African Studies Association Women's Caucus
A central tenet of the ASA Women's Caucus mission is to promote the study of women and gender, and the greater inclusion of African women in ASA and academia more broadly. Following this mission, we produced this statement to highlight racial and gender inequities the past year has brought to the surface. We also provide concrete suggestions for working towards positive change on both individual and institutional levels to mitigate the impact of Covid on university faculty. As a community, we are not only grappling with the effects of the Covid pandemic on our personal lives; we are also trying to understand and manage the short and long-term implications of the pandemic on our professional lives. This statement outlines challenges widely felt by women, with an emphasis on women of color and the particular risks they face within the field and academic institutions. The second section provides recommendations for administrators, senior faculty, and members serving on hiring, evaluation, and promotion committees to consider the gendered inequity highlighted through this pandemic. The third section provides practical resources for our members on the job market, in non-tenure-track positions, and undergoing review as they navigate new, ambiguous or non-existent pandemic-related policies at their institutions. The final section includes a list of resources we have compiled to help members consider Covid's impacts on gender and equity within their communities.
Harmony O’Rourke & Anita Plummer, Co-convenors
Beth Ann Williams, Membership Secretary
Tshepo Masango Chéry, Treasurer
The Ongoing Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
on Gender and Equity in Academia
Statement by the Women's Caucus of the African Studies Association
Eighteen months into the pandemic—with no end in sight for colleagues, families, and friends in regions across the globe—gendered inequities for our members have come into view, clearly exposing the ways our academic institutions and economic systems have relied on the invisible and often unpaid reproductive and emotional labor disproportionately performed by women at home and in the workplace (1). At a time when many universities and colleges seek to return to a pre-pandemic status quo in teaching, research, and personnel decisions, departments and institutions must understand the specific ways that the pandemic and systemic inequalities in higher education continue to place disproportionate burdens on women, especially women of color. This sustained global crisis will have long-term consequences on the overlapping demands of paid and unpaid labor that faces scholars who are women and caregivers. Addressing the enormity of this moment is an entry point for educational institutions to seek innovative ways to diminish the historical inequities the pandemic exposed, fostering instead a more humane, diverse, and equitable scholarly community. Finally, as our members engage in scholarship, teaching, and reproductive work in Africa, Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, the Americas, and beyond, we wish to highlight the particular ways the pandemic has caused untold hardship and disruptions to our members' health and wellbeing, financial and political security, and ability to travel, conduct research, and publish.
Sexism, racism, and class discrimination within the academic labor market are not new, nor is the unequal educational access and marginalization of scholarship experienced by faculty and students at African institutions of higher education, especially women. Across the board, the pandemic exacerbated long-standing gender imbalances in reproductive labor outside of the workplace, which increased the overall demand for women's time as well as increased worry that their work performance was being judged negatively. In the United States, students often place greater emotional demands on women faculty and faculty of color given historical expectations of women as unwearied nurturers. Such invisible (and professionally unrewarded) care work increased for many faculty during the pandemic given the transition to online teaching and the many challenges students faced with remote learning and the fear and grief the pandemic brought into their lives. These burdens fell hardest on those from communities most severely affected by the pandemic itself and the economic precarity that ensued.
This is not a post-pandemic world. At many African universities, e-learning was not often a possibility, and our colleagues experienced major educational divestment as students struggled to enroll. At the same time, faculty and students alike found it hard to establish virtual spaces for intellectual engagement. Some had to use their own funds and find support to transform their face-to-face classrooms into new virtual worlds amid calls to continue producing scholarship. Such hardships continue to affect our members in Africa, where vaccination programs are in their infancy, placing their work as researchers and teachers in jeopardy as well as their lives. African faculty across the continent, Europe, and the Americas also faced increased financial and emotional stress as the need for remittances grew, as travel and visa programs were curtailed, and as Covid struck their home communities. Additionally, these realities place a disproportionate burden on women as caregivers and those involved in funerary and grief work.
Within the first six months of the pandemic, scholars across disciplines sounded the alarm on the burden the pandemic was placing on women scholars, especially women who confront intersecting structures of oppression, including race, ethnicity, economic class, sexual orientation, age, and ability (2). Journal editors and others noticed that women were submitting articles at declining rates and starting fewer new projects. Survey findings published in 2021 have substantiated these earlier concerns (3). A research brief published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Disproportionate Impact of the Pandemic on Women and Caregivers in Academia" illustrates the myriad ways gender gaps in work productivity and career advancement have widened (4). According to the brief, women and caregivers of all genders "were much more likely to experience a variety of difficulties in their personal and professional lives." Striking gender disparities (commonly ten percentage points or more) between women and men caregivers further indicate significant imbalances in the amount of reproductive and emotional labor in which faculty are engaged.
Women caregivers experienced more significant difficulties with time management, working remotely, and balancing family and household responsibilities than men caregivers. Women found it more difficult to answer emails from students related to "non-academic supports, such as questions about general wellness, financial aid, and academic or career advising." The same was true for caregivers compared with non-caregivers, and the gap remained when comparing women caregivers to men caregivers. Sixty-two percent of women faculty (compared to 50 percent of men) worked much less on research than planned during Fall 2020, and this gender gap persisted for women and men caregivers. Another study showed that academic women with children under five years old submitted fewer articles than their male counterparts and reported a significant decline in hours worked. It is simply undeniable that women faculty with caregiving responsibilities—compared to faculty who were non-caregivers as well as men caregivers—"bore the brunt of lost research output," spending less time than usual on drafting and publishing books, monographs, working papers, article manuscripts, and conference papers (5). Conversely, the myth of work from home providing time and space for high productivity is also problematic in assuming that childfree or single women were without the stress of isolation, grief, and trauma while being expected to produce new research (6). In the field of African Studies, this has been exacerbated given travel restrictions and lack of access to archives and research sites. Across continents, women researchers' output declined.
Covid and its multitude of downstream effects have brought grief, trauma, emotional labor, and mental health challenges into our lives in unprecedented ways. These shared, if variable, hardships have also brought awareness of and conversations about these issues into public discourse in new, frankly necessary, ways. Given all we have endured and detailed above, it would be inhumane and foolish beyond belief to reinstate some version of a pre-pandemic status quo that was already inequitable. This period has had and will continue to have adverse impacts on groups based on their gender, race, geographic location, class, and familial status. The question of how much impact remains to be seen and depends in large part on how we respond now. Our choices and actions in the coming months will set standards for how institutions respond to future crises. It is our hope that we will rise to the occasion to create a diverse and equitable community while acknowledging the impact of Covid and the hardships so many endured by instituting policies that affirm and mobilize women's continued contributions to academic spaces.
(1) The American Anthropological Association, in its statement on mitigating the uneven effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, defines reproductive labor as “the labor that is essential to sustaining life, including but not limited to caring for children, other kin, non-kin, colleagues, institutions, and communities.” American Anthropological Association. “Guidelines for Mitigating the Uneven Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Faculty,” April 27, 2021. See our resources page for a link.
(2) Malisch, Jessica L., Breanna N. Harris, Shanen M. Sherrer, Kristy A. Lewis, Stephanie L. Shepherd, Pumtiwitt C. McCarthy, Jessica L. Spott, et al. “Opinion: In the Wake of COVID-19, Academia Needs New Solutions to Ensure Gender Equity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 27 (July 7, 2020): 15378–81. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2010636117.
(3) Most surveys were administered in Fall 2020.
(4) Ithaka S+R survey at a large urban university system of 2 and 4-year institutions in the U.S.
(5) For additional institutional surveys and information on the impact of Covid-19 on work productivity, see Villanova University’s “Impact of Covid-19 on Faculty Career Progression” and Stanford University’s “Covid-19 Faculty Survey.”
(6) Women in academia were no exception to the broader gender disparities in employment and income that ballooned during the pandemic. Globally, it is estimated that women lost $800 billion in income and 64 million jobs in 2020 as the demand for unpaid care work exploded everywhere. This amounts to 5 percent of the total formal sector jobs held by women prior to the pandemic, whereas men lost 3.9 percent. In the United States, as of February 2021, women lost a net of 5.4 million jobs, nearly 1 million more than men.