NEWS

Early, Mid-Career Women Faced Higher Stress During Pandemic, Study Finds

asian woman wearing a mask sitting at her desk with her hands extended

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Key Takeaways

  • Early and mid-career academics were limited by higher workloads and stress and reduced self-care.
  • Women reported higher levels of stress regarding both academic duties, as well as caregiving responsibilities.
  • Such research findings need to inform institutional practices to ensure equitable outcomes for faculty.

The pandemic resulted in irregular periods for people who menstruate. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that COVID-19 has disproportionately limited women in early and mid-level academic roles.

This study found that COVID-19 had not impacted all faculty members equally, as women in less advanced career stages had suffered most in terms of higher work and home stress and decreased self-care, as well as submission of fewer journal articles despite initial plans for more research.

If institutions are genuinely invested in equity, they need to take such research into consideration as they assess the performance of faculty.

More Stress, Less Self-Care

This study was conducted with faculty at a large urban public university and medical center and found that most participants reported higher stress levels during the pandemic as 73% considered academic work to be “high stress,” while 60% reported caregiving duties as “high stress.”

Researchers found that faculty who were more likely to be assistant and associate professors, and women with young children were more likely to have increased work and home stress and decreased self-care, while faculty who were largely professors and men without young children reported moderate levels of work stress and low levels of caregiving stress.

While the research planned for most faculty was similar, the number of articles submitted was significantly greater for academics who were mostly older, tenured professors without young children or a clinical degree.

Although this study highlights the diversity within academia, which impacts careers of faculty, a limitation of this research was its use of binary gender.

Carrying Disproportionate Burdens

Psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, Elisabeth Netherton, MD, says, "We know that women carry a disproportionate burden of household and childcare responsibilities within American families."

Dr. Netherton explains, "The major takeaway of this article is that during the COVID-19 pandemic, within the academic environment, as with so many other work environments, women are more likely to experience a negative impact to their careers as they juggle work and family obligations."

Since this research dovetails with other studies that have shown that women were disproportionately affected by job loss as the pandemic hit, Dr. Netherton notes that they carry disproportionately high representation in sectors of the economy that were adversely affected by the pandemic.

Elisabeth Netherton, MD

This research highlights the difficulties women face in the workplace in trying to balance the responsibilities of an early career with their household and childcare obligations.

— Elisabeth Netherton, MD

Dr. Netherton highlights, "We know that at baseline women are paid less for the work that they do and that women-led households are more likely to experience financial difficulties. This research highlights the difficulties women face in the workplace in trying to balance the responsibilities of an early career with their household and childcare obligations."

Given how this study fits into research about the breakdown of home and childcare responsibilities in the United States, Dr. Netherton notes, "We know from that research that women carry a disproportionate burden of these responsibilities. This impacts women in a number of fields, career choices, and walks of life, not just women in academics."

Dr. Netherton explains, "We know from the literature, and I know from my clinical work with women, that flexibility from employers and an appreciation of these disparities has the potential to alleviate stress and improve women’s experience in the workplace as they face these challenges- this is critical for maintaining women in the workforce in all of the places we so desperately need them."

Equity Work Needed in Academia

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP, says, “The research findings reminded me of how complicated it is to create new workplace policies that fairly balance the values of diversity and inclusion in the workplace with the mission of the organization itself."

Especially as a therapist who is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional (CEAP), Weaver notes how this research puts a magnifying glass on who was most impacted by stress in academia, as well as why, and how.

Weaver explains, "It was not surprising that the findings concluded that early-career women with small children had the most stress compared to men who were already tenured and had less caregiving responsibilities."

As women faced higher stress, Weaver notes that they had to choose where and how to show up. "They wanted to prove their value in the workplace but needed to ensure that their family was taken care of," she says.

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

I can only assume that the number of stressors increases as we also consider one’s race, class, cultural norms, and expectations.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

Weaver highlights, "I wish the public would know that many of these women may have looked like they were underperforming in comparison to their male colleagues when these women in academia were excelling at work and home during a time of high stress and uncertainty."

Given the impact of the pandemic on faculty in academia, Weaver notes, "Even when their world may have felt like it was falling apart, these women were keeping it together by making tough choices to let go of some things in exchange for keeping other things going," she says.

Weaver explains that men may not have the same sources of stress as women, but they may also not have permission to express their feelings given fears that they may appear weak if they acknowledge work stress.

While men in academia may not generally experience the same pressures to perform as many caregiving responsibilities on the home front, Weaver notes, "I can only assume that the number of stressors increases as we also consider one’s race, class, cultural norms, and expectations."

Weaver explains, "A commonality among my clients who have been impacted by adjusting to workplace performance amid the Coronavirus is that self-care is one of the first things to go when we are under stress, next, especially for women or those who assume traditional gender roles, are their career ambitions in exchange for what is best for everyone else."

What This Means For You

As this research study demonstrates, women in academia were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Although institutions of learning are often viewed as committed to equity, such findings illustrate the reality of how oppression operates, especially during times of crisis. While it may be easy to issue equity statements, universities clearly have a lot more work to do in this regard.

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  1. Kotini-Shah P, Man B, Pobee R et al. Work–Life Balance and Productivity Among Academic Faculty During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Latent Class AnalysisJ Womens Health. 2021. doi:10.1089/jwh.2021.0277