Research Productivity among Women in Global Academia during the Early Stages of
the Pandemic: A Qualitative Analysis.
On the 11th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the
COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic (WHO, 2020). This paper examines the experiences
of women academics during the first five months of the pandemic. During this time, many
countries implemented lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, forcing many professionals to
work from home (Hickman & Saad, 2020). While our research is ongoing, this paper
examines the participants’ experience in the first stage of the pandemic, when the
circumstances were new for them, their families, and higher education (HE) institutions. The
impact on HE was profound, yet commentary and national policies during that early time
focused primarily on the considerable financial challenges facing institutions and
implications for students (Aucejo et al., 2020; Thatcher et al., 2020). The impact of the
pandemic on academic staff and faculty received far less attention, especially within the first
few months of the pandemic.
Academics had to move to virtual instruction almost overnight and maintain scholarly
activity and service while also managing increased responsibilities of childcare,
homeschooling, eldercare, and other obligations at home (e.g., Guy & Arthur, 2020;
Augustus, 2021). While these circumstances affected all staff, the crisis exposed and
reinforced existing gender inequalities in HE (Aiston & Jun 2015; King & Frederickson,
2021). Evidence suggests that women academics, especially those with young children,
experienced a disproportionate decline in the amount of time they were able to devote to
research early in the pandemic compared to men and colleagues without children (Myers et
al., 2020; EIGE, 2020; OWSD, 2020; Shalaby et al., 2021). This decline is reflected in the
number of research outputs. Women submitted and published fewer preprints and
manuscripts since the outbreak of the pandemic, and the proportion of solo- or first-authored
papers by women fell (e.g., Andersen et al., 2020; Dolan & Lawless, 2020; Frederickson,
2020; Gabster et al., 2020; Pinho-Gomes et al., 2020; Ribarovska et al., 2021). Women
reported that they found meeting deadlines related to grant and fellowship proposals,
projects, and reports harder to meet (Staniscuaski et al., 2020). Within the framework of the
so-called prestige economy of higher education (Blackmore, 2012), where ‘prestige’ is linked
to ‘research productivity,’ publishing in high impact journals, and securing grants, rather than
teaching or service (Marginson, 2014), these disparities in the short and mid-term may lead to
long-term consequences. These repercussions affect women academics’ employability and
career trajectories, potentially reversing the positive gains of the last few decades, further
exacerbating the underrepresentation (Colby & Fowler, 2021; Snyder et al., 2019), lower
income (Gabster, 2020), and slower promotion of women in senior faculty positions (Stewart
et al., 2009). Thus, it is urgent to explore, understand, and mitigate the different factors
affecting academic women’s research productivity during the current crisis.
Prior research has attempted to explain the gendered impact of the pandemic by
relying on the mechanisms underlying the existing gender gaps in productivity (Pinho-Gomes
et al., 2020; King & Frederickson, 2021). We considered our findings in view of those
previous studies and adopting a feminist lens to provide qualitative empirical evidence about
the impact of the pandemic on women scholars, focusing on their lived experiences and
perceptions of the initial impact of the pandemic on HE, and considering their social roles in
and outside of academia. Our data provide a valuable explanation of why women across the
world were seemingly less productive (in terms of research output) during the early stages of
this crisis (i.e., through the middle of August 2020), highlighting the need for institutional
support and understanding during future performance assessments. We provide rich
descriptions of factors contributing to declining productivity early in the pandemic that
institutions may consider when developing policies to support women scholars to create an
environment where their research productivity can flourish both during and beyond the
Defining Research Productivity
Productivity, the ability to perform in relation to specific goals and objectives, is the
primary indicator of any production system (Abramo & D’Angelo, 2014). The definitions
and indicators of ‘research productivity’ in academia vary (Ross & Donnellan, 1994;
Camatini et al., 2015), as do approaches to evaluating the productivity, using parametric or
nonparametric analytical tools (Daraio, 2019). A key metric is the number of publications
reporting new knowledge and ideas (Ramsden, 1994; Dwyer et al., 2012; Litwin, 2012), also
used as a proxy for impact, another key metric of research performance (Camatini et al.,
2015). Under the ‘publish or perish’ survival (Gianola et al., 2020; McGrail et al., 2006)
paradigm, such research productivity is traditionally measured with a bibliometric stance.
This view takes into account the number of publications, specifically in reputable peer-
reviewed journals and distinguishable by their impact on the field, measured through the
journal impact factor and h-index (Pendlebury, 2009).
Through the lens of a prestige economy, research productivity measures the inward
and outward perceptions of academic worth and the perceived success of scholars through
publication (Aiston & Jung, 2015). The scholar’s publications are considered by leadership
when selecting candidates during the hiring process and are important considerations in
promotion, tenure, and professorial appointments (Grapin et al., 2013). Ramsden (1994)
noted that the number and quality of publications are also a critical measure of institutional
excellence, included in national and international rankings (see also Aiston & Jung, 2015).
Gender Disparities in Research Productivity
Although gender disparities in publishing of research outputs have decreased over
time, they continue to persist (De Kleijn et al., 2020). Several studies have investigated this
gap and found that these disparities are affected by pervasive institutionalised biases. For
example, women are less likely than men to be invited to co-author manuscripts (Teele &
Thelen, 2017), especially as part of international collaborations (Araújo & Fontainha, 2017;
Kwiek & Roszka, 2020), and in particular early in their careers (McDowell et al., 2006). If
women do collaborate on publications, they are more often middle authors, reflecting their
lower academic positions, which negatively affects their performance, reinforcing their lower
status and rank (Van den Besselaar & Sandström, 2017). Women are also less likely to be
cited (Potthoff & Zimmermann, 2017; Maddi et al., 2019), especially by men (Maliniak et al.,
2013), receive less grant funding (Oliveira et al., 2019) to carry out research and ‘buy out’
their time from teaching and service responsibilities, and face biases in peer review (Helmer
et al., 2017; Severin et al., 2020). Women are held to a higher standard and, thus, take up to
half a year longer than men to get published (Hengel, 2017). Symonds et al. (2006) suggested
that the current method of measuring research productivity (i.e., the h-index) is in itself
strongly biased against women researchers because it focuses on quantity, instead of quality,
of published outputs.
The larger proportion of women in teaching-intensive and part-time positions (Eagly,
2020) and the shorter career duration also explain the gender gap (Huang et al., 2020). This is
further correlated with family formation, as Cech and Blair-Loy (2019) have found in STEM
research in the US, where 43% of women, compared to 23% of men, leave full-time
employment after having their first child. In addition, leaving the academic workforce
entirely is highly correlated with childbearing (Kahn & Ginther, 2015).
Existing Research on the Impact of the Pandemic on Research Productivity
Sparked by early anecdotal accounts from journal editors who expressed that women
authors have been submitting fewer manuscripts, while men have substantially increased
their submissions since the beginning of the pandemic (Flaherty, 2020), several studies
providing evidence for this phenomenon have been published. Andersen et al. (2020)
compared the gender distribution of authorship in medical COVID-19 papers during 2020
with other articles published in the same journals in 2019 in the US (n=1,893). The women’s
share of authorship in COVID-19 papers (as first authors) decreased by 19% overall, with
particularly fewer submissions from women as first authors in March and April 2020. Similar
trends globally were reported by Pinho-Gomes et al. (2020), who compared the gender
distribution of authorship of COVID-19 research in PubMed as of May 2020 (n=1370).
Vincent-Lamarre et al. (2020) reviewed submissions to 22 cross-disciplinary repositories and
three platforms for registered reports indicating initiation of new research projects. The
authors were able to assign gender to 92% of authors (higher than previous reports). They
found a drop in submissions by women, particularly submissions by women first-authors,
which indicated junior scholarship status and highlighted the disproportionate impact on early
Amano-Patiño et al. (2020) found that, while submissions of working papers by
economists are increasing overall, women economists’ working papers published in the first
four months of 2020 are consistent with the last five years (approximately 20%). However,
the authorship of COVID-19-related articles was much lower, at only 12%. Their findings
also suggest that junior and mid-career economists have been affected more than senior
economists. Cui et al. (2020) examined the Social Science Research Network, the largest
open-access preprint repository for social science. Authors found that during the first 10
weeks of the lockdown in the US, for example, women’s submissions declined by almost
14% compared to that of men.
A few studies have adopted other methods to examine the research productivity of
scholars during this crisis. Kim and Patterson (2020) analysed 1.8 million tweets by
approximately 3000 political scientists. They found that the gap in publishing work-related
tweets between women and men academics had tripled since the beginning of the pandemic.
In contrast, family- and caregiving-related tweets increased amongst women academics
during the same period compared to men, and particularly in junior academic women. Other
studies reported on survey data: Staniscuaski et al. (2020) survey of Brazilian academics’
experiences (n=3,345) in early 2020 reported that academic parents, particularly white
mothers of young children and Black women in general, were submitting fewer manuscripts
than planned. Myers et al. (2020) used a cross-country survey of principal investigators in the
United States (n=4,535) and found that women (particularly those with young children)
experienced a substantial decline in the time they were able to devote to research; this gender
difference in the number of hours devoted to research has also been documented by others
(Shalaby, 2021; Bender et al., 2020; Brown et al., 2021; Duncanson & Weir, 2020;
Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, 2020).
The initial literature offered a limited perspective on productivity conditions, only
exploring women’s experiences as caretakers and perceptions in qualitative terms (Buckle,
2021; Guy & Arthur, 2020; Minello et al., 2020). Minello et al. (2020) interviewed 25
academic women with children in the US and 13 in Italy as part of a larger study on the social
effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Their findings suggest that in both national contexts,
academic caregivers prioritised teaching over research. The move to online teaching and lack
of time (or focused time) on research led to anxiety about the ability to publish and, in turn,
fear about future career progression (Minello et al., 2020; Bender et al., 2020; Brown et al.,
2021). Much of the above-cited literature is based on a bibliometric data analysis of preprint
publications and manuscript submissions. Most of these studies are limited by disciplinary or
national contexts, and some focus on a particular subject area or journal. There has been
considerable consensus thus far, cutting across all fields and geographic locations, that
women scholars’ research productivity has been affected disproportionately compared to
men. While these studies have not examined the reasons why women scholars are publishing
less, some authors hypothesised that additional responsibilities at home, including childcare
and homeschooling, are one of the primary reasons (Pinho-Gomes et al., 2020; King &
Frederickson, 2021). Childcare responsibilities intersect with more teaching, administrative,
and professional (i.e., non-research) duties, particularly for junior women in academia
(Amano-Patiño et al., 2020; King & Frederickson, 2021). Women academics are also more
likely to be in a dual-career relationship with another academic (King & Frederickson, 2021),
competing for research time at home. Against this backdrop, we set out to investigate the
experiences of women with and without children during the early stages of the pandemic to
understand why women in academia across the world are seemingly less productive (in terms
of research output) during the current crisis. We focused on their lived experiences and
perceptions of the impact of the pandemic on HE. While we intend to include the
perspectives of all those who experience bias and disadvantage in academia as members of
marginalised genders, all but two of our participants (who did not disclose their gender) self-
identified as women. Therefore, the findings reported in this paper centre on the experiences
This research study comes from data collected on the first phase of a larger project,
titled “Gendered Academic Productivity During a Worldwide Pandemic: The Impact of the
Coronavirus on Scholarship in Higher Education”. Our research group (COVID G.A.P.,
www.covidgap.co.uk) consists of 15 women scholars from across the world (as named in the
acknowledgements) who came together during the onset of the pandemic. Having met online
in a Facebook group, I Should Be Writing (ISBW), owned and managed by Cathy Mazak, we
formed a collaboration to explore the lived experiences and perceptions of our fellow
academic women and non-binary scholars recruited from within the group. This paper has
been written by a subgroup of researchers from within that larger collaboration.
We considered the broader context of the often conflicting professional and personal
demands through a feminist lens to make the invisible work of academia visible by exploring
the lived experiences of other women in HE (Davis & Hattery 2018; Social Sciences
Feminist Network Research Interest Group [SSFNRIG], 2017).
We employed a descriptive design utilising an online qualitative questionnaire via
Qualtrics (Qualtrics, Provo, Utah, USA) that included a series of demographic questions (27
items) and ten open-ended questions centred on a particular topic. Online questionnaires as a
research tool are not yet often used in qualitative studies, dominated by interviews. However,
Braun et al. (2020) argue that “qualitative surveys are compatible with research embedded in
broadly qualitative research values or paradigms” (p. 2), and this framework is represented in
this paper. As is typical for qualitative studies (we did not aim to conduct any quantitative
analyses of our findings), we did not form a hypothesis, instead seeking to explore the
personal experiences and impressions held by participants (Bryman & Bell, 2007, Saldaña,
2004, Saunders et al., 2009).
The open-ended questions related to scholarly identity, daily routines, impact on
primary relationships, and challenges of balancing the pressures of scholarly activity with
other competing family and work demands. Here, we describe the overarching research
question of this project that examined academic and research productivity in the context of
persistent gender disparities within academia. We focused our analysis of the responses to
two specific questions:
1. How has the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders affected your scholarly
2. How do you balance the pressures of scholarly activity with competing
demands during the pandemic, including, e.g., comparisons with other
scholars with or without caretaking demands or in comparison to male-
The online questionnaire was designed in English and shared seven times (with
permission) with the private ISBW Facebook group members. As of 20 June 2020, the group
had almost 14,000 members from across the globe, identifying as women and non-binary
persons. Members represent various disciplines and are at different career stages: from
doctoral researchers to professors at any stage, all actively engaged in academic scholarly
writing and looking for community and professional support in this area. Responses were
collected between 1 July and 15 August 2020, providing a snapshot view of the immediate
impact of the pandemic.
After removing duplicate, blank, and incomplete submissions, the final dataset
contained responses from 101 participants. As noted above, all but two participants self-
identified as women. Of the sample, 58.4% were aged between 30 and 39, 17.8% were aged
24-29, 18.8% were aged 40-49, and 5.0% were 50 or over. Table 1 below describes other key
demographic characteristics of the questionnaire sample.
Demographics of questionnaire sample
Region of residence
Children under 18 at home
Other dependants (including partner/elderly parents)
No children at home and no other dependants
Master’s student/graduate researcher
Doctoral researcher including where other academic posts are held
Postdoctoral researcher including where other academic posts are held
Assistant Professor/Lecturer/Instructor/Research Associate/Research Fellow
Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer/Senior Research Fellow
Note. Notably, 29 participants reported having multiple roles within their university or across
two or more institutions.
As the questionnaire made use of optional questions and logic branching, the number
of responses for individual questions differed. For the two questions specified above, we
received 87 and 76 responses, respectively.
Following the removal of incomplete questionnaire responses, the qualitative data
were coded line by line for use in NVivo. They were analysed following the thematic
network approach as described by Attride-Stirling (2001). The procedure divides the topics
present in the text into three groups of themes of different levels: 1) detailed basic themes, 2)
organising themes that are clusters of basic themes, and 3) general/global themes that are the
most super-ordinate themes. The themes are then presented as visual, web-like maps
illustrating complex relationships between them (Attride-Stirling, 2001).
All authors contributed to the process of thematic coding. The initial coding of about
a third of the dataset was completed separately by three members of the team, who
inductively developed and refined the codes or basic themes. A whole team meeting was
organised to discuss these basic themes, and the organising themes were agreed upon. A
codebook was then produced to guide re-coding (where necessary) of the initial subset of
data. The three coders carried out a case-by-case comparison, and any disagreements were
resolved at this stage. If necessary, responses were re-coded to ensure inter-rater reliability.
Following this process, the remaining data were coded. Finally, all authors reviewed the
coded data and created the thematic network structure, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Women Scholars’ Research Productivity During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Thematic Network
As illustrated in Figure 1, two super-ordinate, interconnected global themes explored
in this study were support and research productivity. The basic themes have been clustered
together into six organising themes: negative and positive effects, lack of and available
support, and the perceived advantage and disadvantage in relation to others. Pseudonyms are
included below if chosen by participants; otherwise, position and location are stated where
direct quotations are used.
The Role of Support
The pandemic and subsequent lockdown impacted participants’ lives to different
degrees. Participants’ narratives highlighted the role of support (or lack thereof) in their
scholarly productivity. Many participants stated that a loss of support during COVID-19
impacted their productivity negatively. When schools and daycares began to shut down,
academic parents and guardians had no alternative childcare support systems to turn to as
stay-at-home orders meant that no babysitters or family members could be engaged to
provide support with caring for children and homeschooling. As an assistant professor and
administrator from the US elaborated,
The largest support I’ve had as a scholar with children has been having full-time
childcare outside the home. During the lockdown we were no longer able to utilise
childcare resulting in my working from home with a toddler. My partner is
considered ‘essential’ so was still working outside the home, leaving me with full-
time childcare and work responsibilities.
This experience was not unusual, and many parents had no option but to put a pause on their
research productivity and shift “from an emphasis on [their] professional role during the day
to having [their] mom identity come into full force.” As Lucy, an associate professor from the
US, stated, “[without] daycare or nannies or in-home cleaning service or school itself,
parenting has just become unrelenting.”
Many participants felt that institutional support has been inadequate. Amealia, an
assistant professor from the US shared,
As we plan for fall 2020, my institution is requiring that faculty teach in person and
have sent out information about accommodation that states the only option for
caregivers is unpaid leave (...) Throughout all of this, the system has made very little
change, instead choosing to continue on as normal as possible and ask others (e.g.,
faculty, students) to make ‘normal’ work during a pandemic.
Indeed, the lack of childcare support coupled with the loss of access to institutional resources
has substantially impacted women scholars that is likely to have long term consequences.
Ban, a postdoctoral researcher, based in the US relayed,
We faced lockdown for nearly three months, during which I had deadlines for several
grant applications (...) Writing grants at home with a small child was
counterproductive. My supervisor/mentor allowed me to work for a few hours at the
lab to generate some data (...) However, I had to take my child with me to my work
(daycares being closed) which was also counterproductive. In short, this pandemic
coupled with a near single parent situation has made my future career a bleak and dire
Lack of support did not only affect those caring for children. When stay-at-home
orders were placed, many participants could no longer meet with colleagues, mentors, family,
and friends in person. Participants reported feeling “isolated”, “less connected”, “sad”,
“uncomfortable”, “anxious”, lacking “emotional and some tangible support”, and “miss[ing]
seeing colleagues every day”. According to many participants, the lack of emotional and
tangible support negatively impacted their scholarly productivity. Briana, a US-based
postdoctoral researcher shared,
Pre-pandemic, I felt like I had a strong team of mentors, a network of mostly far away
graduate school friends/colleagues for support, and strong support in my personal life.
All of these relationships still exist, but not getting to see any colleagues in person has
definitely made things feel disrupted and limited.
While the lack of support negatively affected participants’ scholarly productivity, the
opposite can be assumed true. Some participants reported some forms of institutional support
that were “reasonable and generally supportive to working parents”, while others offered a
one-year extension to tenure clocks. Although those who indicated receiving extra support
were visibly in the minority, the support these participants received “made all the difference”
and “kept [them] afloat when [they were] drowning”. Daisy, a UK-based lecturer, whose
department leadership supported her meeting the deadline for an edited volume “by
reallocating some of [her] marking load at a particularly tough time and freeing up some of
[her] meeting times/delegating exam board times”, stressed that “because of the support,
[she] was not as disadvantaged as [she] would have been otherwise.” Department chairs and
supervisors, who were “extremely understanding”, “supportive”, and tried to help by
reducing or reallocating “non-immediate admin demands” enabled participants to navigate
the terrains of emotional labour and stress that accompanied the pandemic. In a few cases,
supportive partners also played a role by easing some of the additional demands and made
participants “able to cope”.
With the shift to online work, technology provided an alternative for those
who lost in-person contact with colleagues, friends, and family. Online meetings with
colleagues were utilised as a source of additional emotional support during the pandemic.
Several participants also were a source of support for others, including providing increased
pastoral care to undergraduate and postgraduate students and help and encouragement for
peers and junior colleagues. Tired Brit, a Doctoral student from the UK, started a Zoom-
based biweekly doctoral coffee break. Within two months, she created “a solid 20 doctoral
students’ key support network”, “weekly research sounding boards with (...) like-minded PhD
students, email exchanges with [her] supervisor and until the end of term, monthly research
Effect of the Pandemic Crisis on Research Productivity – Other Factors
The participants discussed several other prominent factors related to the impact of the
pandemic and related stay-at-home orders. A few participants reported maintaining their
research productivity at usual levels, while others could write and publish more work than
before the pandemic. Those participants come from diverse disciplines and at varying stages
of their careers, but most (12 out of 14) have no child caretaking responsibilities. The two
parents of those who experienced increased productivity cited their student-centred jobs and
heavy teaching load pre-pandemic as reasons for finding more time for research during the
lockdown, despite their caretaking responsibilities. The increased productivity was attributed
to the shift to a virtual environment, which led to fewer meetings, less teaching, and no
For a more detailed analysis of our data relating to relationships with partners please see
Brown et al. (2020).
commuting. The flexibility of working from home and the more flexible working hours helped
some, as explained by Ana, a PhD student from the UK: “I found that when I’m well-rested
and don’t try to spend 9 hours in a row focusing, I can do a lot more in the time that [sic] I do
spend behind my desk.”
Further, with online interactions, some participants found it easier to make new
connections, sometimes leading to more effective collaboration – “[The pandemic] has
actually given me more time (...) to produce work. [I] have made more connections with
colleagues online, from work and beyond” (Ellen, a senior lecturer from the UK). However, a
vast majority of participants reported on multiple factors that negatively affected their
capacity to focus and produce research outputs. These were rarely named in isolation from
one another but instead presented as interconnected factors, collectively shaping participants'
experiences as women, partners, mothers, caretakers, teachers, and more rarely during the
pandemic, as researchers.
Several women described mental health and wellbeing concerns including depression,
as well as emotional struggles and difficulties focusing: “[I am] struggling to be able to think
clearly”, “it [is] incredibly difficult to stay focused while writing and working”, “it takes
longer and more energy to write.” These cognitive difficulties may be related to the
omnipresent “general feeling of uncertainty and worry.” Although some participants
mentioned their mental health concerns preceding the pandemic, their intensity was amplified
by the pandemic. Some participants reported that they felt “no motivation” to write or do
research “due to general anxiety and emotional exhaustion.” Kayla, an assistant professor
from the US, reflected on the increased cognitive and emotional toll, explaining: “Even if I
set aside time to do research, that curiosity and creativity is gone from my brain.”
Other key factors contributing to the negative effect included the conflict of
commitment arising from new or additional caretaking responsibilities. Like many other
professionals, academics had to manage both caretaking and work from home
responsibilities. The demands of full-time parenting, coupled with the swift shift to online
teaching, made the participants’ predicament even more onerous. Three Hats, who is a full
professor, department chair, and a mother, described her experience stating, “(…) all I could
do was keep up with teaching, Zoom/Webex meetings for [the] department, and keep my
child's schedule (...) I found I was much more drained at the end of each day.” This
experience was shared by many participants, who reported that during the lockdown, their
research “took a back burner”, “has taken a back seat”, took “a major hit”, or completely “has
ground to a halt”. Indeed, “between caregiving [and] supporting students, preparing teaching
materials, the exhaustion of Zoom meetings, writing has become a much less significant
priority”, and many participants reported having “zero time to spend on research”.
Specifically, the shift to online teaching affected most participants, even those with no
childcare or other caretaking responsibilities. Many reported that preparing for online classes
was “very stressful” and “time-consuming”, making it “almost impossible to write and
publish”. The almost overnight move to online teaching and working from home on a full-
time basis was closely associated with a loss of structure linked to reduced access to
institutional facilities for some participants,
I feel like there’s always ten other things that I need to be doing. I miss the campus
boundaries and the GOING TO WORK because it set clear lines. Of course, I worked
at home before, too, but not this much. (Diana, Assistant Professor, US)
While some participants were able to write and publish based on previously collected
data, several others noted the impact of logistical challenges related to restricted access to
labs, data, software, and other forms of institutional support. Several participants were also
worried about their ability to produce research output in the future, as they experienced
difficulties collecting new data in a locked-down world. For example, an assistant professor
of evolutionary biology shared, “Most of the research that I would have conducted over my
primary research season (the summer) was not possible due to the pandemic (...) This has
stalled my research program by an entire year (...).”
Some participants, particularly those in early stages of academic careers, worried
about perceptions of those viewing their work applications and making decisions based on
their research productivity “What’s tough about this is that I am a full-time adjunct looking
for a tenure track position at a time when these roles are hard to come by but also when I am
the least research productive.” (Nora, Instructor, US).
This stress about declining productivity was exacerbated by comparisons with peers
whom participants perceived to be more productive than themselves.
Relativity of Experiences and Shifting Focus
Furthering the findings discussed in Minello et al. (2020), many participants were acutely
aware of their relative disadvantage compared to others. We asked participants explicitly to
compare their experience to that of colleagues. Many directly compared their experiences to
their male colleagues, whom they perceived to be much more productive. Some participants
reported that male colleagues had commented on their own “higher levels of productivity” as
a result of “all the extra time” and “that it’s very productive as their wives tend to look after
the kids”. As participants compared themselves to their male colleagues, they wrote, “I find
this disparity anxiety-provoking” and “[i]t feels like I am falling further and further behind
and will never catch up”. Mara, an associate professor from the US, noted frustrations with
“male, especially senior colleagues who have used this as a sabbatical and have not focused
attention on supporting more junior scholars or those of us that [have] substantial caretaking
responsibility”, suggesting a confounding effect of one’s career stage.
Another strong theme was a comparative measure not between gender but between those with
and without caretaking responsibilities. Alice, who is a PhD candidate and was writing her
dissertation at the time, wrote, “My (childless) committee talked to me via [Z]oom about how
they had so much time and how I must be getting so much writing done” and Peyton who
was also writing her PhD dissertation stated, “those without caretaking demands may find it
difficult to understand the constantly changing roles of those of us who are taking care of
others throughout the pandemic.” Multitasking roles during the pandemic have returned to
“all of the unpaid labour that often falls to women is doing so again, but now it’s doing so
without any of the support structures that most of us have managed to set up over the years.”
We acknowledge that without a comparison of male experiences, it is difficult to fully
comprehend the comparison of productivity during COVID-19 as a gendered impact versus
the shifting roles of caretaking support.
Many participants made no direct comparison to any colleagues or chose not to compare
themselves. This may have been due to small department sizes, non-gendered collegial
camaraderie, or being removed from a physical environment of comparison (e.g., seeing
when a colleague arrives and leaves). Others understood the likely disadvantage further down
the line in their career but argued that we cannot go on as normal “trying to pump out
research as if nothing is going on in the world”. Instead, they describe ways in which the
ongoing crisis has helped them to stop and re-evaluate their priorities and shift their focus
away from the never-ending race to publish. Hermoine, a full professor from the US, for
Would I get more done without a child around? Sure. But would I be having as much
fun? No. (…) Back in April my daughter was trying out a new recipe from TikTok
and she said, "this is me, living my best pandemic life." I loved that. And it was a
major mind shift for me. I want to live my best pandemic life - doesn't matter what
other people are doing, I'm just going to live my own best pandemic life.
Kayleigh, a US-based postdoctoral researcher, elaborated that the pandemic helped her
embody the different dimensions of her identity, rather than defining herself as only a
I don't envy male-identified colleagues nor scholars who are not caretakers for a
parent. They may be able to have more time to be productive, but is that really the
most important thing in life? I don't think so. I am very passionate about my career
and my work. I identify and hold closely my identities as a scholar and an intellectual.
However, my work does not wholly define me. I am also a daughter, a dog-mom and
cat-mom, a great listener, a member of the queer community, a gardener, a Black
Lives Matter ally and activist, and so much more.
Further, Hermione, who is full professor, reported that the pandemic caused her to shift the
focus of her research and scholarly activity from publication and career advancement to a
more tangible impact on her community and students:
Yes, my scholarly activity was impacted. But honestly for the better! I'm setting up a
food pantry and will be able to ensure that students in crisis can get free food - how
awesome is that? Way better than writing an article that 10 people read.
Discussion and Conclusions
COVID-19 has brought many challenges for academics worldwide. While the
evidence on research productivity during this time is still being gathered, early reports
suggest the impact of the pandemic has been unequal, exposing and compounding existing
gender inequalities in HE and our research sought to understand the reasons behind it. This
paper describes new empirical insights into the experiences and perceptions of women
scholars during the early stages of the pandemic. Particularly, this paper supports the theory
that having children and family caretaking duties in accordance with traditional gender roles
is a decisive factor that influenced research productivity, inhibiting women from competing
fairly in the prestige economy of HE. Confined at home, with greater caretaking
responsibilities, and deprived of institutional support, a clear majority of our participants
struggled to conduct research and write for publications and funding applications.
Our findings illustrate the centrality of support amongst the conditions for continued
research productivity of women scholars. This relates to structures of support around
childcare and family life, as well as professional and emotional peer and mentor support,
typically available within institutions, and finally, the institutional support itself. The ‘second
shift’ burden affecting academic women has been discussed in the literature prior to the
pandemic (Berggren, 2008; SSFNRIG, 2017). Results from Alon et al. (2020) indicate that
before the pandemic, women in academia and beyond were performing a majority of
childcare - about 60% if married and part of a dual-earning household. Early findings on the
pandemic impact on gender equality more broadly (Adams-Prassl et al., 2020; Alon et al.,
2020) indicate that women have spent more time on childcare while working from home
during the pandemic. Our findings corroborate this, with several participants reporting sole or
a large share of responsibility for care and homeschooling. Past research suggests that women
view this extra work as individual responsibility and do not connect potential negatives of the
work-life balance to academic disparities (Fotaki, 2013). Conversely, our research suggests
that women are frustrated by the prospects of having their research productivity compared to
male colleagues and those without children or other caring responsibilities, who they perceive
as more productive during this time. These results are consistent with the findings in other
recent studies (Minello et al., 2020; Shalaby et al., 2021).
Although some women report supportive and understanding advisors and superiors,
many suffer from loss of emotional and tangible support from colleagues and mentors, whom
they do not see on campus anymore. Such support is vital, with those working in isolation
experiencing lower research productivity (Dever et al., 2006). The importance of this support
has been reiterated in our findings. Many women sought to utilise technology for regular
meetings with colleagues within their institutions and build online academic support
networks, including writing groups. These networks act as a platform to support writing skills
and “overcoming writing isolation” and “breaking down the isolation of academic work more
generally” (Dwyer, 2012, p. 136).
Our findings also suggest that the effect of the pandemic on research productivity has
been positive for some academic women, who benefit from fewer meetings, less commuting,
and more flexible working schedules. These participants were primarily students in the
dissertation writing stage of their doctoral program without caretaking responsibilities. In
addition, another positive outcome manifested for a larger spectrum of career stages, from
postdoctoral fellows to full professors. These participants used the pandemic as an
opportunity to reassess their priorities and embraced their entire identities, beyond that of a
scholar sprinting from one publication to the next as in the prestige economy of academia’s
expectations. They found a new motivation to focus and develop their many identities and
how their work impacted their students and society. However, a clear majority of our
participants reported that the 1) limited access to institutional facilities and resources, and the
subsequent 2) loss of structure, coupled with 3) additional time required to prepare for and to
facilitate online teaching, meant it was challenging to continue conducting research and
writing. Previous research suggests that one of the main factors influencing success in
academic publishing is prioritising the task of writing (Nygaard, 2017). This has not been
possible for many of our participants due to either home care duties or the increased teaching
and service workloads. The service work on campus is generally disproportionally allocated
to women (Guarino & Borden, 2017), and it appears that this pattern has been exacerbated
during the pandemic. Although our participants saw pastoral care and advising as particularly
important and necessary during this time, they also understood that such work is not as highly
valued as research and will not help them advance their careers. Finally, deteriorating mental
health, caused by the pandemic or amplified by it, stemmed from the increased cognitive and
emotional toll of the pandemic, left women scholars with fewer cognitive resources, less
ability to focus, and lack of motivation to attend to the highly intellectually demanding
activities involved in research and writing.
One limitation of our study was the English-language questionnaire. Although this
was appropriate as our recruitment was limited to members of the ISBW site, where all
communication is in English, accessing a broader sample of women scholars in different
national contexts would further inform the research. In addition, investigating men's
perceptions in academia would provide a comparative understanding of their apparent higher
research productivity. In light of these limitations, we will include men’s perspectives
(particularly those with caring responsibilities) in Phase Two of our international study (in
English). We will also adapt the survey for national and cultural contexts and collect data in
other languages through ‘sister-projects’ in Mexico, Poland, and Qatar (see
www.covidgap.co.uk for details).
Our data collection in the summer of 2020 providing only a snapshot view of the
immediate impact of the pandemic on women scholars’ research productivity. During this
time, most countries had lifted or begun to lift national lockdowns. Although the period of
lockdown in most countries was relatively short in academic terms, the pandemic is ongoing,
and the ‘crisis’ period is far from over (indeed, several countries have imposed lockdowns in
response to second and subsequent pandemic waves). Our current analysis provides early
evidence that can be used to develop a proactive approach to alleviate the disproportionate
pressures on women and revitalise their research productivity in anticipation of future
consequences. Our ongoing collaboration will examine those medium and long-term
ramifications of the early lockdown and the impact of evolving issues specifically for women
and non-binary scholars. In doing so, our work will continue to identify factors that
contribute to the declining research productivity that may guide institutions to develop and
implement policies to support women scholars.
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