Campus leaders have been scrambling to adjust policies, practices and procedures to meet the new reality of remote academic work during the COVID-19 crisis. While academic leaders should be commended for their efforts to respond quickly to support faculty and student needs, expediency may be coming at a cost for commitment to faculty diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The pandemic crisis will more negatively impact the career trajectories of STEM women, particularly women of color. Failure to anticipate and respond to such disparities could jeopardize years of progress toward faculty equity and undermine inclusive faculty success for many years to come.
As veteran academic leaders (with cumulatively 40-plus years of experience) working on the front lines to promote faculty equity and inclusion, we have each led organizational and national efforts promoting diversity, equity and inclusion for STEM faculty through the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program and continue to consult with this community. We and others in it have noted a troubling neglect of faculty DEI concerns in response to the pandemic crisis. Although provost-level administrators are actively discussing — and sharing — policies to address disruptions in faculty scholarship, few institutions are incorporating evidence-based practices that mitigate gender inequities in those ad hoc policy changes.
For instance, many campuses have faculty policies to opt in to tenure-clock extensions. Yet evidence suggests that opt-out approaches promote more equitable use of such policies and reduce the risks of gender bias in the evaluation of those who do use them. Although responding to this crisis is inherently urgent, neglecting faculty DEI issues at this crucial time will be costly to faculty retention and productivity — and, therefore, broader institutional success.
Some people may argue that our campuses can no longer afford to invest in faculty DEI, pointing to anticipated budget constraints and the need to prioritize programs. That perspective often comes from a misplaced belief that DEI programs and policies are institutional wants rather than needs. Such arguments are shortsighted and fail to consider both the benefits of inclusive faculty success — for innovation as well as student and faculty success — along with the costs of losing diverse faculty talent, if only in search and start-up expenses. Moreover, many equitable and inclusive policies and practices incur low or no institutional costs.
Understanding how the pandemic will differentially impact STEM women, particularly women of color, will be key for institutional leaders to identify and deliver equitable and inclusive solutions in the wake of this crisis. Four major challenges are readily identifiable:
Gendered resource disparities before the crisis will make it more difficult for women faculty to return to full scholarly productivity when the crisis ends. Such disparities include access to research resources, mentoring and professional networks. For example, compared to men, women scientists receive about $40,000 less in their initial grants from the National Institutes of Health. A priori inequalities in research funding could make or break women scientists’ return to active research productivity and career advancement. Fewer resources may also diminish women scientists’ ability to recruit and retain graduate students/postdocs in the coming year, with additional implications for future research productivity.
Beyond research resources, studies suggest that women, especially those of color, may face barriers to inclusion in informal professional networks, particularly on their own campuses. To the extent women are out of the loop when it comes to such informal networks, they may also be excluded from important communications, decision making and opportunities to collaborate that afford a more rapid return to active research productivity.
Remote work is hard for everyone, but it is likely to have a greater negative impact on women faculty members — particularly those of color. Women report more frequent experiences with contrapower incivility, bullying and harassment in the classroom. Because ambiguity and anxiety over course outcomes can exacerbate student aggression toward instructors, particularly in online learning environments, they may be at an even higher risk of experiencing contrapower harassment (such as Zoombombing and student aggression) now that all learning has moved online.
Incivilities and harassment are not limited to student/faculty interactions; as workload and economic ambiguities associated with protracted campus closures increase, women and other historically marginalized faculty also may experience greater incivility from faculty peers. Increased negative interpersonal experiences will take a greater toll on women’s well-being and, therefore, their productivity and work satisfaction.
Women faculty perform more hidden labor relative to their male peers, particularly when it comes to mentoring students. Students are more likely to ask women faculty for special favors like course extensions and expect them to provide more emotional support, and these differences in service will probably increase in the current crisis. Faculty women of color may be especially burdened with student requests during the pandemic because underrepresented students — who more often seek support from faculty members who share their racial/ethnic identities — may themselves confront disparate academic and economic outcomes as a result of campus closures.
Even if women faculty want to step back from responding to student expectations, doing so may come at a cost: students evaluate women faculty more negatively for failing to live up to gendered expectations. Hence, women of all backgrounds may be in a double bind when it comes to juggling their professional goals with student expectations for support during the pandemic.
Despite men’s increased participation in household labor in recent years, women continue to spend more time on household roles, including childcare, housework and eldercare. Women faculty who are also parents of school-age children face the challenge of heightened responsibility for negotiating their children’s learning outcomes during the pandemic. Because women in heterosexual relationships also assume more responsibility for relational and cognitive labor within close relationships, women faculty may face comparatively greater cognitive demands that undermine attention and productivity, even if their partners assume a greater share of household labor.
Academic leaders have the obligation to anticipate and mitigate such disparities in responding to the pandemic. Inclusive communication, continued monitoring for equitable distribution of resources and conscientious attention to differential impacts on the workplace climate are essential. As a first step, academic and scientific leaders should ask:
- Who is not at the table now as we work to build plans to recover from this crisis? Engaging campus leaders and experts in diversity, equity and inclusion will broaden participation in decision making and ensure needed attention to faculty DEI concerns.
- Are we capitalizing on the opportunity to embed evidence-based practices for faculty DEI into recovery policies, practices, procedures and programs? Rapid-response leadership teams may be missing opportunities to embed lessons learned from successful faculty DEI programs on their own and other campuses. Reaching out to internal and external resources — including experienced leaders in the ADVANCE community — will ensure decision makers are knowledgeable of evidence-based practices as well as any possible pitfalls before decisions are made. It is always easier to implement DEI practices when policies are created than to bootstrap post hoc corrections.
- Are we focusing on long-term faculty DEI needs when making difficult budget decisions? If we are truly committed to faculty inclusion and success, we must resist the temptation to deprioritize DEI and faculty development efforts during and after this crisis. Short- and long-term recovery plans should prioritize faculty development and DEI programs to ensure adequate funding, staffing and commitment.
In conclusion, the time ahead will be challenging as campus leaders seek to support faculty members during and after the current crisis. But reaffirming our commitment to faculty diversity, equity and inclusion is crucial for ensuring women scientists have a fair shot at returning to productivity and advancing in their careers.