Since many countries are now emerging from self-imposed lockdowns, the question arises how academic institutions deal with the unequal workload during the lockdowns. Female academics have faced a multitude of challenges in the past months: a sudden increase in housework or care (including in a single parent or both-parent family), a higher workload due to the move to online teaching and a rising demand on pastoral care, a burden which tends to fall on women academics, given that students are more likely to go to women with their pastoral issues. It may thus be unsurprising that research outputs by women clearly slowed down in contrast to men, who have been able to advance with their research, with paper submissions even increasing up to 50%. Whilst women have had less time to work, paid work opportunities are also diminishing, reflected in a significant decrease in contingent contracts often taken up by women in the faculty. At the same time, women’s visibility in COVID-19 related discussions in the media have been marginal compared to their male peers. This is particularly worrying for areas such as economics, which are crucial in designing policies to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
However, this is not a new phenomenon but a reflection of the persistent sexism that permeates academic work and higher education. Not only are women generally underrepresented in leading positions in academia, but they also disproportionately face the double burden of paid and unpaid work. Women still conduct the majority of caring dutieswithout a sufficient support system in place which in turn translates into less research output in comparison to their male colleagues. Another factor relates to the invisibility of women. Women are quoted less in comparison to their male peers, and just one third of all academic research in the UK lists women as authors. Barriers in academia are even further intensified when being a woman of colour, who are more scrutinised, progress less, have higher workloads and lack institutional support. These adversarial impacts on women’s performances measured by the current research evaluation system exacerbate gender inequality in promotion rounds.
Ignoring the impact of the pandemic and its concomitant lockdowns on women means that gender inequality will continue to rise in a post-COVID-19 world, with men being promoted faster and women taking longer than during usual times. We support a collective approach to this issue, rather than shifting the burden to individual academics to find the solution. Higher education institutions, research associations, journal editorial boards and funding bodies have a responsibility to tackle gender inequality in academia on a continuous basis. We therefore suggest the following non-exhaustive action points:
- Clear-cut promotion guidelines
We call on universities to clearly define promotion criteria which recognize different life trajectories rather than giving only a guidance on the acceptable publication, funding and teaching records which is used differently, dependent on the promotion panel, which often leads to biased decisions against women and minorities.
- End the “publish or perish” culture in academic progression.
This is likely to be a long-term process, but in the immediate aftermath of a global public health emergency, we call on universities and higher education stakeholders to acknowledge this unequal relationship in publication records and add additional time on tenure tracks or accept lower publication outputs for promotions during the same timeframe.
- More variety and diversity of what constitutes as ‘acceptable’ outputs and scholarly contributions
Promotion requirements often include top publications or demonstration of intensive research as a criterion, which can affect female and minority scholars more than proportionally in a post-COVID-19 world and increase existing inequalities in academia. The non-meritocratic and exclusive nature of “top” publications are now widely documented. We ask for a reconsideration of research evaluation systems and the widespread dissemination of journal rankings and lists, particularly in economics.
- Granting extensions
Journal editors need to respond to these inequalities and grant extensions for authors and reviewers when requested for caring duties, rather than declining them as happened during the pandemic. We call for editorial boards to disclose how journals are accommodating the impacts of COVID-19 on academic work, and publish clear actions on how they are tackling gender inequality in their own field.
- More gender-sensitive metrics when publishing
We need gender-sensitive metrics and more emphasis on publication practices, highlighting inequalities and tackling these for instance through measures as suggested by womenalsoknowstuff. These include, amongst others, journal editors checking the gender composition of references and encouraging authors to achieve a balanced citation practice.
- Funding bodies also have a responsibility for tackling gender inequality
Similar to editorial boards, we ask for clear responses from funding bodies about their current actions and initiatives to tackle gender inequalities in academia, and how they are responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on academic work. They should encourage women to submit funding applications while universities need to provide time and resources to prepare the application.
- Investing resources in reducing home inequality
We call on universities to actively invest resources in reducing inequality at home. It is not sufficient to claim to be a gender equal institution when childcare facilities offered by the institution remain expensive or the new workload that staff members are expected to deal with cannot be reconciled with having a family. The current move to online teaching has often resulted in a substantial increase in workload which in turn puts more pressure on women with caring responsibilities. This needs to be recognized by universities and sufficient time assignment given and additional support provided.
- Changing the economics curriculum
The curriculum in economics needs to teach the importance and the value of unpaid work. Too often unpaid work is not recognized or marginalized in economics teaching with market-based work dominating the discourse. Care work and other forms of unpaid work needs to be compulsory for economics teaching.