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Arnold School of Public Health

Alumni, faculty investigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on academics who mother

June 24, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Researchers sprung into action as soon as it became apparent that a pandemic was upon us – the likes of which had not been seen in a century. New and existing projects alike were not immune to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with safety protocols and transitions to virtual data collection among the many adjustments that scientists adopted to move their studies forward.

But what about the COVID-19 impacts on the researchers themselves?

Scholarly and popular press articles have been published about the change in work environments, the effects of children learning from home, and the innumerable other changes that have affected daily life during the pandemic. Recent research from Arnold School alumni and faculty from the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) reveals the unique pandemic experience of academics who mother.

Deborah Billings, an adjunct associate professor of HPEB with a decade-long connection to the Arnold School, was working on the Group Care Global initiative with Salima Kasymova (currently a postdoctoral fellow at Howard University) when Kasymova suggested they conduct a study on the impact of COVID-19 on mothers who work in academia. A 2017 graduate of the Ph.D. in HPEB program, Kasymova had already worked with Billings on several projects in their overlapping interest areas of reproductive health and gender equality.

It is clear that participants have shouldered a disproportionately large share of domestic and childcare responsibilities since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and this intensification is likely to have long-lasting effects on career trajectories and an increase in pre-existing gender disparities.

-Salima Kasymova, Ph.D. in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior 2017

At Billings’ suggestion, they invited HPEB alumna Jean Marie Place, who had collaborated with Billings on postpartum depression research and other projects during her master’s (2009) and doctoral (2013) programs, to join the study. Place’s graduate student Jesus Aldape, whom she mentors as an associate professor of health science at Ball State University, rounded out the team.

“Since the birth of their child/children, academics who mother are losing ground in comparison to others, including their childless counterparts and academics who father, with regard to the number of research publications that appear in peer-reviewed journals,” says Kasymova, lead author on the paper they published in Gender, Work & Organization. “Previous research suggests that because academics who mother tend to carry out a disproportionately larger household and childcare workload, it may result in diminishing their time and energy devoted to research and inhibit publication productivity.”

Initial studies during the first part of the pandemic documented that the stay-at-home order, state shutdowns and school/childcare center closures disproportionally affected female parents in cisgender couples. Family adaptations to these changes exacerbated existing gender disparities in the division of household chores, childcare and home-based schooling responsibilities. However, much of this work (e.g., one report found mothers were spending about one hour more on these activities, regardless of employment, compared to fathers) was not published in peer-reviews journals.

With this study, the researchers recruited participants from the Facebook group, Academic Mamas. Established in 2015, this diverse, online group includes more than 11,000 academics who identify as mothers. The data collection included two parts: a quantitative survey and a set of qualitative interviews. Both aspects of the study focused on research productivity of academics who mother as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the participants’ teaching and service responsibilities.

After coding and analysis, the team found immense pressure on participants’ time on a day-to-day basis. Prior to the pandemic, respondents engaged in 4.4 hours of childcare, 1.8 hours of domestic work, and .8 hours of home-based schooling each day. After the pandemic began, these individuals were doing 8.3 hours of childcare, 3.5 hours of domestic responsibilities, and 2.7 hours of home-based schooling. The qualitative portion of the study revealed three major themes: inability to meet institutional expectations, juggling work and family life, and proposed solutions.

“It is clear that participants have shouldered a disproportionately large share of domestic and childcare responsibilities since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and this intensification is likely to have long-lasting effects on career trajectories and an increase in pre-existing gender disparities,” Kasymova says. “Based on our findings, significant efforts must be made to change existing policies and practices at the institutional level to address the challenges academics who mother face in maintaining a level of productivity exhibited prior to the pandemic.”

Some of the authors suggestions include institutional-level revisions to the following areas, particularly for academics who mother, to account for the loss of productivity during the pandemic: guidelines for merit, tenure and promotion (including tenure clock extension), service exemption, teaching relief, leave policies, childcare subsidies, and internal funding mechanisms. 

Like many of the projects that scientists launched in response to COVID-19, the team knew that capturing the impacts of the pandemic in real-time was essential yet the emergent and evolving nature of the situation did not allow much time for planning. The researchers pushed forward without funding, leveraging their own time and talents, as well as the generosity of others willing to share their experience.


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