To paraphrase Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan: COVID took a crowbar to existing disparities and pried them wide open (Grose, 2021). Academics as a group tend to be relatively privileged in terms of education and socioeconomic status. Yet, concerns regarding gender disparities predominate within academia, particularly as they relate to the crown jewel of academic achievement: research productivity. In this article, we aim to address concerns about academic productivity specifically in the discipline of communication sciences and disorders—and to provide an intersectional perspective that considers how gender and race together shape the academic experience.
What Are the Contributing Factors?
One of the most prominent narratives related to academic gender disparities is that the COVID-19 pandemic intensified caregiving needs, with its onslaught of illness, closed businesses (including child and elder care), transition to virtual schooling, and exacerbation of mental health challenges. These caregiving responsibilities are disproportionately put upon and taken up by women, many of whom also face other forms of historical marginalization exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, the higher COVID-19 infection and death rates for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people represent an additional burden on women from within and dedicated to these communities. Further, the pandemic introduced unique caregiving challenges for women whose families live overseas (e.g., worries about how the pandemic will impact aging parents; worries about when, if ever, we will see loved ones in person). With academic pressures to be “productive,” little time exists to process such worry and sadness for ourselves and for our students.
The pandemic also brought about an increase in service responsibilities, which tend to be disproportionately assigned to women. The pandemic wreaked havoc on nearly every logistical aspect of university life. New faculty committees have been asked to weigh in on everything from how mask-wearing should be enforced to which course formats should be applied to clinical instruction. In addition, the summer of 2020 brought a resurgence of racialized tensions surrounding the high-profile murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Not only did such events take an emotional toll, but Black faculty faced increased service expectations as newly formed anti-racism initiatives and equity committees took shape.
It is worth noting that many men also have increased caregiving and service responsibilities related to the pandemic. However, different expectations and consequences are at play for those of us who are gender-typed as women.
Women often receive less value for their academic contributions and are penalized more harshly than men for not conforming to these expectations. Due to internalized stereotypes, both men and women tend to be less critical of White male faculty whose efforts are generally viewed as more laudable and whose foibles are more easily forgiven relative to female faculty. Evidence indicates that women are judged more harshly than men in academic hiring and evaluation processes (e.g., Chávez & Mitchell, 2020; Rogus-Pulia et al., 2018). In addition, many women from marginalized communities face intersecting forms of discrimination and are required to invest additional time and effort to be respected and viewed as collegial.
Workplaces are not equally welcoming to all faculty. Women—particularly women of color—regularly experience microaggressions at work. In our collective career experiences, one of us was repeatedly called “sweetheart” by a department head, was asked by a male instructor to work in a room plastered with pin-up posters of scantily clad women, was referred to as (unexpectedly) “articulate,” was exposed to racially charged lunchtime conversations about hairstyles, and was devalued by a colleague who implied that a recently received award was due to race rather than ability. On one hand, working from home during the pandemic can provide a welcome reprieve from such offenses. On the other hand, this new virtual landscape blurs the lines between work, school, and home—and allows the stress of these transgressions to seep into our personal spaces. As an example, makeshift home offices mean that women now receive such hurtful comments in their own basements or bedrooms, and often within earshot of our children or partners.
How Do We Move Forward in Reducing Gender Disparities?
Tenure Extensions and Pandemic Statements
A number of universities have responded to pandemic-related gender disparities by extending the tenure clock by 1 year and inviting faculty to document the impact of the pandemic on their work. Many faculty appreciate this flexibility and choice. Yet, an extension of the tenure clock may disproportionately delay the career trajectory of those impacted most by the caregiving and service responsibilities associated with the pandemic (i.e., women). In addition, asking faculty to document the effect of the pandemic on their careers places additional demands on the individuals impacted most and leaves their faculty narratives vulnerable to the systemic biases that we already know to be operating in the review process. For example, a woman’s mention of increased caregiving demands is likely to be perceived less positively than a man’s. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
Realign Tenure and Promotion Indices
Although we could focus on a variety of systemic solutions, such as the need for subsidized child and elder care, in this article we focus on a solution entirely within university control: how we define and evaluate productivity. Look at what an institution evaluates, and you will see what an institution values. Traditional markers of academic success are gendered, exclusive, and built upon cultural values of individualism, prestige, and financial gain. Fulweiler et al. (2021) note that the toll COVID-19 is taking on women’s scientific productivity and mental health is no surprise: “It is simply a manifestation of a system that was not built by or for women in general, and mothers in particular” (pp. 1–2).
If we truly value mentoring and service, we need to build institutional and departmental systems that support and reward faculty for these contributions. Below, we offer a list of potential examples, which is by no means exhaustive:
- The evaluation of scholarship could be expanded beyond scientometric measures such as impact factors to include evidence of everyday clinical impact (e.g., email queries from clinicians, number of podcast viewings or clinical material downloads, and contribution to policy change).
- Universities might require faculty to (a) report on the number of hours they spent toward service; (b) report on the number of students they mentored (by race, gender, and disability status); and (c) provide descriptive information on mentored student outcomes (including those who drop out or who change advisors).
- Teacher evaluations might include explicit questions aimed at how well the instructor addresses racism, sexism, and ableism.
- Academic units could examine course grades for potential disparities related to student race, gender, and disability status.
- Academic institutions might consider providing adjusted course evaluations that attempt to account for evidence of bias toward women and faculty of color. Adjusted scores would be subject to statistical methods to equalize differences in faculty evaluations that are due to gender and race.
In Sum: We Need to Bring Systemic Change to Our Higher Education Institutions
In sum, the current survival of our academic discipline relies heavily on the undervalued caregiving, mentoring, and service responsibilities that are disproportionately carried out by women. In many ways, academic institutions are doing precisely what they were designed to do: prioritize individualistic and monetary indices of productivity (e.g., number of first-author publications, grant dollars) over other forms of communal contribution (e.g., mentoring students). Accordingly, universities will continue to perpetuate gender and racial disparities until they find the ethical fortitude to change the systems that created such disparities in the first place.
Fulweiler, R. W., Davies, S. W., Biddle, J. F., Burgin, A. J., Cooperdock, E. H. G., Hanley, T. C., Kenkel, C. D., Marcarelli, A. M., Matassa, C. M., Mayo, T. L., Santiago-Vazquez, L. Z., Traylor-Knowles, N., & Ziegler, M. (2021). Rebuild the academy: Supporting academic mothers during COVID-19 and beyond. PLOS Biology, 19(3), e3001100. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100
Chávez, K., & Mitchell, K.M.W. (2020). Exploring bias in student evaluations: Gender, race, and ethnicity. PS: .Political Science & Politics,53(2), pp. 270-274
Grose, J. (2021, February 4). America’s mothers are in crisis: Is anyone listening to them? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/parenting/working-moms-mental-health-coronavirus.html
Rogus-Pulia, N., Humbert, I., Kolehmainen, C., & Carnes, M. (2018). How gender stereotypes may limit female faculty advancement in communication sciences and disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 27, 1598–1611. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0140