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New study probes COVID-19 impact on women academics
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 30/09/2020

The findings of a research study on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on women academics was at the heart of an online gender enrichment workshop run by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences on 28 September 2020.

The workshop was organised by Prof Pregala (Solosh) Pillay, Vice-Dean: Social Impact and Transformation, and the guest speaker was Prof Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor in the Faculty of Education.

The new study, entitled Gender Inequality in the Shadow of COVID-19, is the work of Prof Jansen and his team. This is the first time that the study – which sampled the responses from 2 029 academic women at South African universities – was made public.

The major findings of the study, presented by Jansen, highlighted the following:

  • Academic work increased for women working under lockdown conditions (additional teaching and support) and intensified (doing more of the same thing). Every woman in the study reported that their academic administration workload increased dramatically. This brought about all sorts of intellectual and health challenges.
  • Working from home had a negative effect on women's academic work because of the demands of this new working environment (chores, taking care of children). The space is also often congested and competitive with everyone scrambling for access to broadband. This has a huge impact on these women's productivity.
  • The disruption of women's academic work has made jobs and careers more precarious than before (this includes probation and promotions). This has caused much anxiety and stress.
  • Most women in heterosexual relationships reported on defaulting to traditional family roles even when a husband was present or helpful. This increased the pressure on their academic work and led to them overworking in order to catch up.
  • All of the women felt that the academic productivity of male academics continues to flourish despite the pandemic. This finding, although consistent with COVID-related research in other parts of the world, has massive implications for gender equality.
  • The single most important factor impacting on women's academic work is the presence of young children in the home. This was especially debilitating during hard lockdown when schools were closed and domestic help were unavailable. The guilt associated with balancing both roles is a constant. This also leads to a profound sense of helplessness which can trigger all sorts of emotional problems.
  • Women academics take on nurturing roles to support anxious students and students in need, often working late into the night responding to emails. This has a devastating impact on women's academic work, particularly with regards to research.
  • Despite the pandemic, the demand for academic performance from university management continues as if nothing has happened.

Jansen said the study is unique in that it provides a research basis for anecdotal claims, “which not only backs up these claims but also gives them more complexity and nuance".

He said he is in the process of drafting a policy brief to colleagues at universities to recommend what one can do to mitigate the academic and health risks impacting academic women. This includes offering grant funding to women to help them cope and readjusting the academic calendar with regards to probation and promotion.

He said their aim is to have the study completed by the end of 2020 and to have it distributed to 26 universities.

In her address, Pillay said women in academia are an under-represented group that are exposed to discrimination in teaching, research, salary and promotion.

“The pandemic has also resulted in added responsibilities for women on top of having to balance their professional obligations and career prospects."

She added that there is a need to tackle institutional and individual racism and sexism in direct and visible ways that build institutional cultures that are anti-racist and anti-sexist. 

“Universities must interrogate how institutional cultures and traditional practices may be creating environments that intentionally or unintentionally work to exclude," she explained. “Proactive measures must be in place to address this. University leadership and management must lead in this regard and, where necessary, receive the relevant training to do this."