Roxanna Pebdani

We asked academics to be real about work. Here are our new findings

My children were two and three years old in March of 2020 when Sydney went into its first COVID-19  lockdown.  At the time, I was in an education-focussed leadership role but also still teaching and conducting research.

I was supporting my colleagues as they pivoted to online learning at the same time as helping implement widespread changes to education within the School and also reassuring students across our School that we were doing everything in our power to maintain education quality in an ever-changing environment. 

I was also moving my own class online at the same time.  Research fell off the radar – if it didn’t have an immediate deadline like other things in life (e.g. speaking to cohorts of students to assuage the uncertainty they were feeling, getting a lecture online, helping a colleague figure out how to deliver an in-person assessment online, feeding children, or even just sleeping), it wasn’t getting done.  Even when I wasn’t in charge of childcare, my little ones would come looking for me – and how do you tell a two-year-old that you have to work and can’t play right now?    

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on academic mothers has many long-term implications on career progression and alleviating this gendered impact should be a priority for administrators worldwide.

Of course, I was not alone.  Research that Adriana Zeidan, Lee-Fay Low, Andrew Baillie, and I conducted on the impact of COVID-19 on the productivity of academics around the world confirms this.  And worse, these impacts were hugely gendered. What’s particularly novel about our study is its potential for accuracy.  Instead of asking people to think back to their day or their week and estimate how often they were doing a particular task, we were instead able to ping our participants at six random time-points per day (during their self-nominated waking hours) and ask them what they were doing in that moment.  This led to more accurate responses, and strengthened our work.  

Our research showed that in June and July of 2020, when we conducted our study: 

  • Academic mothers were 4.25 times more likely than academic fathers to be caring for children when contacted to complete the survey.
  • Academic mothers were 3 times more likely than academic fathers to multitask, and nearly 5 times more likely to multitask by doing an activity and caring for children simultaneously.
  • Mothers were 74% more likely to have had their work interrupted in the last hour.
  •  Parents were 57% less likely than non-parents to be working on research when contacted.
  • Academic parents (especially mothers) were found to be less likely to have access to uninterrupted work time.
  • Non-parents were working on research related tasks around 20% of the time they were contacted, while fathers were working on research 17% of the time, and mothers only 11% of the time.

And our results have resonated with readers on social media.  Within 36 hours of sharing the main points of  our study  in a thread on twitter, parts of it had been shared over 1,000 times.  People were retweeting with their own experiences and calling on senior academics to take this work into account when evaluating staff on their productivity.  Differences in ability to spend time on research will have lasting impacts on career progression.  

Recognising that equity is not the same as equality, one-size-fits-all approaches such as extending tenure clocks for all academics currently working towards tenure will only stand to increase gender disparities in the professoriate down the line (Khamis-Dakwar & Hiller, 2020).

As we know, impacts on publishing in 2020 and 2021 (and even now in 2022) will not be readily apparent for some time.  Given how much longer the publication process is taking, we may not see the true effects for a few years.  However, given how trajectories are used in funding and promotion applications, a dip in productivity could have career-long implications if we are not careful.  For many years we’ve had a leak in the pipeline in academia, where women were more likely to trickle out of the academic workforce due to biases and barriers along the way.  Covid has the potential to undo the work we have done to repair those leaks, leading to further gender disparities in our academic environments. 

We must find concrete and tangible ways to ensure that mothers are able to bounce back from the setbacks they may have experienced during Covid.  Everyone needs to remember those changes that mothers will not forget – the days of caring for children while trying to work, the hundreds of interruptions in an hour, the loneliness, the isolation, and the associated reduced ability to conduct research – while other people were experiencing the opposite:  quiet time, without meetings or other interruptions.  

We should watch vigilantly for an ever-widening gap in publishing between men and women to emerge.  We need to gauge impacts on access to grant funding, and we need to see how it affects career progression (in hiring, in tenure, in promotion).  We need to implement policies that will decrease disparities, support people who were most impacted, and ensure that we don’t lose women before we get the chance to implement support and effect change. 

As some have said, we were all in the same storm, but we were not all in the same boat.  We must advocate for, and implement policies to support, those whose careers are most at risk after this period when mothers, in particular, were working all the time, but still unable to produce in the same way others were.  If we don’t pay attention, and we don’t actively work to alleviate these differences, the impact on career progression for women in academia will be huge. 

The leaky pipeline (Pell, 1996) is not going away, unless we make changes to recognise and ameliorate the barriers that groups of colleagues experience before, during and beyond the immediate Covid-19 crisis.

A few essential things to note: First, in the paper we refer to people who identify as women and have children as mothers, and those who identify as men who have children as fathers.  Unfortunately our statistical approaches were not sophisticated enough to incorporate more than a binary categorization, though we absolutely recognise that gender is a spectrum.  

Second, none of this would have been possible without the entire team.  Adriana Zeidan, despite being a master’s student studying during lockdown, managed the survey and PACO enrollment process from start to finish, and without her, none of this would have happened.  Andrew Baillie was instrumental in managing our very complicated dataset and advanced statistical modelling, and he and Lee-Fay Low’s strategic guidance were invaluable in planning and publishing.  

Roxanna Nasseri Pebdani, (PhD, CRC, SFHEA) is Director of Participation Sciences in the Sydney School of Health Sciences and Acting Head of the Discipline of Rehabilitation Counselling, both in the Faculty of Medicine and Health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the American University of Paris, a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counselling from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in Counsellor Education from the University of Maryland. She completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington. She has been at the University of Sydney since July 2018. The lovely photo in the header image is of Pebdani’s children.