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Pandemic, Parenting and Academic Productivity—Oh My!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lauren Azevedo and Pamela Medina
March 15, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged United States communities, it has placed numerous additional burdens on parents and children. In an article titled, “Well-being of parents and children during the COVID-19 pandemic: A national survey,” published in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, Stephen Patrick and colleagues suggest worsened mental health for parents and children through the pandemic, in addition to other economic burdens such as higher rates of food insecurity, loss in employer sponsored insurance coverage and a loss of regular childcare. In addition to the concerns over the pandemic, the economy, social justice and the political climate—areas of particular concern for public affairs faculty who teach courses and conduct research in these areas—academic parents are also managing their children’s virtual learning and emotional health and well-being.

For parents in the academy, the pandemic has created disparate burdens with juggling research, teaching and service work with childcare—all from home. Campus closures and pivots to online teaching placed new loads on all academics, along with new difficulties on the ability to conduct research. These challenges have not lessened the pressure to publish, and parents on the tenure track have found themselves dealing with “publish or perish” while also managing domestic responsibilities with their children in a home environment. These faculty are often not equipped with the physical spaces needed for their own research and teaching, much less managing virtual classrooms for children.

As emerging research demonstrates, these challenges are not evenly distributed across groups. Female parents have taken the brunt of COVID-19 impacts on productivity more so than their male counterparts. In, “Something’s Got to Give,” published in InsideHigherEd, Collen Flaherty notes that journal submission rates among females with caregiving responsibilities have fallen over the pandemic period and suggests the trend is likely to continue. Flaherty attributes this to the disproportionate number of female caregivers, as well as increased mentorship and service roles among female faculty and the emotional labor that coincides with these demands.

Our preliminary surveys of public affairs faculty administered in August 2020 suggest that female faculty are more likely than males to report much lower research productivity since the start of the pandemic. Having children enrolled in virtual school compounds challenges with research productivity. For instance, faculty without children enrolled in virtual school were actually more likely to report increases in research productivity during the pandemic. Preliminary analysis also shows relationships between other household factors and productivity, work-life balance and job satisfaction, including the number of dependents at home, the number of people in the household and changes in domestic responsibilities resulting from COVID-19.

In addition to gender differences, faculty parents from underrepresented groups may also see impacts to their productivity during COVID-19. In an article by Chris Woolston titled, “The Pandemic is Sabotaging the Careers of Researchers from Under-Represented Groups, But Institutions Can Help to Staunch the Outflow,” Woolston suggests that the pandemic impacts are not evenly distributed across groups, particularly for those who may be financially disadvantaged. He also raises concerns from colleagues across the globe that the pandemic can lead institutions to inequitably address pandemic-related challenges, thus making diversity in hiring and promotion a low priority.

Some universities have recognized the interruption in faculty progress toward their scholarly achievement, and created the option to pause the tenure timeline, prolonging time to achieving tenure due to the pandemic. Most systems that have offered this option widely adopted a one-year extension of the probationary period. These policies have not addressed disproportionate effects on parents, and more specifically, on women and underrepresented groups. Women who often have more caregiving responsibilities are more likely to have to take such tenure pauses, delaying their career progression and lifetime earnings. In addition, the academic tenure track is already in a position of vulnerability. Thus, delaying this timeline increases their vulnerable time with the university.

Academic institutions must consider employee and family needs to mitigate ongoing health and economic impacts for faculty parents on the tenure track. This will require innovative thinking within departments, schools and universities, but areas that must be addressed include:

  1. The gendered burden of caregiving for female faculty.
  2. Disproportionate threats to productivity for researchers from underrepresented groups.
  3. Inequalities in research access, particularly during work from home.
  4. Addressing mental health tolls for faculty and children of faculty.
  5. Reconsidering tenure “delays” and opting for renewed attention to evaluating tenure expectations.

Many universities have responded to the call for a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We now must demand these universities adhere to their policies by recognizing that faculty productivity may depend on unique personal, social, structural and cultural circumstances. Acknowledging that tenure policies can perpetuate inequity is a first step. We call for more research that explores implications for equity in academic promotion for academic parents who have been on the tenure timeline during COVID-19.


Lauren Azevedo is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. She can be reached at [email protected].

Pamela Medina is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at California State University San Bernardino. She can be reached at [email protected]

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