (paywalled). 

Gendered COVID-19 Research

Almost immediately on the outbreak of COVID-19 and the world-wide spread of the coronavirus that causes it, research on how gender matters began. 

It appeared that men had a higher death rate from Covid-19 than women and were more likely to develop a severe illness. Why would men be more at risk?

Possibilities that involve their behavior include higher rate of smoking and less attention to washing hands. Most of the touted reasons were about chromosomes and hormones. The theory used to explain men’s higher risk is that women have two X chromosomes which carry 2,000 genes that interact with women’s cells. Cells can use genes on one X chromosome to destroy invading viruses, and genes on the other X chromosome to kill infected cells. Also, XX chromosomes produce estrogens which stimulate immunological responses, while testosterone seems to suppress them. The protective effect of estrogens led to trials of administering estrogen to men and post-menopausal women with COVID-19 as possible means to lessen the severity of the illness. 

An entirely different set of research studies focus on the effects of the lockdown that keep workers home and school closings that keep children at home. Employers had to adopt flexible work schedules and telecommuting for men and women employees, a policy for which many women have long fought for.

Another result of the lockdown is the availability of fathers for child care and home schooling. Where mothers work outside the home, as medical providers or grocery and pharmacy employees, fathers have to became the main child caregivers.  

Reports on sharing housework and child care by heterosexual cohabiting partners working from home were mixed. In one study men partners claimed to be doing half the home-schooling while women with heterosexual partners claimed that they were doing 80 percent.

Another study of 1060 heterosexual couples on their early COVID-19 experiences found an increase in sharing housework from 26 percent to 41 percent; similar results were reported for shared care of children. If men really do more during the shelter at home months, the continuance of such behavior would be a positive outcome of the pandemic

A serendipitous gender effect was that women were in the leadership role in countries that most successfully combated the coronavirus. The eight countries with the best outcomes of controlling cases and deaths thus far all had women leaders who acted early and decisively: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hong Kong, Namibia, Nepal and Singapore. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, also led strong and successful responses to the virus. There are other countries governed by women that have not controlled the coronavirus so well. What was different about the more successful women leaders?  A comparison of the two groups of women leaders might indicate what leadership skills mattered in this crisis. Leadership styles are often culturally gendered. Men leaders are prone to using war metaphors with the coronavirus as the enemy to be attacked aggressively and vanquished. The more successful women leaders focused on communal efforts and careful planning that demanded shared long-term  sacrifice, a leadership style that is considered “feminine.” 

We need more research to understand what leadership style works in national emergencies such as pandemics. Comparisons need to be made within gender as well as between them. Women leaders are not all alike, nor do they all use what is culturally considered a more consensus or “feminine” leadership style. More importantly, men too can adopt “feminine” leadership styles if that is what research tells us what most efficacious at keeping us all alive.  

Adapted from The New Gender Paradox: Fragmentation and Persistence of the Gender Binary, Polity Books, forthcoming. 

Judith Lorber is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School, CUNY. She is the author of Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics, Paradoxes of Gender, and Women Physicians: Careers, Status and Power. With Lisa Jean Moore, she is the author of Gendered Bodies: Feminist Perspectives and Gender and the Social Construction of Illness. Judith Lorber is the Founding Editor of Gender & Society.  

Fashioning Masculinity in Confinement

Image from Pixel

Clothing matters when we’re out in the world. The fabrics and silhouettes we wear each day help us establish our personal and professional identities. Wearing clothing that is deemed “appropriate” in distinct spaces provides access to jobs, networks and, for many of us, respect and dignity.

In my research published in Gender and Society, I interviewed men of all types, across a range of ages, races, sexualities, occupations. I wanted to understand how their clothes challenged or reinforced cultural ideas about masculinity. My interviews took place in men’s homes where they showed me their clothes and described their memories of them.

When my participants opened up their closets each morning, they asked themselves a series of questions: Who were they going to meet? What activities were they going to do? What spaces did they plan on visiting?  All of these men picked clothing that best allowed them to display their understanding of dominant masculine norms. They believed the clothes they wore would help them get the rewards they sought at the events and outings they attended, or protect them from being harassed and attacked.

All these interviews were conducted before COVID-19.  Many of us now do not go to different physical spaces each day but are primarily confined to our homes. Our social interactions are limited to Zoom. In this new social world, how might my participants decide what to wear each day? And what might be the impact of their decisions on the ways in which they trouble and reinforce masculine ideals?

Photo from Pixels

Our digital interactions present all of us with a new set of considerations when we open up our closets each morning. Our colleagues and friends will no longer observe our fully dressed bodies but instead primarily view our shoulders and faces. This narrowed frame poses two major consequences. Given my research focuses on men and masculinity, I will speculate about men specifically.

First, clothing that adorns the top halves of men’s bodies might take on greater importance.

Some men might still opt to wear a shirt and tie to establish their class position, but as the pandemic rages on, they might loosen up their workwear. As men work from home, they are likely to be multitasking. They work but also cook meals, homeschool kids, cope with anxiety. Perhaps wearing a suite becomes impractical while multi-taking, even if that includes video meetings.

Second, hair and skin might take on a heightened role.

Kirsten Barber charts professional white-collar men’s consumption of high-end salon services—from hair colouring to brow tweezing. Barber finds that these men engage in beauty work to construct their “professional” identity. For them, keeping their hair coiffed, browsshaped and skin smooth establishes masculine power. A virtual world might mean that these services become more important for the construction of middle-class masculinity, as stylists now offer virtual appointments to guide patrons through hair coloring and brow tweezing.

Beauty work might become even more important because participants now see their faces during each and every digital meeting. It becomes easy to focus on how their cheek bones, complexions and eyebrows appear on the screen. For many men, observations about their faces might be a new discovery because beauty work unlike body work is traditionally gendered feminine and avoided by men.      

Make-up might take on a new role for establishing a professional masculine identity in a Zoom-centered world, but men of color and Black men in particular will have limited options. Men who are balding might become more susceptible to hair growth pill subscription boxes designed to reduce hair loss and older men to anti-aging potions. Even Zoom now offers digital filters to instantly reduce the appearance of winkles.

Yet the loosening up of workwear could provide benefits. Mainstream menswear is designed for thin and non-disabled bodies. Clothing patterns are scaled up for larger sizes or adapted for physically disabled wearers. As a result, clothing often fails to comfortably fit fat and disabled men, if it’s available at all. They are often forced to spend hundreds of dollars on custom clothes for office jobs and other formal events. But in a digital world where clothes matter less, these men might no longer need formal and fashionable clothes to shore up masculine power in certain social spaces.

Perhaps some femme and queer men will feel less pressure to code switch. If they are no longer commuting around the city, they face less risk of violence. They might just feel freer and safer to wear whatever they want, including heels all day long.

While this pandemic has shifted how men dress each day, it is unlikely that the role of appearance has changed. The difference between this moment and before COVID-19 is that the contents of men’s bathroom vanities might become more important than the contents of their bedroom closets when it comes to displaying a masculine identity.

What I find intriguing is this shift from the full body to the face in our self-presentation.  This may reduce ableism, fat phobia and other oppressions based on visible cues because others only see one’s shoulders and face. Clothes don’t matter as much now. But the deep assumptions and attitudes that keep inequities structurally alive are not being challenged. They remain in place, just outside the purview of the Zoom frame. Some men might benefit in the short-term, but when they meet in-person once again, dominant masculine ideals could become even more entrenched because digital spaces have masked, not transformed, existing forms of discrimination.

Ben Barry is Chair and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). His research explores masculinities and fashion at the intersections of fat and disability.

Why We Need a “Feminine” Economic Reopening

Photo from Flickr Becker1999

After months of minimizing the threat of Covid-19, Donald Trump now labels it an invasion by an “invisible enemy.”  Pronouncing himself a “wartime president,” he describes his pandemic response as “our big war.” And he assures us that this “aggressive strategy” will end in “victory.” 

In invoking a militarized masculinity, Trump follows in the footsteps of U.S. Presidents. This version of masculinity is adopted by men who see themselves as fighting for a feminized “homeland.” To be masculine, for most contemporary Americans, means to be strong, fearless, self-assertive – to face down danger. These ideas are as old as patriarchy. And during a pandemic, they are deadly.

We are not at war. Our toolkit for surviving the coronavirus is non-violent: wash your hands, shelter-in-place, wear a mask for essential errands, and quarantine if you’ve been exposed. This will buy us time while scientists develop a vaccine that will contain the virus. This is how we withstand this pandemic.

Tools, not weapons. Contain, not kill. Surviving, not fighting. Withstand, not win.

What we need right now is caution. This is typically the advice you get from a mother, not a father. We need people to hunker down, not “man up.” But this is contrary to traditional notions of manliness. This may be why men are substantially less likely than women to wash their hands. Even under pandemic conditionsEven now. Bemoaning this problem, one expert commented: “We need to make sure men don’t feel too macho to worry about germs.” 

Notably, men are not in denial about the risks. A person can only be brave in the face of a genuine threat. The sum of the polls suggests that men are as likely as women to believe they will become ill, but a full 15 percentage points less likely to admit that they’re afraid. To wash their hands is to admit fear. 

Pandemics don’t respond to displays of bravery, dominance, or self-reliance. Such displays are irrelevant at best. We need to be afraid, to recognize our own and others’ vulnerability. We need to obey rules and cooperate with others. We need leaders capable of saying, “I’m scared. You should be, too. I need your help.” Sometimes leading means recognizing that we ought to be afraid and cannot rely solely on ourselves.

Consider the response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. Ardern imposed some of the most radical restrictions in the world when there were only 102 cases in New Zealand and no recorded deaths. She mandated a quarantine for citizens in non-essential jobs and initiated financial compensation for workers and businesses. Ardern recognized her people’s vulnerability, displayed a healthy amount of worry, and asked for her country’s trust, help, and cooperation. She responded, in other words, in a culturally feminine way.

By contrast, despite finally acknowledging the danger posed by Covid-19, Donald Trump continues to engage in masculine posturing about winning and “moving on.” On April 8, he stated that he would love to reopen the country “with a big bang.” A “BOOM,” he tweeted, promising the “horror” of this pandemic will be “quickly forgotten” in the midst of an explosion of economic activity. In the days since, he has waffled, alternating between sharing the staid guidance of expert advisers and his characteristic bombast.

But the science is clear: we should reopen with a whimper, not a bang. 

Denmark and Austria, for example, have announced plans that involve careful staging. The Chancellor of Austria announced that small shops will open first, larger stores later. Schools and restaurants will follow. The German Chancellor agrees they must emerge “step by step.” The French Prime Minister has announced a “complex” set of rules. There will not be, he warns, a “general deconfinement, all at once, everywhere and for everyone.” No bang.

In America too, we will be in survival mode for a good long time. There is still much to withstand. This means continuing to embody characteristics more commonly associated with women: humility, vulnerability, and community-mindedness. Women are generally more comfortable embracing these traits, which is perhaps why the world’s women leaders have mounted some of the most effective responses to this pandemic. 

But a person doesn’t have to be a woman to see the value in traits stereotyped as “feminine.” We all need to embrace it. We need to collectively change our minds about what makes a great leader, too, and what excellent management of the pandemic looks like. Because the best approach to saving lives and protecting our economies is a feminine one.

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Lisa Wade is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University, officially joining the faculty in 2021 as an Associate Professor with appointments in Sociology, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Newcomb Institute. Her research explores how gendered ideas about the body inform sexual attitudes and behaviors and sexuality-related discourse and policy. She is the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, and co-editor of Assigned: Life with Gender. You can find her online at lisa-wade.com and on Twitter @lisawade

Tristan Bridges is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Men and Masculinities, and co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change. You can follow him on Twitter @tristanbphd or at his website tristanbridges.com.