The onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in December 2019 caused the world to enter a period of protracted isolation, digital interaction, and the resulting feeling of emotional overload without ready compensatory outlets.
A new South African study reveals the toll this took on women academics in particular.
Women are more vulnerable to emotional isolation, as has been shown in earlier studies. In the ongoing pandemic, the imposition of lockdowns almost universally for varying periods of time has led to the closure of schools, businesses, and services. Many workers shifted to working from home, as did students of all ages.
The consequences of this sudden and unexpected shift to online functioning, combined with a near-total loss of social interactions, free movement in public spaces, and the loss of work, have been disproportionately borne by women academics. The reasons include the merging of their home space and responsibilities with that of their work; loss of employment; greater childcare and other caregiver responsibilities in the household; more stress; more housework; less sleep; and poorer mental health.
Why this impacts women academics more heavily is traceable to the greater expectations from women when it comes to parenthood. Both men and women in academic life struggled with lockdown-related increases in workload as digital engagement of students, especially the most vulnerable segments, took far more out of them than in-person interactions.
However, the pressure to publish meant that men, who are historically more likely to be funded, to have a work-friendly culture and to have fewer family-related responsibilities, find it easier to advance in their research career compared to women, even though the latter often contribute far more to other parts of the academic program such as student welfare, administration, curriculum development and teaching.
Emotional wellbeing is “the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience.” In the lockdown periods, women have tended to spend more time alone, caring for children or on social media, all of which are shown to reduce emotional wellbeing, especially when associated with reduced productivity and less interpersonal connections. This left them feeling less respected and validated.
Many have already pointed out that this is bound to further widen the gap between male and female academics in the long term, unless policies are modified so as to adjust for the challenges that are unique to the latter. The current study, published online in the journal Frontiers in Education, deals with the South African experience of women academics during the lockdown, via a qualitative study involving over 2,000 participants.
The results of the study showed that many women academics felt frustrated, tired out, anxious and overwhelmed as a result of lockdown conditions. Referring to this as “emotional taxation,” the researchers were able to identify its presence in over one in seven women academics, and to trace it to three sources.
These included the working environment, the home life and the social surround. With the first, the fact that students were fearful and anxious due to the new conditions led women academics to spend much more time on work-related activities targeting student well-being. This was exacerbated when the struggles reported by students had to do with their home environments, where the teachers could obviously be of little help.
When the universities themselves failed to support their students emotionally or practically while the latter was navigating the changed conditions, women academics often leaped into the breach, which exerted greater burdens on them. In addition, the need to handle family responsibilities along with work in the same shared space and time led to tremendous stress and burnout due to the perceived lack of productivity in the area of research.
This was more distressing for women managers who perceived the stress of other colleagues but could do little to support them due to the online working conditions.
Home responsibilities weighed heavier on women academics because of the loss of childcare and other support structures such as hired household help, friends or family. Parenting took up almost all their time and energy, leaving them unable to do research. Similar was the case for those who were caregivers for others, whether in terms of physical care or in terms of providing multiple home- and health-related services for loved ones, even those not in the immediate family.
Sadly, women academics in such situations reported being unable to recharge themselves at home, which became a source of emotional stress and turmoil. This was often because they felt they had to hold everything together emotionally and provide an anchor of calm and stability, while they themselves had no way to prioritize their own needs, or to relax and get back to emotional well-being.
The social environment also created its own demands. Women academics reported having to be supportive of friends and family who were facing loss in various ways. The switch to digital communication led to further emotional strain, where some women academics shifted to coping activities, spiritual or otherwise.
The study findings show that the merging of life and work during the lockdown led to stress, burnout and fatigue for women academics in particular, with the home, social and work environment producing taxing effects on their well-being. The lack of support from outside the immediate family led to greater involvement with children, housework and services performed for other loved ones who needed care.
The gender-specific expectations with respect to family responsibilities led to guilt, depression and anxiety centering around their inability to cope with these needs as well as their own research work. Prolonged isolation led to a lack of feedback, guidance and a sense of personhood, causing feelings of doubt and despair. Since women academics tend to put more into their jobs emotionally than men academics do, the problems faced by students during this period challenged women academics on a personal level, causing, in turn, burnout and emotional stress.
“The work-life merge of lockdown acted as a concertina on the emotional wellbeing of women academics,” say the researchers. Not only did they struggle to balance their work with social and family responsibilities, largely without adequate support, but they often found their research work was suffering as a result. The additional effort they put into maintaining student learning took a high toll on them, in terms of having to prepare new material, monitor students and teach online, often without university support.
These findings of the specific challenges facing women suggest the ways in which universities and the academic field can mitigate the emotional toll on women.”
Additionally, or in contrast, women can choose to focus on the positive events of the workday or adopt a more carefree attitude towards the impact of the pandemic on their career, to maintain their emotional well-being.