Skip To Content
Cambridge University Science Magazine
If I had a penny for every time I heard that 2020 was an ‘unprecedented’ year, I probably still couldn't afford to live by myself on my postgraduate student salary. There is no denying that most of us have never experienced a crisis that was so disruptive on such a global scale. However, the 2020 pandemic heightened many other crises that were anything but unprecedented - they have been there for decades.

The wealth gap in our population grew bigger and wider as COVID-19 disproportionately impacted the working class while also raising the levels of unemployment. Many communities have been affected more so than others, both regarding their health as well as their economic stability. Gender, racial, ethnic, health, socioeconomic and geographic inequalities are all intertwined, and we certainly need an intersectional approach when analyzing them and the effect that crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have.

One of the groups that has been the most impacted across the board has been women and girls. Women make up over 70% of the global health workforce, get paid less, despite working longer, more exhausting hours. Domestic violence against women intensified in 2020. Women, on average, do three times more housework than men. The pandemic added care-giving  and  home education to that load, due to  school closures and strained hospital capacity. The bottom line is that globally, on average, women constitute the bulk of the domestic care unpaid workforce, they work longer hours and earn less than their male counterparts,  amounting to significant  economic instability.

The world of academia is not impervious to the effect of these social inequalities: they appear ubiquitously in the form of attitudes, policies and behaviors that we accept as the norm. Below, I sketch the effect that a year of pandemic has had on women academics, and how many of the challenges they face were exacerbated in this time of crisis. In a short article it is impossible to address all sources of inequality, but simply continuing the conversation brings us closer to the goal of building a more equitable workplace in academia.

The Productivity Gap 

It did not take long  for some early analysis to show how female academics’ research were impacted by the pandemic in 2020. In an article published in Nature in April 2020, Alessandra Minello warned that the pandemic will teach us a painful lesson  about the impact of care work on the female academic. Indeed, in the UK alone, 2020 saw three different lockdowns, causing  schools to be  closed sporadically for months on end. Academic institutions did not count the lockdown and homeschooling period as care leave, and the usual government policy of up to 4 weeks of leave a year was not updated to reflect the changes needs of an entire workforce giving more care to dependents. Care work, as Minello remarks, is a task that primarily falls to women, heightening the impact of this policy failure on female academics.

A month later, another article was published revealing that Minello warnings were unfortunately accurate. The results of several independent studies regarding research output by gender revealed that women are indeed publishing less during the pandemic: In the arXiv and the bioRxiv, two of the biggest online repositories for academic pre-prints, the rate at which women posted new work significantly slowed in comparison to their male counterparts. There is also evidence that women are currently starting fewer research projects, and that early-career researchers continue to be disproportionately affected.

These causes  for the decrease in productivity are shared by  other women in many different areas of the workforce: increased childcare and  care duties for sick and old relatives, as well as more domestic work, is a struggle that disproportionately impacts women. For the case of female academics, we must also factor in the added academic responsibilities that often fall into the hands of female faculty. Women faculty members tend to teach more, and they do more service work, such as advocacy, advising and serving in committees. Teaching long hours, either online or in person with fear of contagion, as well as homeschooling children and switching between domestic and academic work is a tough balancing act.

The mental load

"But, I help at home!... Right?"

This is the most common phrase I hear my male friends say when I talk to them about the constant tiredness that women feel when they are a member of a household.

The situation is not always so clear -- when I think of women taking a larger share of domestic work, the picture in my head is not a 1950s-esque illustration of a woman holding a baby with one hand, a vacuum cleaner in the other while trying to get dinner on the table, as her husband sips on a beer, watching ‘the game’. The picture in my head is actually best illustrated by French cartoonist who simply goes by  Emma. She explains in pictures what I have many times struggled to put into words: that women are often seen as the manager of household chores. The picture, then, looks more like this: You would ask your partner to please put a load of clothes to wash, which he will do. A few hours later, the clothes will be sitting in the washing machine, soaking wet. The laundry detergent is empty, but nobody added it to the grocery list. The cat has not been fed, dinner has not been cooked, because, well, you didn't ask. If you had done the laundry, however, on the way to the washing machine you'd spot the dirty dishes, so you'll wash them... which reminds you that the carrots are going bad in the fridge, so you start roasting them for dinner... which reminds you that the trash needs to be taken out... and it goes on.

Women usually keep all of this information in their heads, constantly, and it is exhausting. When people ask women in their household something along the lines of ”ask me if you need help", they are burdening women with the mental load of managing domestic work.

I grew up halfway across the world from Cambridge, in Argentina. Once a week, my mum lectured the night classes in the University where she is a professor. I remember clearly all the handwritten notes around the house, with instructions for  my dad describing where the food was that she had prepped for dinner, what homework I had to do, and if clothes needed to be washed for the next school day. If she forgot to write it down, he would not know what to feed me that day, or I would not have clean clothes in the morning.

These attitudes permeate into the workplace: women are often the organizers and coordinators of their office. Academia, which we often refer to as a bubble, does not exist in isolation: these are also the experiences of many female researchers.

The increased mental and emotional load, added to all of the issues touched on in this article, are costing women researchers, particularly women of colour, opportunities for advancement within academia. The often called "leaky pipeline", whereby the number of women occupying research positions dwindles the higher up the academic ladder you go, has been burst open by COVID-19, with consequences that will still be felt in years to come.

Julia Maristany is a postgraduate student in biophysics at the University of Cambridge