‘Work When You Can’: Reflections on Gender, Covid-19, and Academia

By Meryl Kenny

The following blog is an abridged version of a roundtable contribution to the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group’s recent workshop on ‘The Gendered Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Politics Academics.’ It is a reflection on my personal experiences, rather than any kind of systematic gendered analysis of the COVID-19 crisis, and any errors or misremembrances are my own.

 In the spring of 2020, right before Covid hit and universities pivoted to online teaching, I and many of my colleagues were on the picket line, having taken strike action over pensions and the four fights – pay, casualisation, workloads and equality – issues which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic is many things – a public health crisis, an economic crisis – but it is also, and at the same time, an equalities crisis. Some have described the pandemic as a ‘critical juncture’ for academia – but there has been an awful lot of continuity through this ‘change point’, and not all paths emerging from this juncture have been progressive ones.

In the past 18 months, higher education has seen pay, promotion and hiring freezes across the sector, which has created an extremely difficult job market for early career researchers; as well as redundancies and the cancellation of fixed-term contracts in some institutions, which have gendered and intersectional impacts, given that women often hold more precarious positions. Workloads (both paid and unpaid) have increased. All of this has been compounded by the shift towards online teaching – which involves higher teaching loads and more emotional labour to support students in a time of high stress and uncertainty, loads which research suggests even in ‘normal’ times are shouldered more by women (and especially women of colour). Here I am also reminded of a conversation started by Mònica Clua on academic Twitter, where she points out that we talk a lot about ‘overwork’ in academia, but we don’t talk enough about ‘underwork’ – and how the underwork of some has a huge impact on the amount of overwork that many end up doing (and that this often has gender, race, class dimensions).

These inequalities have been exacerbated by increases in unpaid work responsibilities within the home – including, for example, care for children, or care for family members – with women more likely to shoulder more of the domestic and reproductive labour. This is not to say that there have been no lessons learned from working during Covid – and by all means we should work to preserve some of the gains made with regards to, for example, flexible and remote working, and accessibility and inclusivity. But we should also be talking more about the requisitioning of people’s homes by their employers and the unequal impacts of this. As Fiona Jenkins powerfully argues, home is not a costless resource. It is also a site of gendered power relations. For many women, it is a site of inequality – of care, of labour. A site of violence.

A personal story

Within this wider context, and reflecting on my own experiences, I acknowledge my positional privilege as a white, permanent member of staff in a Russell Group institution. I am focusing particularly on my experiences around care – but this does not mean that I think this is the only issue to reflect on from the COVID crisis, or that care is only about care for children. When COVID hit, I had been back from maternity leave for about a year – a critical career juncture. In my first teaching semester back, I took up a teaching leadership post. I am reminded here of Sadiya Akram and Zoe Pflaeger Young’s work on parental leave provision for ECRs, which highlights a trend of women returners coming back into big administrative roles (‘it’s your turn’). So perhaps I was an example of what we might call the ‘squeezed mid-career’ – another critical (if under-discussed) career juncture for academic women. A juncture where you might be caring for dependent children and/or ageing parents or family, whilst at the same time being expected to take on more senior leadership roles, affecting research trajectories and career progression prospects.

One week after campus shut down in March 2020, nurseries and schools in Scotland closed. Some nurseries reopened gradually from mid-July, with schools following in August. Schools and nurseries were closed fully again through January and February 2021, with Scottish secondary school pupils not fully back until after the Easter holidays. I repeat this here, as a reminder, because it feels increasingly in some corners that this has been forgotten.

Responses varied by institution, with some more progressive than others, but there was a common refrain of both ‘work when you can’, and ‘use your annual leave’ to deal with caring responsibilities. I have yet to find an answer to the maths of how to fit a full-time day job alongside a full-time home-schooling or caring job, whilst still sleeping and (occasionally) bathing. The sums of how 36 days of annual leave covers the period of March until August are similarly difficult to work out. And regardless of whether you took leave or not, your workload was the same – albeit with less hours to fit it in. For me, as with many, after the essential teaching and service, it was always the research that dropped. Not least because there was no space (physical, mental) to do it in. I remember vividly, around this time, crying my way through an online staff meeting (thankfully with my camera and mic off) as some colleagues talked about a productive research event they’d had that morning, workshopping new projects. For me, a daily win at that point was getting through half of my emails (and – maybe – brushing my hair) – and people were discussing books. BOOKS. They were thinking!

Image: Author’s working-from-home work station with “accessories”. Reproduced by permission.

Despite these experiences, I was, if not optimistic, at least cautiously (and pragmatically) hopeful that the scale of the care crisis would mean universities would have to do some more fundamental rethinking of work/life/care issues. 18 months on, I am less convinced. Already, I think we are seeing some ‘institutional forgetting’ (to borrow from Fiona Mackay’s work on gendered institutions), both in terms of lessons learned from the pandemic, but also in terms of institutional and wider EDI commitments, like Athena SWAN. Critical (and often feminist) actors within HE institutions have played vital roles to keep these issues on the agenda, but as we head towards another difficult and uncertain year, we face increasing issues of exhaustion and burnout. Messages about ‘returning to normal’ or ‘business as usual’ belie the fact that this crisis is still ongoing (and indeed, even as I write this, I have a three-year-old sitting next to me with a cough, awaiting the results of yet another PCR test before she can return to nursery – a familiar, and seemingly never-ending, merry-go-round).

Three next steps

Where to from here? Below I offer three short (and by no means exhaustive) starting points.

  1. Data, data, data. We need systematic and intersectional data on care, careers, precarity, hiring, publication patterns, grant submission and award patterns, and more – both across the profession and within institutions. It is not a surprise, for example, that we aren’t seeing gender gaps in PSA journal publications right now, given the ‘time lag’ of academic publishing cycles and the ways in which the gendered impacts of Covid may be felt in the medium- to long-term. It is crucial that we do not lose sight of this, and that we continue to monitor these patterns over time.
  2. Rethinking Hiring and Promotion. It has now become a common sight to see a ‘covid disruption’ or similar statement on promotion or tenure applications. We also need these for job applications. But it is not enough to have a box in a form – there is a need for more systematic and transparent criteria (building on best practice) for applicants to outline the impact of Covid, as well as training for evaluators (hiring, promotion, grant review panel members) to evaluate these interruptions – considering each person’s specific working conditions, rather than comparing staff across different working conditions. This would also require rethinking hiring and promotion criteria, which tend to favour individualistic narratives of excellence – ‘I wrote this’, ‘I led on that’ – rather than collective modes of working.
  3. Available. Affordable. On-Campus. Childcare. Sing it from the rooftops.

About a year after the start of the pandemic, I signed up for a series of workshops aimed at supporting academics trying to restart their research careers after Covid-related disruptions. In the first session, I was struck by a comment made by one of the speakers – a piece of advice which I have heard many times before in academia – which essentially boiled down to ‘just say no.’ But, from a feminist academic perspective, creating scholarly community and relationships of solidarity and care often requires us to say ‘yes’ – and an enthusiastic yes.

Asking new questions

Perhaps the issue, then, is that we are asking the wrong questions. In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about Maria do Mar Pereira’s recent piece on Researching gender inequalities in the COVID-19 pandemic, published in Gender, Work and Organisation. do Mar Pereira pushes us to rethink what our goals are, reminding us to ask critical questions. It cannot be, she argues, that we want to restore the pre-pandemic status quo. So, perhaps the question is not ‘how do we return to pre-pandemic levels of research productivity’, but rather, how do other important dimensions of academic work – teaching, supervision, academic leadership, peer review, equality and diversity work, collaboration – become equally valued and recognised. Forums like the PSA Women and Politics Group and others can help us share experiences, generate solidarity, strategise for change, and try together – though it will not be easy – to reimagine a new academic ‘normal.’

Dr Meryl Kenny is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics and Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She is a genderED steering group member; past convenor of the PSA’s Women and Politics Specialist Group; and a former Trustee and Equality and Diversity Lead for the UK’s Political Studies Association. She spends a lot of time with an energetic toddler who thinks her mom’s job is ‘sitting with cat-cat and pushing buttons.’

genderED has compiled an intersectional resource on Care, Careers in Higher Education and Covid to help academic researchers and other University workers and activists navigate developments in this area.