Among the many negative impacts of COVID-19 has been the impact of the pandemic on caregivers, especially women.
That impact has been no less dramatic for women in academia, where multiple personal and professional challenges have had ripple effects, delaying progress toward tenure review and promotion, resulting in lost progress, income, and sometimes long-term earning potential. As individual researchers suffer personally and professionally, so too will the research productivity and associated funding for the institutions that employ them.
In September 2020, Indiana University Vice President for Research Fred H. Cate launched the Gender Equity in Research Task Force to address acute issues related to the pandemic, study systemic inequities, and suggest short- and long-term actionable solutions within the research context at IU. That task force has been hard at work since then, recommending and implementing emergency funding, conducting a faculty-wide survey to inform future targeted resources, and proposing recommendations to the university to address inequities among IU researchers.
First among the task force’s actions was recommending an Emergency Equity Fund for Research, which was established by IU’s Office of the Vice President for Research in December 2020. Providing unprecedented spending flexibility, the fund supports research-related needs not already met by existing funding sources in four areas: 1) stop-gap services, such as caregiver subsidies and food delivery; 2) personnel for research, such as research assistants; 3) tools for advancing research, such as equipment and/or purchased datasets; and 4) support for writing up and disseminating research.
The Emergency Equity Fund for Research hit the equivalent of a critical-need bull’s eye. In only a few months, the fund has provided more than 150 grants (and counting) to women and men on all IU campuses. Approximately $350,000 has been disbursed, with the vast majority of funds requested by, and awarded to, women researchers who are either associate or assistant professor to support personnel for research. Irrespective of the type of funding requested, the significant majority of applicants cited the need being a direct result of increased childcare and eldercare responsibilities due to the pandemic causing a decrease in research productivity.
“The overwhelming requests for personnel support reflect the serious challenges faculty face in maintaining their research productivity” said Peggy Stockdale, professor of psychology at IUPUI and a task force member. “And, not surprisingly, fund applicants follow broader national trends in pandemic life. Among all applicants, nearly 80 percent were women who shared common and deeply personal stories of hardship due largely to increased caregiving responsibilities leading to a lack of time and access to resources necessary to conduct research.”
Across the state, IU faculty expressed relief and gratitude for much-needed assistance from the fund.
As one fund recipient put it succinctly, “The Emergency Equity Fund in Research is a lifesaver.”
On receiving her grant, Sumreen Asim, an assistant professor of elementary education at IU Southeast, said, “IU is truly an incredible university system to help support early-career scholars such as myself. I can breathe a sigh of relief that I can stay on track with my research commitments and writing.”
Crediting IU for “recognizing the ways in which many faculty are in need of support to keep their research going,” Leslie Enane, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Disease and Global Health at the IU School of Medicine, said “as a junior faculty member with young kids, it means so much to have issues of equity recognized at IU.”
Andrea Jain, an associate professor of religious studies in IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts, noted that the funding “will help me catch up on research I’ve fallen behind on while my children, one with special needs, have been home e-learning.”
A thorough review
The task force also undertook a review of scholarly articles and papers regarding gender and economic disparities and inequalities both during the pandemic and before. The list is substantial, according to Kosali Simon, Herman B Wells Endowed Professor in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington and a member of the task force.
“It’s clear from our literature review that there is a huge issue, and that the pandemic exacerbated gaps that existed pre-pandemic," Simon said. "The broader context provided by the review is very important as we think about what institutions, such as IU, can do to make changes that will help generations of academics to come.”
In early 2021, the Gender Equity in Research task force collaborated with IU’s Center for Survey Research to conduct a university-wide survey regarding gender equity issues in research titled Research Impact and Solutions Surrounding COVID-19 (RISSC). More than 2,000 faculty and research-related staff (59.6% women, 39.8% men, .5% non-binary or agender) participated. Among the respondents, 44.6% live with children under the age of 18.
Matching national trends, findings from the survey reveal a substantial productivity decrease among respondents.
“The overwhelming issue was time,” said Denvil Duncan, associate professor of economics in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington and a task force member. “Respondents simply did not have time for their research, which only increased their levels of stress.”
In addition to severe time constraints largely due to childcare and eldercare responsibilities, respondents identified other specific research-related challenges caused by the pandemic. Top among these were interrupted collaboration with colleagues and limited access to research settings or research facilities.
The survey also asked about teaching-related challenges and personal challenges. Nearly 100% of respondents noted sharp increases in the time they spent transitioning classes to an online format and learning new technologies, as well as dramatically increased mentoring and advising loads, especially for students and colleagues struggling with mental health challenges during the pandemic.
When it came to personal challenges, respondents identified the toll of taking care of the health and needs of other people. Their answers made a sense of fatigue and exhaustion clear.
“I’m literally too tired to think about this [question],” said one respondent. Another replied, “The greatest challenge is the emotional toll of not living life.”
Recommendations for solutions
The task force is now focused on developing recommendations for solutions to the challenges identified in the survey and revealed by emerging patterns among Emergency Equity Fund for Research applicants. The survey asked respondents to identify ideas for solutions, which included increased work flexibility, increased funding or compensation for increased workloads, decreased faculty responsibilities, and tenure clock accommodations.
Based on those responses, the task force is developing recommendations to the Office of the Vice President for Research and the university as a whole regarding new approaches to providing research support.
“We will offer explicit recommendations that we think move the policy needle forward in offering relief for the fatigue and exhaustion so many are feeling,” said Bernice Pescosolido, Distinguished Professor of sociology at IU Bloomington, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, and a member of the task force.
IU Vice President for Research Fred Cate called the work of the task force and its findings “significant.”
"I am grateful to the members of the task force for taking on this critical work during an already trying time and for their leadership in developing the innovative Emergency Equity Fund for Research," Cate said. "I look forward eagerly to their recommendations on how we address equity issues today and in the future."
Visit the Gender Equity in Research Task Force web page for more information about the work of the task force and the faculty/staff survey findings. To share thoughts or ideas with the Gender Equity in Research Task Force, please contact email@example.com.