Today’s academics are confronted with new ways of life in the classroom and at home. Specifically, the pandemic affected academic parents’ work-life balance as it created novel challenges and unique opportunities, like working from home and hybrid teaching. Academics who were also parents may have needed to stay home or provide childcare, both pre- and post-lockdown, to ensure hygiene and safety measures were observed to prevent further infections.
In pre-pandemic times, most academic parents employed daycare or after-school services to care for their children while they were busy with research, teaching, and other administrative duties. Reports identified the challenges faced by many academic parents in this pandemic, among which included increased child-care demands, control of on-screen time for children, and care for sick children (Rijs and Fenter, 2020; Lantsoght et al, 2021). However, the major challenge was providing childcare as regular childcare/aftercare facilities were reduced (Lantsoght et al, 2021). Most universities in developing countries lack support facilities for staff childcare, especially for graduate students and postdocs. In developed countries where universities provide childcare services, spaces are often limited, and these resources were mostly closed during the pandemic (Shah et al, 2021; Fulweiler et al, 2021). It was difficult for parents to focus on work duties or complete tasks, leading to many considering withdrawing or resigning from their programs.
Female scientists were disproportionately affected by these issues (Lantsoght et al, 2021). The additional responsibility of managing children along with research/teaching was stressful as time availability for work duties reduced. It was also observed that the negative impacts on both research and teaching of academic parents depended on the age of children (Lantsoght et al, 2021). Alternatives taken to manage work-life balance included writing while children were asleep in early mornings, scheduling meetings when they were on recess, and developing pandemic pods so that children could have their social interaction while parents could work. Researcher mothers, especially early-career scientists, faced hindrances in the form of fewer academic publications as they were working fewer hours in labs during the pandemic, and mostly spent their time homeschooling their children (Lantsoght et al, 2021).
However, there were new opportunities for academic parents, like access to more online resources, remote or hybrid teaching, developing digital skill sets, and, most important, more time to spend with children and family. This led to increased well-being in overall personal lives. Other opportunities included flexible work hours, more time to read and write as they saved on commute time, attending more hybrid (online) conferences and meetings (especially true for academics in developing countries), breaking barriers to funding international conference attendance, and fewer geographical boundaries. Asynchronous teaching also helped academic parents in performing parental responsibilities, as academics could choose their lecture recording time or class timings. Several working parents, including academics (most especially early-career researchers), reported being exposed to various career possibilities outside academia, while some transitioned into new career opportunities that allowed them to work from home, therefore addressing the issue of childcare.
However, negative impacts were also felt, especially by parents from developing countries while participating in online webinars or conferences. Due to minimal facilities, they were overburdened with their normal academic responsibilities (such as teaching) in their home institution, childcare responsibilities (for which proper arrangements would have been made if the parent attended in person), challenges with differences in time zones, and low network bandwidths, leading to improper participation in such conferences.
The biggest positive impact was that parents were more directly involved in the education of their children and understood their learning difficulties and felt better equipped for school meetings and discussions than in pre-pandemic times. Many academics without faculty or tenured positions are seeing the possibilities of attaining work-life balance and having more time for children outside academia.
To better support academic parents and overcome challenges, we must have a change in our support systems, especially at universities and research organizations (O’Brien et al, 2015). This may include having open conversation with faculty about preferred hours of teaching, providing work-from-home accommodations when applicable, being more flexible with tenure clocks, or providing onsite childcare (Comer & Stites-Doe, 2006; O’Brien et al, 2015; Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2012). Also, academic parents should form and build a support system (pod) around them. Universities, research organizations, or government agencies are thus encouraged to do away with their one-size-fits-all approach and build more inclusive facilities and policies that will meet the needs of various categories of staff to make parenting as an academic easier.
- Rijs C, Fenter F. The academic response to COVID-19. Frontiers in public health. 2020;8. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.621563. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2020.621563
- Lantsoght EOL, Tse Crepaldi Y, Tavares SG, Leemans K, Paig-Tran EWM. Challenges and opportunities for academic parents during COVID-19. Frontiers in psychology. 2021;12:645734. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645734. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645734
- Shah A, Lopez I, Surnar B, Sarkar S, Duthely LM, Pillai A, Salguero TT, Dhar S. Turning the tide for academic women in STEM: A postpandemic vision for supporting female scientists. ACS nano. 2021;15(12):18647–18652. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.1c09686. doi:10.1021/acsnano.1c09686
- Fulweiler RW, Davies SW, Biddle JF, Burgin AJ, Cooperdock EHG, Hanley TC, Kenkel CD, Marcarelli AM, Matassa CM, Mayo TL, et al. Rebuild the Academy: Supporting academic mothers during COVID-19 and beyond. PLoS biology. 2021;19(3):e3001100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100
- O’Brien KR, Martinez LR, Ruggs EN, Rinehart J, Hebl MR. Policies that make a difference: bridging the gender equity and work-family gap in academia. Gender in Management An International Journal. 2015;30(5):414–426. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/gm-02-2014-0013. doi:10.1108/gm-02-2014-0013
- Comer DR, Stites-Doe S. Antecedents and consequences of faculty women’s academic–parental role balancing. Journal of family and economic issues. 2006;27(3):495–512. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10834-006-9021-z. doi:10.1007/s10834-006-9021-z
- Ward K, Wolf-Wendel L. Academic motherhood: How faculty manage work and family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 2012.
About the Authors:
Indrani Kakati Baruah is a postdoctoral researcher, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is also mother wishing to connect with researchers around the globe and impart knowledge through communicating innovative research and wants to inspire and motivate young girls to take up science and never give up. You can find her on Twitter at @indranikb.
Idowu Obisesan is currently lecturer at Bowen University Iwo, Nigeria, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is interested in legume sustainability (the effects of abiotic and biotic stresses on plants) and medicinal plant research. You can find her on Twitter at @IdowuAobisesan.