Mothers in Academia Unite to Face COVID Challenges

A team of mothers in academia are proposing solutions to challenges they face as researchers, amplified by the pandemic.

Career challenges faced disproportionally by women and mothers in academia are not new, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Career challenges faced disproportionally by women and mothers in academia are not new, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. (Adobe Stock)

Research and news headlines have made it clear that the pandemic is hitting mothers disproportionately, forcing many to leave the workforce entirely. A team of mothers in academia have collaborated to come up with solutions to address on-going and new challenges they face as researchers, amplified by the pandemic, to try to help others rebuild their careers.

In the paper published today in PLOS Biology the researchers write, “In the spirit of the well-worn adage ‘never let a good crisis go to waste,’ we propose using these unprecedented times as a springboard for necessary, substantive and lasting change.” The team have taken the data and set forth clear and actionable solutions to slow and hopefully stop the “leaky pipeline” of women and mothers in academics and research.

The effort is led by researchers from Boston University and 13 co-authors who hail from seven institutions, including UConn Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences Catherine Matassa. The team’s goal: Solutions for retaining mothers in science during and after COVID-19, especially mothers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

“The multitude of papers coming out about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on academic mothers were troubling, but not surprising,” says Matassa. “We were and continue to be experiencing its impacts first-hand.”

Career challenges faced disproportionally by women and mothers are not new. Since the authors represent all stages of academic careers, the paper outlines a spectrum of specific and actionable solutions that can be taken at multiple levels, all aimed at addressing discrepancies and to enact changes needed to retain women and mothers in research. From mentors being familiar with policies related to parenting and work/life balance, to administrators making the tenure process more equitable, to funding agencies streamlining paperwork, and taking steps to curb the “publish or perish” culture, the authors offer solutions to be taken now that can have immediate and lasting effects.

“Being at various stages in our careers, we each brought different perspectives on common issues, such as tenure and promotion or mentor-mentee relationships, which allowed us to consider these issues holistically,” says Matassa.

The collaboration started as a lively back-and-forth conversation on Twitter that soon shifted to a dialogue about solutions, says Amy Marcarelli, co-author and associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University.

“Several of us were working on big service activities around how to improve conditions for all different axes of diversity in our departments and universities, in our societies,” Marcarelli says. “We had invested a lot of thinking and real work that was going into small reports and small-scale documents that weren’t going to be read widely.”

Matassa adds, “The pandemic has been really hard on everyone, but working on this paper alleviated some of its isolating effects.  It was energizing to open the cloud document and see others working on it too, all of us taking advantage of those few random, brief windows the day’s chaos had opened for us.”

Co-lead author and Boston University assistant professor Sarah Davies adds, “We all had no time—but we prioritized this anyway.”

As a relatively new faculty member, Matassa says her lab was really just starting to hit its stride when the pandemic hit,  “Much of my work requires a group effort in the field, which means travelling together on long car rides to field sites.  Clearly that has not been possible during the pandemic, so we’ve all had to switch gears.  The pandemic has also made it particularly hard to foster new research collaborations and maintain existing ones.  The hits I’ve taken in terms of productivity don’t stop at me, they impact my colleagues and my students too.”

One of the hardest adjustments, Matassa says, is the transition to online teaching, saying she misses the energy and instant feedback from being in the classroom.  With a two-year old at home, online teaching has meant also meant keeping bizarre hours so she could record online lectures in the middle of the night, says Matassa: “I know other parents out there can relate!”

Overall, she feels the reaction to the paper will be mostly positive, though she anticipates there will be arguments against the feasibility of some of the proposed solutions.

“We point out a few of these potential ‘false fails’ in the paper,” says Matassa. “My hope is that folks will, like us, see the pandemic’s upheaval as an opportunity to implement lasting and impactful change.  The momentum is in our favor.”