How COVID-19 is affecting gender inequality in academia

A country-wide survey found that women are facing additional challenges tied to the pandemic

Jennifer Davis, University of British Columbia assistant professor (left) and Jen Marchbank, gender, sexuality, and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University (right). (Submitted)

Jennifer Davis, University of British Columbia assistant professor (left) and Jen Marchbank, gender, sexuality, and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University (right). (Submitted)

Over the pandemic, many people transitioned to working remotely to limit the spread of COVID-19. For some, this was good news since it meant cutting out lengthy commute times, travel expenses, and dealing with rush hour traffic. Although working from home has increasingly become a part of our “new normal,” University of British Columbia assistant professor Jennifer Davis began to notice the problems this caused for women in academia.

In spring of 2020, Davis noted in conversations with her colleagues that they were experiencing challenges with their work-from-home environments. This motivated her to conduct a survey, with 750 respondents across Canada, to explore the effects of the pandemic on other faculties and institutions.

“What I found most interesting about the results were the disproportionately negative effects of the pandemic on women,” says Davis. “It was also a bit more pronounced in their early career, and for those with increased responsibilities related to caregiving.”

Women make up a majority of caregivers in Canada who commit 20 or more hours per week to their caregiving duties. Data from Statistics Canada also suggests they are more likely to suffer hardships due to their critical role, which can put a strain on their mental and physical health.

The work they do usually goes unrecognized, unmeasured and unpaid. The time women devote to caregiving can often interfere with their ability to perform paid work or partake in other activities.

Many women who participated in Davis’s survey described an increase in caregiving responsibilities on top of the long hours they were already dedicating towards their academic work. As a result, they reported feeling emotionally and physically drained despite efforts to remain productive during the pandemic.

These issues fall in line with the pre-existing “second shift” women often face, or the unpaid labour a woman completes after a day of paid work, as described in a separate report from Statistics Canada. This labour usually involves household chores, caring for children, planning events, and other tasks.

When lockdowns were enforced in the initial stages of the pandemic, many children were kept home from school. The effects of the second shift were then exacerbated for women with young children as they struggled to manage paid work and caregiving duties simultaneously. 

While these issues may have eased since children have gone back to in-person learning, Davis says the caregiving burden still exists for those looking after older family members.

The new normal of a “hybrid” working environment isn’t a solution either, Davis says. A hybrid work model is meant to foster productivity by allowing employees to work from home or in person.

At the start of 2021, Statistics Canada found that 32 per cent of Canadian employees were working from home, a significant increase compared to just four per cent in 2016. While there may be greater flexibility, Davis says it can still lead to more hours being worked in total.

Not only were caregivers facing challenges, but so were academics who identify as racialized or Indigenous. In Davis’s survey, they reported feeling a lack of support for research and fewer opportunities to collaborate among colleagues.

One racialized woman who responded to Davis’s survey said she believes her peers viewed her as less productive, and her chances for working in the field were reduced due to the travel limitations and health risks of the pandemic.

After hearing about the disadvantages her colleagues were facing, Davis looked at how her findings could be used to support equality for women in academia. Based on the main ideas expressed in her survey, she gathered a list of recommendations.

One of the ways academic productivity is measured is through consistent publishing, Davis says. Many women from the survey said these criteria need to be changed in order to acknowledge the work they do outside of this traditional method. 

For some, this recommendation serves as an opportunity to reflect on changing perspectives of what productivity is, especially for women who juggle an array of responsibilities outside of their career.

Other recommendations include revising tenure and promotion standards and allowing academics to provide an account of how they were able to adapt during the pandemic. Davis indicated that the respondents were set on changing the process of tenure review rather than delaying it, adding that she has shared the findings with administrators and unions in Canada.

“There certainly is support for disseminating the findings, sharing the findings and discussing the findings. I think all those are really positive steps forward,” she says. 

Along with many other post-secondary institutions, Kwantlen Polytechnic University has a President’s Equity and Diversity Committee. The committee website says it is devoted to providing students and staff with a community that encourages diversity and inclusivity. Their goals for the 2020/2021 year included providing community engagement, training in inclusivity and equity, trans-inclusivity, and LGBTQ2+ support.

KPU also works in accordance with the Canadian Research Chairs (CRC) program, which promises to support research that will further the progression of equity, diversity and inclusion within the institution. In a progress report from 2019, the CRC stated that KPU is investing time and resources to enact an action plan that will address gaps in equity.

“In addition to tracking such quantitative performance indicators, we will implement processes and practices to reduce barriers in recruitment, retention, and growth of employees from equity seeking groups,” reads the report.

KPU received a $50,000 stipend to develop the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion plan, and reports findings through various means, such as surveys and interviews evaluating systems in the university. The report indicates the CRC will measure outcomes through “minimum target percentages.” 

Gender inequality in academia is certainly not a new issue, nor is it unique to Canada. Jen Marchbank, a gender, sexuality, and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University, says she has had personal experience with the gender-driven wage gap in the United Kingdom.

“Many years ago, myself and my male colleague were being promoted to equivalent posts, to an associate dean’s position,” Marchbank says.

“We both got the same percentage increase in our salary, but he was already at a much higher rate because as a man, he was already being paid much more. Although we were doing equivalent jobs, I was paid considerably less — a third less than he was.”

There is a 16 per cent difference between the median wages of men and women in Canada for all professions, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Marchbank says the wage gap in academia was being addressed by institutions for an amount of time but has been reinstated in some ways due to unconscious biases. She hopes those in academia will be more conscious of how decisions are made concerning who gets promoted or paid more.

“If you have pay systems that work on historic basis, for example, there’s a pay system that says you’ll get one step up the pay ladder based on where you currently are, and if women are already lower than men as a group, then one step up the ladder does nothing to address pay inequity,” Marchbank says.

In 2018, Statistics Canada found that 41 per cent of full-time teaching staff in academia were women. However, when comparing salaries between female deans and male deans, female deans were making three per cent less than their male colleagues. The report shows this gap is reduced even more for female assistant deans, who make almost six per cent less than their male co-workers.

Marchbank says that student assessments can present another example of inequity for women in academia, citing research where students who had been told women were teaching them would consistently provide worse evaluations than those who were told men were teaching them.

“Those who thought they were taught by a female were always [evaluating] lower than those who thought they were taught by a male. So again, unconscious bias in our society,” she says. 

Regardless of their skill set or credentials, studies show students perceive men and women instructors differently, often rating female instructors lower than male instructors. In addition, women tend to be seen more as “teachers” while men are perceived to have a higher status as “professors.” 

It was also noted that female instructors who don’t follow stereotypes of feminine teaching behaviour, such as “acting in manners seen as caring, nurturing, accessible, effective, submissive,” received reduced evaluation ratings as well. 

Marchbank urges people to challenge the idea of an “older white man” being what a successful academic looks like. She says there are pockets of change happening, but there is still a lot of work to be done to be more genuinely inclusive in academia.

“Lots of institutions are putting in place equity and diversity inclusion,” Marchbank says.  

“I think what we need to do is just look seriously at ourselves and say, ‘who are we hiring?’ Are we just replacing ourselves with people like ourselves?’ Or do we truly want to move off and say, ‘This isn’t just about gender. What group is on the margins here?’”