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Non-tenured and female faculty feeling COVID burdens, study says

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many faculty scientists to come in from field work and leave their labs for makeshift home workspaces. Those disruptions have affected faculty differently.

Purdue University and Colorado State University researchers surveyed ecology and evolutionary biology faculty across the United States to understand how the pandemic is affecting them and their work. In the journal Ecological Applications, they report that junior faculty and female faculty — especially those with children — are most negatively affected.

“Women in these fields are often still primarily responsible for their children, and we found that this is obstructing them from keeping up with the demands of their research and teaching,” said Zhao Ma, a professor in Purdue’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. “Faculty seeking tenure or promotion feel a lot of pressure to conduct and publish research, and that’s difficult when they can’t be in the field or in their labs. They work day and night to make sure their children’s needs are met, their classes are delivered, their students’ needs are met through increasing mentoring, and then they may or may not have much time left to do their own research. There’s a feeling amongst many women scientists, particularly assistant professors, that they could be left behind.”

Lise M. Aubry and Theresa M. Laverty of Colorado State are ecologists and evolutionary biologists and had been hearing stories about how the pandemic was affecting their colleagues. They connected with Ma, who is a natural resource social scientist, to see if there is evidence to support those stories.

“We wanted to collect data on this issue and have it peer-reviewed so there is evidence that can be taken into consideration when faculty whose work has been disrupted are evaluated,” Ma said. “When the pandemic ends, the impact on our field, our students and our research could last for many years.”

Overall, 608 scientists replied to the survey. Work-life balance was of particular concern. About one-third of non-tenured assistant professors were very dissatisfied by their work-life balances compared with associate professors (26.5%) and full professors (10.8%). Nearly twice as many female faculty were very dissatisfied with work-life balance than males, regardless of faculty rank, at 12.7% and 6.9% respectively.

Female faculty and faculty who care for young children were far more dissatisfied (16.5%) with work-life balance than those who did not (9.5%).

These concerns could be seen in comments submitted by participants who feared the constraints put on them by the pandemic might not be recognized by their peers or leaders.

“In fields like mine, the productivity hit to research output will not necessarily be felt in 2020, but will cascade into 2021 and 2022,” a participant wrote. “I haven’t seen any recognition in any policies that the effects of this might span several years.”

Around two-thirds of participants thought a pause in the tenure and promotion clock would be helpful. The most common written-in comment suggested universities should provide gap or emergency funding to support graduate students and other research scientists whose work has been impacted.

Ma believes the findings could pertain to many different academic fields but mostly with those involved in field and lab-based research. She hopes that university leaders can come to understand that the pandemic won’t have the same impacts on all faculty.

“The pressures on junior faculty, women and those with caregiving responsibilities have always been there. But now, the disparities are magnified,” Ma said. “We hope that university administrators and senior faculty members will recognize this and make sure that those disproportionally affected by the pandemic in these ways share the same opportunities to thrive in their fields as their peers.”

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