No Room of One's Own

Early journal submission data suggest COVID-19 is tanking women's research productivity.

April 21, 2020
 
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It was easy to foresee: within academe, female professors would bear the professional brunt of social distancing during COVID-19, in the form of decreased research productivity.

Now the evidence is starting to emerge. Editors of two journals say that they’re observing unusual, gendered patterns in submissions. In each case, women are losing out.

Editors of a third journal have said that overall submissions by women are up right now, but that solo-authored articles by women are down substantially.

In the most obvious example of the effects of social distancing carving into women's research time, Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, wrote on Twitter that she’d received “negligible” submissions from women within the last month. “Never seen anything like it,” she added.

David Samuels, co-editor of Comparative Political Studies, in response shared that submissions to his journal are up 25 percent so far in April, compared to last year. That increase was driven entirely by men, however, he said. Women’s submissions stayed flat.

The American Journal of Political Science on Monday published a longer-term analysis of submissions and publications by men and women over the last three years, as part of a larger effort to understand publication patterns for authors from underrepresented groups. Co-editors Kathleen Dolan and Jennifer L. Lawless also examined the last few weeks, in particular, and found that submissions have picked up. To their surprise, 33 percent of submitting authors since March 15 were women, compared to 25 percent of authors over the three years studied. Looking at these recent submissions another way, 41 percent of the 108 papers had at least one female author -- slightly more than usual.

This doesn’t mean that COVID-19 "hasn’t taken a toll on female authors, though," Dolan and Lawless wrote, as women submitted just eight of the 46 solo-authored papers during this time. That’s 17 percent, compared to 22 percent of solo-authored papers in the larger data set.

"As a percentage change, that’s substantial," the editors said. "Even if women’s overall submission rates are up, they seem to have less time to submit their own work than men do amid the crisis.”

The revelations generated much chatter, including from gender studies scholars and women in all fields who are desperately trying to balance teaching and otherwise working from home with increased caregiving responsibilities. Those responsibilities include all-day minding of children due to school and daycare closures, homeschooling, and the cooking and cleaning associated with having one’s family at home all day, every day. Women are also spending time checking in with friends, relatives and neighbors.

SOS, Different Circumstances

It’s not that men don’t help with all this, or that they’re not also individually overwhelmed by work and family life. But women already juggled more domestic and affective, or emotional, labor with their actual work prior to the pandemic.

Female academics, as a group, also struggled more with work-work balance, as well: numerous studies show they take on more service work than men and are less protective of their research time, to their detriment.

The coronavirus has simply exacerbated these inequities by stripping away what supports women had in place to walk this tightrope, including childcare.

“My productivity is definitely taking a huge hit having both my 2- and 5-year-old at home full-time,” said Vanessa LoBue, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University at Newark and author of 9 Months In, 9 Months Out: A Scientist’s Tale of Pregnancy and Parenthood. “My husband is working full-time at home, as am I, and what I’m finding is for men, there is more of an expectation that he can be working all the time than there is for me.”

That leaves LoBue with the kids more of the time -- and less time for her own work.

“COVID-19 restrictions are just exacerbating gender inequalities that already exist,” she said.

No Protected Time

Anecdotes such as LoBue’s aren’t hard to find. Case in point: a recent Nature op-ed by Alessandra Minello, a social demographer at the University of Florence in Italy with a 2-year-old son and colleagues around the globe who expect her to be able to videoconference at all hours.

“Silence and concentration are pivotal for my thinking and teaching,” she wrote. “This means I have less time for writing scientific articles.”

While she and her colleagues know they’re lucky to be employed and healthy at this time, it still feels “as if I am my own subject” in some work-life balance study.

Minello also expressed concern about when the crisis is over, both parents and nonparents “will participate together in open competition for promotion and positions, parents and nonparents alike.”

Just like academic fathers, nonparents don’t have it easy right now -- no one does. But, again, there are well-documented challenges that academic mothers, in particular, face. Those challenges, together, have been dubbed the motherhood penalty. And they’re laid bare right now.

Hannon of the British journal, who is also associate director of the Forum for European Philosophy, said Monday that her sample size is still too small for anything “particularly meaningful” to be gleaned. This could be a “blip,” for example, and submissions numbers could soon normalize as women find ways to cope.

This could also be “an age thing,” Hannon added, in that in fields that have been slow to admit women, such as philosophy, women are more likely than men to have young children. That would skew the gender balance, even where childcare duties are evenly spread within families, she said.

Following the Numbers

In any case, Hannon’s following the numbers. She and her co-editors have also partnered with other journals and agreed to share patterns, across publications, as they reveal themselves.

Her own hypothesis about the early stats includes increased caring duties, including of friends and parents, and increased domestic labor: shopping, cooking, cleaning.

Samuels also said it’s too early to discern anything definitive. March and April brought an increase in submissions from non-U.S. scholars, as well, he said, which have been desk-rejected at a higher rate than U.S. submissions. So there are other things happening, beyond gender. In any case, Samuels guessed that the gender dynamic won’t matter much in the end, in terms of productivity as measured as successful publications -- at least in his journal. That's because it has too few willing reviewers right now.

“The reason we're seeing less from U.S.-based scholars is pretty clear,” he said via email. “Anyone with kids or family needing care is just not getting any research/writing done, and it's just a stressful time for everybody.”

In response to discussions about gender imbalances in submissions, some have suggested that journals shut down during COVID-19. That’s perhaps palatable to editors who, like Samuels, are having trouble finding reviewers, and to reviewers who don’t have time to read articles.

Hannon, however, said it’s not clear that a moratorium on submission would help, and said it might even make things worse. Women who are still writing but taking longer to do so would find it impossible to finally submit, while their less burdened male colleagues would have made it in under the wire. “Unburdened” academics could also continue to write and “stockpile” papers to submit later, she added.

“It just kicks the can down the road.”

Taking Care of the ‘Family’

Victor Borden, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, co-wrote a 2017 study finding that women “take care of the academic family” more than men by picking up more service duties. The paper warned that this is problematic for women because service isn’t rewarded in the ways that research is, even when the service is essential.

Of journal submissions and gender during the pandemic, Borden said that men and women both seem to expect women to do more “housekeeping,” based on existing research. From that point of view, “men would be more likely to see this as an opportunity to focus their time and attention on finishing articles, research projects, revising manuscripts, etc., while women faculty would have a tendency to focus on activities related to making sure that family, colleagues, students, etc., are doing OK.”

There is a lot of variation even within groups, Borden cautioned, meaning that one man and one woman plucked at random wouldn’t necessarily behave this way. But, in general, if men aren’t “stepping up” to tend to group and family cohesion, “women step in.”

Joya Misra, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has also studied the gendered dynamics of academic labor. She said her institution has been flexible with and supportive of faculty members this spring, assuring them that their performance during the disruption will not negatively affect their careers.

Even so, she said, “some faculty don't believe that this won't be held against them, due to the culture of their department or college.” Some female colleagues in the sciences and engineering with young children have even doubled down on research, “putting in proposals for studying this particular moment" or writing regular grant proposals because they can't be in their labs.

Then there are other professors, both with and without caregiving responsibilities, “who feel paralyzed.” Misra said she'd observed that colleagues who are performing more emotional labor with their students tend to be part this latter group. And in general, women experience “higher levels of expectations from others for emotional labor, and even from themselves.”

Setting Boundaries and Making Accommodations

As for advice, Misra said that it’s “completely normal” to want to be as responsive as possible to everyone around you during a crisis.

Yet “taking care of your mental health and family is critical,” she said. And so academics “need to set reasonable schedules,” that entail checking email, say, twice a day, working until 5 p.m. and then shutting off their computers.

Misra said her own chronic health issues forced her to create these kinds of boundaries long before to the pandemic. They’ve been helpful. “But I also know that this is hard for everyone. There is no-one-size-fits-all.”

Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, said that “anyone familiar with the productivity literature in higher ed wouldn’t be surprised” by the new journal submission figures. Still, the “magnitude of effect suggested by these early reports is what is really, freshly disheartening.”

Mathews said he hoped journal editors will get these data into scholars’ hands as soon as possible -- and noted the twin ironies in saying so. Some men might be able to write up these studies faster than women, he said, and the peer-review process for any such papers could take too long to influence relevant tenure and promotion decisions.

Beyond data, Mathews suggested disciplinary societies might play a role in advocating for a leveling of the playing field for women during COVID-19. Referring to backlash against so-called manels, or all-male panels of experts at disciplinary conferences, Mathews also wondered if journals that don't take demographic balance into account right now might expect to face similar criticism.

"Without national or global leadership reaching across institutions," he said, "you just have this loosely coupled system of committees, each acting in its parochial self-interest and not in society’s, reviewing faculty primarily for what’s quantifiable and not for what’s equitable, ethical or humane."

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