Concrete Solutions to Support Academic Mothers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on academic systems worldwide, but it has also aggravated longstanding gender inequities that may have been previously overlooked—such as the uneven distribution of parental responsibilities between working mothers and fathers.

A group of women hailing from multiple U.S. universities has taken this time in quarantine as an opportunity to push for systemic change for mothers in academia. In a new essay, this team offers specific advice for mentors, universities, scientific societies, publishers and funding agencies on how to support mothers in academia—especially those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and mothers of color (MOC)—both during and after the pandemic (PLoS Biol., doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100).

Within the university …

Speaking to mentors in academic institutions, the first solution the team offers is to create a supportive environment for mentees who are parents or may become parents. For this to be effective, the authors write, mentors should emphasize the value of work-life balance and be supportive of individuals starting a family—even before a mentee announces the news. In addition, the authors explain, it’s crucial for mentors to maintain open communication, to keep mentees with childcare responsibilities involved in lab activities, and to be sensitive to MOC who may face increased stress about their child’s safety because of structural racism.

At the institution level, the authors write, universities should dedicate funds to support academic mothers and avoid “gender- or race-neutral policies because the effects of the pandemic are not neutral across race or gender.” They also advocate for institutions to provide equal opportunities for mothers by rethinking their timelines and policies surrounding the tenure process for mothers in academia. In light of the amplified difficulties faced by mothers during the pandemic, the team recommends that institutions consider using a “COVID-19 Disruptions” statement for tenure and promotion documents.

… And Beyond

The authors also looked at parts of the academic ecosystem beyond the university. According to the team, scientific societies’ switch to online platforms has offered their members useful materials such as prerecorded lectures that are especially helpful to mothers and should be retained after COVID-19. Many societies also prioritize diversity efforts by striving to create diverse governing boards and by investing in awards or grants for early- and mid-career women scientists. These efforts should continue, the authors say, but they advise societies to explore ways to include mothers in these programs—especially as women’s scientific publishing rates are expected to drop (see, “Study: COVID’s Academic-Productivity Impact Differs by Gender”).

With decreasing submission and publishing rates for women, the authors recommend that publishers prioritize submissions from women and extend review deadlines. Another strategy to prioritize women researchers, they say, is recruiting women to editorial boards and considering waiving open-access fees for a subset of manuscripts submitted by mothers with childcare obligations.

The final approach the authors propose is for funding agencies to rethink their processes. For example, if agencies simplify their application paperwork, then mothers could prioritize their research progress. Or, a COVID-19 Disruptions statement would be an appropriate way for agencies to acknowledge the pandemic’s effect on academic productivity. The authors write that agencies could even explore additional awards and short-term bridge funding for working moms, as mothers statistically leave full-time positions more often than fathers due to childcare responsibilities.

Enacting lasting change

As multiple studies have revealed, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected mothers in academia, especially MOC. However, the team argues that this reality is nothing out of the ordinary—rather, mothers have been left behind for years. By implementing concrete solutions like the ones outlined in this essay, the authors hope, leaders, institutions and organizations will reflect on their policies and change their practices to support academic mothers, now and in the future.

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