Yet Another Source of Inequality?

It is far too early to know what the long-term social, economic and educational impacts of the current pandemic are. However, some predictions are easier to make than others. One unfortunate but obvious side-effect is the perpetuation and accentuation of inequality. This is obviously true when it comes to schooling: if you don’t have a quiet room (or a room of one’s own, as Virginia Wolff would have it) or access to a decent computer, laptop or otherwise, and unlimited wifi, you’re going to find studying much harder than if all these are to hand. Putting it crudely, on average middle class kids will fare better than those with two long-term unemployed parents. The latter may even be struggling to provide a decent diet or ever leave their high-rise flats, with all the consequent impact on mental health and well-being. Circumstances will conspire against them when it comes to home-schooling. Disadvantage will be even more entrenched. Similar issues will arise in our university populations too.

However, there is another source of inequality that will continue to resound in the years ahead: the challenges for carers may well be masked on future CVs, but that does not mean they will not have been real. Already I have read two articles highlighting the problems for academics and there have probably been many more in different media. The first, in Nature was written by a woman, an academic social demographer who ‘studies how families manage household and paid work’. Alessandra Minello (University of Florence) states

When married mothers and fathers in the United States are compared, the former spend almost twice as much time on housework and childcare. In the gender-egalitarian countries of northern Europe, women still do almost two-thirds of the unpaid work. Even among heterosexual couples with female breadwinners, women do most of the care work.

And asks, as she struggles to record online lectures while her two-year old son blows his trumpet in the background:

Will anyone in the academic community take into account our unbalanced approach to family care and work? No. All of us will participate together in open competition for promotion and positions, parents and non-parents alike.

And at that point I’d like to pause. The answer to that question does not need to be ‘no’. The evidence is accumulating – as the second article in The Lily makes plain – that by and large, as the first writer claimed, caring responsibilities are not shared equally by gender. This US article explicitly looks at what is happening right now, during the COVID19 lockdown, when it comes to academic paper submissions. It seems – for the journals and their editors considered in the article and by looking at what is being uploaded to preprint servers – the impact is already very obvious. Women are submitting fewer papers. We don’t need to rely on anecdote when this quantitative information is already visible. From Elizabeth Hannon, the deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

and from Anna Watts, keeping an eye on the preprint server at the arXiv

So, my first request is to ask all journal editors to monitor what is happening since lockdown started – shall we say March 15th, although it clearly varies by country – and for the three months after lockdown ends. It will take at least that long for those – overwhelmingly women, but by no means only them – who have been metaphorically juggling their day job with home schooling, toddler-care and other caring responsibilities, to begin to get back to their usual levels of productivity. Let’s gather hard statistics as fast as possible, by gender, and compare these with the same period last year when life was ‘normal’.

Secondly, my question is for every academic employer: how are you going to factor in this abnormal period when making future judgements about individuals? Panels need to consider not just equality – which means, as the first author implies will be the default case, treating everyone equally regardless of what this period has meant for them. They need also and at least as importantly to consider equity. Would it be unreasonable to have, for the next several years depending on how long the current circumstances prevail, a question on a CV asking what personally transpired during the pandemic? Not as a judgement on personal lives, but in order to permit due allowance to be made. It would be all the easier in a narrative CV to ask how an applicant handled juggling conflicting demands, as well as possibly dealing with shielding or their own prolonged ill health. Juggling is, after all, a fundamental skill every academic needs to have. Proof that a candidate has it should be a plus. Working when life is easy – such as when your partner is handling the childcare, home-schooling, cooking and cleaning or if you are footloose and fancy-free – should only score you so many brownie points when it comes to grants written at this time or papers submitted.

The ERC has long had a crude rule of thumb for mothers of an extra 18 months in every eligibility window per child born. Different mothers will feel this is or is not an adequate way of dealing with what are very personal circumstances, but at least there is an easily calculated allowance.  (For men, proof of time actually spent on paternity leave needs to be provided.) Should the community accept an equivalent approach to an allowance in the current crisis?

As a straw man let me propose that for every child-month you are responsible for (whether you are the father or mother, but you need to have had the responsibility; for dual-parenting couples, simply make it every two months of childcare) you can claim an allowance of either one paper, one grant or one book chapter, with some similar formula for other personal circumstances to offset the opportunities for those who have it ‘easy’ right now. (Minello proposed essentially stopping the tenure clock for the duration of the lockdown by classing it as caring leave, but I think this is an insufficient response to such challenging circumstances.)

The devil of any such scheme would not only be in the detail, but the policing of it. How many people would attempt to claim that responsibility when actually their own contribution to the household was one hour per day? Nevertheless, I’d like to start this important conversation going. How is the academic world going to ensure that all the advances that have been made on gender-equity aren’t pushed back for a generation of ECRs? What steps are they prepared to take to factor in these unprecedented days? And can they reassure the ECRs that the question ‘what did you do during the pandemic?’ is meant to permit due allowance to be factored in, not a way of tripping the candidate up or castigating them for caring about caring.

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