Working at home takes toll on female academics productivity

Thursday May 14th, 2020
By Rayyan Rafidi

On April 18, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science editor Elizabeth Hannon took to Twitter to report a negligible number of submissions from women academics in that month.

"Never seen anything like it," she said.

Three days later, astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam and arXiv editor Professor Anna Watts, tweeted that the paper submissions to the site leaned heavily to male authors.

The findings are unsurprising, said Associate Professor Dr Haslinda Abdullah from Universiti Putra Malaysia, given the 'dual role' that female academics play as mothers and career women.

The Human Ecology Faculty deputy dean (research and innovation) and social psychologist said: "The pandemic has caused the physical and mental conflation of work and domestic duties.

"Women are still overwhelmingly responsible for managing households despite mostly having a full-time job like their husbands. This may explain why male academics are able to use this time to increase their productivity, while women may not.

As a mother of six, working from home is a challenge for Haslinda.

"On top of conducting online lectures and reviewing proposals, I have administrative duties in ensuring that our Key Performance Index (KPI) is met. In between, I'd supervise my children's homework and assignments.

"To demarcate the time between work and family, I reserve night time for resting. As a psychologist, I'm also involved with social work on the weekends."

According to a 2019 study by Professor Sara Ashencaen Crabtree and Professor Chris Shiel from Bournemouth University, United Kingdom, women academics are prone to take on service roles which are less rewarding than the research pathway.

Haslinda said: "Malaysia is still a patriarchal country and as such we see the domestic role of women spilling over into the workplace.

"In academia and other fields, career advancement is not always 'friendly' towards women who may require career breaks or flexibility. We still struggle with gender disparity in positions of power despite having more women going to university.

"This period may be challenging for women but I would like to think academics are judged for their performance throughout their careers."

The economy, employers, and society at large rely on a hidden cost that women with dual roles have been shouldering, she added.

"It is starting to show through empirical evidence. A positive first step is for employers to acknowledge that working mothers may struggle more during this pandemic.

"Domestic duties should be a partnership between husband and wife. When we normalise this, we can effectively tackle the issue," said Haslinda.

The shift to remote work is a double-edged sword for women academics, said Universiti Malaya Centre for Internship Training and Academic enrichment (CITrA) director Dr Wendy Yee Mei Tien.

"On one hand, we would have more time for chores. On the other hand, it can also be exhausting as women are expected to take up more housework.

"Family members would expect the mother to be cooking three meals a day instead of only one on a regular working day. This may take a toll on her academic productivity."

According to Yee, her role as a mother, wife, daughter, and daughter-in law will not change with her career.

She starts off the day with yoga exercises and morning prayers. For breakfast, she takes turns with her husband to prepare the meal before starting her academic work.

"By noon, I will cook lunch, especially for my son who only has a short break from online learning. I also have to monitor him and finish my work in time to prepare for dinner.

"This situation has thrown us into the deep end and we have to learn to swim to survive. In the new norm, academics have no choice but to be adaptive, resilient and creative."

With the university's support and understanding family members, female academics can still perform according to the expected KPI, she added.

"The same can't be said for unsupportive families where caregiving often falls on women's shoulders, especially in caring for the elderly.

"Family members need to have a meaningful dialogue to better understand and appreciate each other. This can create a more equitable distribution of housework in this difficult time," said Yee.

As a mother of three schoolboys, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) Razak Faculty of Technology And Informatics research manager Dr Nur Azaliah Abu Bakar understands the challenges that the school teachers face.

During the day, she has online classes, meetings, consultations and webinars to partake in.

"I also have to make sure that my children attend their online classes and submit their homework. Most women academics, especially those with small kids have to wait until night time to focus on producing quality publications."

After her children are asleep, she will burn the midnight oil on tasks that require more concentration.

"I will focus on writing and reviewing papers as well as checking my students' thesis. It's tough that I can only work undisrupted between 10pm until 2 or 3am, when everything else is settled."

A lecturer's role typically involves seven tasks, she said.

"The tasks are lecturing, supervision, research project, publication, consultation, industrial networking and faculty administrative tasks. With or without the MCO, we need to fulfil them to meet our KPI."

Hence, Nur Azaliah is very grateful to have an understanding husband and children.

"Chores such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry are split among the family members. My husband and I will monitor the kids. I'm aware that some women do not have this kind of support."

UTM provides excellent support to all academics, regardless of gender, she said.

"UTM has always followed a KPI-based system rather than a time-based performance. During the pandemic, the university provides us with good digital infrastructure and flexibility. It's also important for faculty members to respect and motivate each other in this period."