COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care work, still mostly borne by female academics, has skewed research output. Casualised staff, many of them early-career and/or international researchers, are expected to withstand the worst of the crisis, with their job security under threat. What action can academics take to challenge these negative developments? We need a post-pandemic vision, writes María Gabriela Palacio.

Man with laptop in the dark

COVID-19 has illuminated deep-seated inequalities overlooked during ‘normal’ times. As we grapple with the extent and severity of the outbreak, we have been required to isolate and contemplate the cessation of economic activities. The fragility of our systems has been thrown into sharp relief, evincing that it is not necessarily the virus, but the lack of regulation and protection that amplifies inequalities among us.

What is work? What is essential?

COVID-19 gave us a new grammar to talk about what we do and how it is valued: essential and non-essential work. What we now consider essential work is the kind of work that our economies have systematically devalued. Health workers have been at the forefront of the response, with many women and minority ethnic communities at the lower tier of the healthcare system, working in underfunded systems without the necessary compensation and protective equipment. Many do work that is neither considered essential nor ‘work’.

Women’s unpaid work has increased as lockdown measures disrupted childcare provision and increased other care obligations. School and daycare closures have created new forms of stress and anxieties among caregivers (predominantly women), with a sizeable social gradient in the extent to which families feel able to support their children and provide home schooling. Within the academe, the drop in the number of papers submitted by female academics and the skewed distribution of research grants illustrate the increased burden of unpaid care work that women shoulder.

What work is valued? What is disposable?

This crisis intersects not only with gendered but also with racialised aspects of precarity in academia. As the pandemic rages across diverse geographies and international students defer entry for a year, higher-education centres face operational challenges, resulting in recruitment freezes, contracts not being extended, or the scrapping of research projects. Early-career academics on temporary contracts—many scheduled to expire this year—are anxious about their job security. International staff members are more likely to participate in casual employment, often unable to make any long-term commitments as their residency is attached to their work status. The experiences of international and ethnic minorities often go unheard in academia as they are less likely to participate in decision-making: non-white female academics are heavily under-represented in professorial positions across the Netherlands.

These elements show that diversity in higher education has not been accompanied by a change in normativity, with tangible consequences in terms of career prospects. Academics of diverse backgrounds encounter themselves having to working harder to be accommodated in their work environment (to fit in), for example by doing more service work and being less protective of their research time (if any), thus hindering their chances in the labour market. One could consider this a sign of an increasingly fragmented and market-driven academia that fails to recognise differences.

Doing what you love is still work

Most jobs that involve ‘doing what you love’ make it more difficult to assert one’s position and demand better conditions. It is often expected of academics to be intrinsically motivated and concerned about the wellbeing of students—and the vast majority indeed are. Yet, this expectation makes it difficult for us to demand better work conditions, particularly during a crisis like the one we face today. Support and care for students have become central to our online teaching. It is assumed that in the next academic year, most teaching will continue online, supplemented with some on-campus activities.

Though new forms of work are highly welcomed, they need to be accompanied by a reflection on how these new forms of work would be valued and compensated. We need a post-pandemic vision of our institutional setting while we respond to the immediate challenges of online education, casualised employment, and intensified work demands. This is a crucial moment to reflect and raise awareness about how our experience in academia is affected by who we are (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, citizenship) and the challenges to measure and capture the value we create. What can we do to take action and tackle the privileges and systemic inequalities that this pandemic has illuminated? A first step would be to openly appreciate academics, as an online campaign at Leiden University using the hashtags #staffshouldstay and #koesterdedocent (‘treasure the lecturer’) is doing.

Another thing you can do is to engage in discussions within your faculty and/or programme to discuss how new forms of work derived from the COVID-19 crisis, e.g. mentor programmes, will be valued and compensated. Inclusion is central to such discussions: where would this work come from? Who will be asked? How would they be compensated? Because we as academics genuinely care for students, the conditions of and compensation for this type of work tend to become afterthoughts—and they shouldn’t.

This article was originally published on the Leiden Inclusion Blog and has been written by the author in her capacity of Assistant Professor in Development Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Chair of LUDEN: Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network. This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the author:

María Gabriela Palacio holds a PhD in Development Studies by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research contributes to interdisciplinary work on critical social policy and it seeks to understand how state interventions shape social and political identities. Increasingly, her research interests have expanded to include the study of processes of exclusion within academia. She is the chair of the network LUDEN, tackling racism and other forms of exclusion at Leiden University’s working and learning environment.

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