The increasingly disproportionate service burden female faculty bear will have negative career consequences (opinion)

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“We are fighting racism and sexism in our institutions, all unpaid service, while senior men sit back and plan to ride it out. Our service burdens are enormous anyways, especially given student support. Our students rely predominantly on female faculty and BIPOC faculty for mentorship,” a female professor told us response to an open-ended question in our online survey on the effects of COVID-19 on scholars’ research productivity. Her response exemplifies the tough spot many faculty — especially female faculty — often find themselves in.

Women incur a disproportionate burden of institutional service with little recognition from their universities and review committees for such “invisible” labor. The ongoing health crisis further deepens these disparities with considerable long-term consequences for female faculty research productivity and career advancement.

Long-standing gender inequalities pervade academe in both internal and external service workloads among faculty, especially female faculty of color. Female faculty tend to bear a disproportionate share of the care labor and institutional housekeeping in academic institutions, even after controlling for rank, department and/or field. In addition, the demand for women’s service and mentorship efforts often increases during times of crises and uncertainties. Early evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception.

To understand how the pandemic has affected female faculty service activities for their universities and broader communities, we conducted an online survey of more than 200 international and regional faculty members in the social sciences and humanities. Our data demonstrate that most surveyed scholars, especially women, have experienced a substantial decline in research productivity as they struggled to maintain active research agendas while meeting growing teaching and service responsibilities during the pandemic.

Our results show that the pandemic created an exponential increase in faculty service loads and demands and also provide clear evidence that this additional burden has fallen disproportionately on female faculty. Although most faculty reported an increase in the time dedicated to service, women have borne a disproportionate burden of service work related to COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of many university campuses. Sixty-eight percent of female respondents reported an increase in their responsibilities compared to only 55 percent of males. Similarly, only 23 percent of female academics reported that their workload remained similar in contrast to 33 percent among male respondents.

In the open-ended question of the survey, female respondents repeatedly raised the issue of service work and its adverse effects on their research productivity. One female respondent, a full professor at a public university, described “spending more time doing admin, filling in forms, supporting staff and students through the pandemic.”

Other responses further reveal a rather grim picture of the sizable burden of service work relating to transitioning to remote teaching, along with student mentorship and emotional support. One female associate professor, also at a public research university, maintained, “I spent much more time preparing my classes/teaching after we moved online, and an enormous amount of time mentoring students individually through the first month or so of the crisis. There was no time for research through that period.” Another female associate professor detailed the “tiring” emotional effect of providing “a lot of pastoral support for students” and its adverse effect on her long-term research productivity.

It is not just the pandemic that has increased demands for institutional care work and service labor but also mass mobilizations against racial injustices and police violence. External service, which includes community outreach and civic service that often overlap with faculty’s disciplinary expertise, is also a time-consuming activity for women in academe, especially when women are socially invested in the cause.

Although we did not poll respondents directly about their external service in the survey, several female respondents commented on the burden of carrying out service work for the broader community, mainly in the form of public engagement and volunteer work or service that promotes an institution’s “service mission” or “engaged campus” mission.

One female associate professor at a private teaching college responded, “I have chosen to spend writing time with colleagues from my university on COVID-related op-ed pieces for the local newspaper.” Another shared her experience of volunteering during COVID-19 at a mutual aid group for the unemployed and observed how “Some academics have chosen to spend significant amounts of time either on volunteer efforts during COVID to help those most affected (such as founding/participating in mutual aid groups or pre-existing NGOs), or on protest/consciousness-raising/retooling syllabi around Black Lives Matter and racism issues.”

This respondent noted, “I fall into the first category, spending eight to 10 hours in an average week on this type of activity, and more recently significant time trying to formulate a department response to majors asking for a statement in favor of BLM.” She further remarked on the gendered character of such volunteer work, noting that a significant percentage of volunteers were “professors or graduate students (almost all of whom are female).”

Disparities in service and other invisible and emotional labor are negatively affecting women’s research productivity. Female academics bearing a greater burden of service work amid the pandemic and ongoing popular unrests will have both short- and long-term consequences for their careers, especially since universities tend to put less weight on service and student support activities when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions.

To mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic, the value of service work should be fairly recognized and rewarded. Higher education institutions should account for the myriad ways that faculty members support their institutions through both internal and external service. Stopping tenure clocks is not necessarily an effective solution to remedy such disparities, as it may further deepen already existing structural inequalities in academe. Without such adjustments to existing metrics of success (i.e., “male” measures), the existing gender gap in academe will only widen. Female faculty will likely suffer the consequences come promotion and tenure, and universities will risk becoming less diverse at a time when they are under scrutiny for the lack of diversity within their faculty ranks.



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