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In my opinion

Publish or perish: women in research call for an end to systemic discrimination

The global COVID-19 crisis offers universities the ideal pretext to change their practices and rethink their definition of academic work and its value.

BY CATHERINE LAROCHELLE ET AL | OCT 21 2020

In light of the past six months of working from home, and the proliferation of scientific and media publications about the pandemic’s impact on female academics, it has become clear that the personal is “academic,” to quote the title from an article by Vanina Mozziconacci published last year. In it, the philosopher explores the institutional, pedagogical and scientific implications of a consideration of the “personal” in a feminist subversion of the university. The pandemic has forced us to seriously consider this subversion: we believe it is time to create a real transformation of university culture. The response to the impact of COVID-19 on university researchers must come from institutions, which is why we are addressing them today. We believe this global crisis provides an ideal pretext to change their practices and rethink their definition of academic work and its value.

Working from home: parents and scientific production

It is common knowledge that hiring and advancement in a university career depends on subscribing to a culture of scientific productivity, which is measured in the number of articles published, number of citations, amounts and prestige of grants obtained, international presence, and the number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows supervised. Long criticized – particularly for how it disadvantages women and impedes innovation in research – this method of evaluating excellence has a lasting impact on the career paths of teachers who are parents, particularly academics who are also mothers. Already, the effects of lockdown on women’s scientific production has led to a measurable decline in many fields. This is probably explained in part by the fact that far fewer female than male researchers have a spouse at home. But the situation must be understood according to broader social structures in which female researchers work, which make them more likely to assume a larger portion of the mental and emotional work in their private lives, whether in terms of household tasks, child care or family organization.

The burden of this physical, mental and emotional work in non-academic life has in fact had a significant impact on the productivity of many female researchers, to the point that some have had to take sick leave during the pandemic just to catch their breath. “Teaching online and all the skills that need to be acquired quickly, the glaring need of students to be reassured and supported, and lunch breaks that have become increasingly rare, not to mention the day-to-day lockdown, got the better of my mental and physical health,” says one of the signatories. “I had my 20-month-old son at home full-time, and I was trying to continue my work as if he weren’t there with me. Torn between guilt at not being present enough for him and not doing my job 100 percent, I ended up making a virtual appointment with my doctor – a new normal with COVID! What followed was two months of rest with my son, trying to recover the energy and concentration I so desperately need in my work as a teacher and mother. I’m back now, and I’m worried about how this necessary break will impact my academic file, both in terms of publications and research.”

The impact on the productivity of female researchers without children shouldn’t be underestimated either, for a number of reasons. First, “the type of research done mainly by women is more vulnerable to the effects of lockdown.” In fact, entire swaths of research conducted primarily by women, at least in terms of numbers involved, have been shelved or deemed non-essential, notably human and social sciences, qualitative research, or field work in countries of the Global South. Additionally, women assume more of the work of social reproduction, including caring for their own families, in-laws and neighbours. Finally, within universities, they do proportionally more relationship-based work, which has certainly been on the increase since March of this year.

Invisible emotional work

Unlike teaching evaluations for which a range of biases (gender, race, etc.) have been documented for decades and which are taken into consideration in most female professors’ assessments, the emotional and relationship work of which women (especially women who are part of visible or ethnic minorities) assume a greater share is hardly taken into consideration at all. The emotional contribution of female researchers within institutions comes in addition to their contributions within the family and community. This work is defined by Gemma Hartley as “the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy. It’s emotion management and life management combined.” This invisible service work is essential to the proper functioning of universities and yet is not highly valued in teacher evaluations. As we move to remote teaching, goodwill among colleagues, mentoring and student support are more necessary than ever – and their importance for institutions may finally be recognized. If we want the system to survive, university management and evaluation committees have to guarantee professors that these relationship-based tasks will be made visible, respected and taken into account.

Transform the university culture

Now let’s look at the fate of future candidates for teaching positions that will open up in the coming years. How will hiring committees evaluate the impact of the pandemic on applications submitted by women and, more importantly, on applications from women who belong to ethnic or visible minorities and mothers of young children? Given that most Quebec universities are far from reaching diversity objectives for faculty, we can wonder what mechanisms will be introduced to ensure there is a true consideration of the impact of the pandemic on the careers of researchers. Many studies have come out on the greater health, economic or social impact of the current crisis on women and racialized people and communities. The consensus is that there is an urgent need to institute a reckoning of this reality by hiring and promotion committees, which themselves must be held accountable.

As Philippe Néméh-Nombré pointed out in an article in Québec Science, it is the university culture that must be transformed if we are to retain some hope of having more diverse, equitable institutions. We should not forget that equity and diversity are not in and of themselves political objectives; they are quite simply essential to scientific excellence. In fact, it is not merely a question of reducing expectations with respect to the traditional criteria, but defining new, non-discriminatory criteria that make it possible to appreciate the community, scientific and professional contribution of all faculty. With respect to the additional challenges women face, notably women from minority communities, since March 2020, it seems to us that only a true transformation of university culture can address the far too likely regression in gender equity and equality in our institutions in the years to come.

Will institutions speak and act decisively to make this happen?

This opinion piece was written by:
Catherine Larochelle, assistant professor, Université de Montréal
Eve Pouliot, associate professor, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Mélanie Chaplier, assistant professor, Université de Montréal
Sabrina Tremblay, professor, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Malena Argumedes, assistant professor, Université de Sherbrooke
Rachel Langevin, assistant professor, McGill University
Geneviève Paquette, professor, Université de Sherbrooke
Vincent Romani, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Sarah Rocheville, associate professor, Université de Sherbrooke
Catherine Flynn, assistant professor, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Marie-Eve Poitras, assistant professor, Université de Sherbrooke
Chiara Piazzesi, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Dyala Hamzah, associate professor, Université de Montréal
Anne-Marie D’Aoust, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Maria Martin de Almagro, assistant professor, Université de Montréal
Thomas Wien, associate professor, Université de Montréal
Tania Gosselin, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Vanessa Blais-Tremblay, adjunct professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Jacinthe Dion, professor, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Karine Baril, associate professor, Université du Québec en Outaouais
Laurence Monnais, professor, Université de Montréal
Ollivier Hubert, professor, Université de Montréal
Lawrence Chen, professor, McGill University
Mélanie Paré, associate professor, Université de Montréal
Natacha Godbout, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal

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  1. Karen Zoppa / October 21, 2020 at 22:45

    The academy has been submerged in the ubiquity of global techno-capitalist hegemony, a hegemony which is historically and structurally unjust to women. Until the academy and its governing structures can at least acknowledge the space it occupies, and push back against the corporatization of the university and its invaluable non-monetary contribution to civil society, no one in the larger society or the university administration, to quote the character Blossom, will “give a hooping funt,” about the unpaid emoional labour of women on campus and at home, on the inappropriate metrics of publish or perish, and on the “bums in seats at all costs” strategies that now drive the academic “machine.”