COVID-19 is widening the gap between men and women in academia

June 11, 2020, 10:14 p.m.

This is the sixth in a series of op-eds by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students. Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Authors’ note: Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with Black members of our community against anti-Blackness and police brutality. We have hesitated to publish this op-ed because we do not want to distract from pressing issues of racial justice. In light of several letters to the Stanford administration asking for childcare centers to reopen, though, we feel it is important to bring attention to the issues of funding and time extensions needed to support Stanford graduate students with children, especially mothers, as they navigate the conditions created by COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought inequalities across the Stanford community into sharper focus and shed light on vulnerable populations in need of more institutional support. One of these communities is students with children, especially mothers. 

As Stanford’s Dean of Research, Kathryn Moler, along with senior research officers at other universities, wrote in a recent Science article, “COVID-19 has exacerbated multiple equity issues in the research enterprise … [and] longstanding affordability and child and family care disparities across the research workforce — which disproportionately affect women, lower-income support staff, and trainees — are more clear than ever.” A Stanford news article about the Science article mentioned the potentially lasting concerns of COVID-19 on the research progress of graduate students and postdocs, especially those with young children at home.

We reached out to graduate students with children from across the University to ask how they have been affected by COVID-19 — the first time any data have been collected on how the pandemic is affecting Stanford graduate students with families. We received responses from 66 students across all of Stanford’s seven schools. Many themes emerged from the responses, but the most consistent was the disruption to their research and teaching while schools and childcare centers are closed. The challenges of working are related to several factors that our survey also uncovered: 

  • 82% of graduate students with children have had their childcare disrupted by COVID-19. 
  • Three-quarters of respondents expressed that their mental or physical health has declined as a result of the shutdown. 
  • Only one out of five graduate students with children reported being able to give 30 or more hours to their studies during COVID-19; the average student parent is currently only able to work 19 hours per week.
  • Over half of respondents expressed that they were very strongly concerned about their ability to complete their milestones for graduation in the time allotted to them.
  • Only 8% of students with children agreed that when they do work, the quality of their work is as good as it was before the shutdown. 
  • 22% of student respondents have a partner who has become unemployed or whose income and/or hours have been reduced as a result of COVID-19.
  • 15% of respondents missed a job application due to COVID-related stresses on their time or mental health; 20% missed a deadline for a conference paper; 30% missed a grant or fellowship application deadline; over one-third missed a deadline imposed by their advisor and 71% missed a self-imposed deadline.
  • On top of childcare concerns, international graduate students with dependents have expressed additional stress due to immigration reforms threatening their household income and visa status. 

A majority of the respondents felt that the administration does not understand what they are facing and is not doing enough to help relieve these extraordinary challenges. While 62% of students indicated that their department, professors or advisors understand their situation a great deal, only 18% of students felt that Stanford’s administration understands and has acted to help their situation. 

One graduate student in the School of Medicine wrote:  I’ve been incredibly, incredibly fortunate to have a PI who is extremely supportive, and understanding of how little work I can manage while trying to navigate solo parenting, distance learning, and crisis management for a young child as well as myself. In all honesty, extra funds would solve the majority of my problems. But I have deep concerns about how this will continue, and how patient administrative folks can continue to be when Ill still be having to navigate childcare and schooling from home, likely through the fall. How am I going to navigate going back to the lab, if thats even something that can happen, with a young child and no childcare?

The problem is not that students feel no one at Stanford cares about them — it is that they feel the people with the power to act are unwilling to do so. Stanford’s administration has repeatedly advised students to go to their departments for support, but this strategy has left the concerns of graduate students with children largely unaddressed. Since in each department there are often only a few students with children, and departments have limited budgets and resources, the specific needs of students with children are easy for departments to overlook. Although many of the survey’s respondents expressed gratitude to their department for being flexible, their biggest concerns — financial difficulties, stipends running out, inability to complete degree milestones — remain unanswered. What students with children need is a University-wide policy to address the unique issues they face during the pandemic. 

A graduate student in the School of Engineering wrote: My husband and I are both students who also have to care for our child full-time now. We are both one of the only parents, if not the only parent, in our lab with a child, which is normally challenging, but not having childcare has made it extremely difficult. As it is, we are both getting very little sleep to try to keep up with our work since most of the work can only get done after our child goes to sleep.

Although a vast majority of all students with children are adversely affected, there are gendered asymmetries to the challenges faced by students with children. Academic journal editors report that women’s submission rates have declined dramatically during the pandemic while men’s submissions have increased. Publications play a significant role in hiring decisions — given women’s journal submissions have declined by more than 50% in some fields and men’s journal submissions have increased by more than 50% in other fields, it seems safe to predict that the pandemic will exacerbate the underrepresentation of women in the professoriate. At Stanford, where the underrepresentation of women in the professoriate far outstrips the national average, we cannot risk the divide widening. 

In our survey of Stanford graduate students, we received responses from 34 men, 31 women and one person who preferred not to list their gender. While men with children reported that they were able to work an average of about 23 hours per week during the pandemic, women with children reported that they only were able to work an average of about 14 hours per week. 

One woman in the School of Medicine wrote: My husband works full-time, and normally so do I, but with no childcare resources available, were switching off caring for our two kids. Im ending up taking on the majority of the childcare since we rely on his income far more than on my stipend. As a result, my progress toward my Ph.D. has dramatically slowed.

Another woman graduate student in the Graduate School of Education wrote: As a student working on my dissertation, my time is “flexible,” which means that I am the primary caretaker for our infant. … I am hoping to be able to submit my dissertation over the summer and graduate in Summer quarter. But, with only two hours a day to do work, it takes me a full week to complete one day’s worth of work. It is very hard to have momentum of thinking or writing at this pace, or to be confident that I will be able to graduate.

This sentiment is consistent with national trends during the pandemic. The disparity between men’s and women’s productivity might be partly explained by the fact that a man is four times as likely to have a stay-at-home partner than a woman in academia. Given the COVID-19 pandemic has stripped childcare resources, the unavailability of childcare places a disproportionate burden on women, threatening to exacerbate gaps between men and women in academia.

When asked what type of support students with families would most like to see from the University, paid parental leave for as long as childcare institutions are closed (with a stipend extension) was rated as most helpful. Graduate students with children want their milestone deadlines and funding extended as long as childcare centers are closed. Next most helpful was free dependent healthcare during the crisis. Other students with families also asked for summer funding and more emergency fund options. 

As one student in the School of Humanities and Sciences wrote: Health and dental care have been the biggest issue. Stanford’s inability or unwillingness to provide affordable insurance for dependents has forced us out onto the Covered California market, and COVID-19 has amplified the lack of dental insurance. We’ve had several big bills made bigger by needing treatment during the lockdown.

Although graduate students with children may be in the most economically precarious position, they are not the only community of parents at Stanford whose work-life has been affected by the pandemic. On Monday, a group of postdocs sent a letter to Vice Provost Moler, Vice Provost Bent and Vice Provost Kleppner calling on Stanford to reopen its childcare centers as soon as possible, citing the difficulty of completing research while parenting and homeschooling full-time. Professors and other Stanford affiliates with children sent a similar letter to Provost Drell on Tuesday, calling on Stanford to re-open its childcare centers.

Although opening childcare centers would relieve some of the pressure on graduate student parents, it may not be possible, given the licensing and safety requirements, for childcare centers to accommodate all of their currently enrolled families. Also, some families may not feel comfortable sending their children back into group care for some time, even if the option is made available. Even so, graduate students with children who have not had childcare for several months and will continue without childcare need additional funding and timeline accommodations, to allow full participation in the research and teaching important to their graduate school program.

Stanford has previously shown it can implement policies to address specific challenges facing students with children. In recent years, student activists worked with administrators and staff advocates to create the Graduate Family Grant, which provides up to $15,000 per year to offset family expenses. Of the graduate students with dependents who responded to our survey, 84% had made use of the family grant during the crisis, 49% had made use of the food pantry that was recently introduced in response to the advocacy of the Stanford Solidarity Network, and 11% had made use of the emergency grant-in-aid program.

As we all face an unprecedented worldwide health crisis, we call on Stanford to offer support for students with children in the form of extensions of progress-to-completion deadlines along with funding for a length of time equivalent to the time schools and childcare centers are shuttered. Without University-wide support for graduate students with children, there is evidence that students of all genders with dependents, and especially women, may fall behind. 

Contact Justine Modica at jmodica ‘at’, Christianne Corbett at ccorbett ‘at’, Carrie Townley Flores at ctflores ‘at’ and Vladimir Gildin Zuckerman at vzuckerm ‘at’

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