As an independent scholar, I have years of experience anxiously maintaining my professional performance on screen and over calls, so as to not alert anyone to the baby I was changing or the child in the next room. I dressed in business on top and comfort on bottom long before the word “pandemic” was part of our daily vocabulary.
Since the pandemic began, professionals of all kinds sport this style too, which represents this unique historic moment with all its hardships, nuances and oddities. Yet, despite the varied challenges, I can't help but feel relieved.
I am a contract and project-based Ph.D. I work remotely from home—teaching, writing, podcasting and caring for my two young children. When new work comes my way, I not only weigh the nature of the project, time commitment and the financial benefits, but also the amount of performance maintenance I will have to do in order to do the work.
Being a cisgender woman, a mother and an independent contractor means I've spent a fair amount of my energy not solely on paid work but also on preserving a certain professional persona—both masculine and childless—that is valued in academia. I was just getting started with a new class of graduate learners when the pandemic began.No Longer Hiding
Suddenly, I no longer had to fret if my preschooler was loud enough to be heard in the background or wandered into my Zoom. Nor did I have to worry that I was the only one without an on-campus office in the background. These became accepted realities of working during a pandemic. In an unexpected twist, my experience was no longer the anomaly.
For so long I tried to hide that I was parenting alongside my scholarly work. I worried about how this would affect my work relationships. I was concerned it could diminish my competence in my colleagues' minds. But then in 2020, the tables turned, and I could relax in a way I hadn't been able to previously.
Yet, even though my anxieties lessened as more people telecommuted from makeshift home offices, my women friends and colleagues became increasingly anxious as they frantically tried to figure out how to work and simultaneously care for their children. I already knew that struggle and strain because I'd done it for years.
Recently, a colleague was frustrated during a meeting because her child kept asking her questions. I wanted her to know I saw her juggling tasks, and it was okay and even normal.Reality of Working Mothers
Quarantine and the global pandemic illuminated what has long been the reality for working mothers: We work while simultaneously managing our domestic lives. This is not new news; it's been on our radars for decades since sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote about it in The Second Shift (1989). Yet more than 30 years later, women are still disproportionately underrepresented in top-ranking positions across the labor market, even though they make up the majority of the college-educated workforce.
And while the academy produces knowledge and places the highest value on it, institutions of higher learning too often stall and even resist applying that same knowledge in meaningful and impactful ways.
Long before the pandemic undid 25 years of progress for working mothers, women trailed behind men in senior positions in both faculty and administrative roles. Academia is not family friendly, nor does it consider the domestic responsibilities women still shoulder.
I wonder what it will take to enact change within higher education. We are close to two years into a global pandemic, and accustomed to seeing our colleagues' living rooms and messy kitchens. As we begin to contemplate a new normal beyond COVID-19, will we finally let go of antiquated time-in-seat models of productivity, sexist work cultures and policies that unduly disadvantage women?
It's far past time to stop penalizing women for the dual roles and caretaker responsibilities they maintain within academe and society at large. Today, women still shoulder the bulk of domestic and childcare responsibilities. And in the wake of the last few years, this has had devasting costs to women's employment gains, as four times more women than men left the labor market in September 2020. This is especially detrimental for women of color, whose incomes often sustain their families' economic stability.
Since women entered the academy, they've had to navigate institutions built for and around men. In so doing, they have contorted, sacrificed, hidden and denied parts of themselves. All in an effort to succeed and fit an obsolete arrangement. Too often, academic cultures are unfriendly at best and hostile at worst to women's second shift duties. As the focus on social justice within the academy intensifies, it is time to examine what a just and fair relationship would look like between academe and all women, including femme-identified and women of color.Possible Strategies
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Institutions and individuals are complex and represent a variety of needs and cultural dynamics. That said, there are places to start. Drawing on the scholarship of Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel from their book Academic Motherhood (2012), institutions can begin by considering what kinds of family-forward policies would benefit their students, staff, faculty and administration, along with what barriers prevent the use of such policies.
The most basic strategy the authors suggest is to separate pregnancy and childbirth leave from disability and sick leave. Childbirth is not a sickness or a disability. It warrants its own paid leave with, as Ward and Wolf-Wendel suggest, an opt-out component. This example is instructive and important because it shifts the way institutions view childbearing and offers a practical and beneficial support structure for pregnant women.
The issue of paid maternity leave is undoubtedly basic. Some may even think we're beyond discussing it. Yet, only 58 percent of Association of American University schools offer six weeks of paid maternity leave without restriction to faculty members, as noted by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden in Do Babies Matter (2013). And that says nothing of contingent faculty, of which women make up the majority. Maternity leave is but one example among many that could positively impact women.
Therefore, instead of sustaining structures that ask women to mask or deny parts of themselves, a socially just model of higher education creates space for all aspects of women's lives. Moreover, it offers support to promote their success. There is a myriad of creative options available if an institutional commitment to justice is sincere and shared. When women feel seen and safe, their emotional labor diminishes and they can bring more energy to their paid work, resulting in beneficial gains for both individual women, their institutions and the academy as a whole.
Vaccines are available. Campuses' in-person offerings are increasing. And I wonder how life on the other side of the pandemic will be different. Could it be better? Women's shift work is now visible in new ways. In these COVID days, there are no longer first and second shifts; it all bleeds together. Maybe it always has.
Will institutions take seriously the information before them and lead in advancing policy, structural and cultural innovations to achieve a more equitable and just academic landscape? If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that higher education can pivot. So, it should.
Dana M. Malone holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Evaluation. She is the author of From Single to Serious: Relationships, Gender, and Sexuality on American Evangelical Campuses (Rutgers University Press) and the co-producer and co-host of The Academic Life podcast channel on New Books Network. Connect at danammalone.com.