The Unequal Impact of the Pandemic on Scholars with Care Responsibilities: What Can Journals (and Others) Do?

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COVID-19 has been devastating in all sorts of ways for communities and individuals everywhere, exacerbating existing inequalities and structural injustices, such as those pertaining to race, gender, and wealth. And while the harms have been more brutal and life-changing in other contexts, the highly uneven impact of the pandemic has been felt amongst the relatively privileged scholarly community around the world too. The adverse effects of COVID-19 on scholarly work, and the costs of the pandemic, have been unevenly distributed across the academic community in ways that are becoming increasingly evident.

In an ideal society, one free of patriarchal structures and practices, one would expect the burdens of caregiving to be evenly distributed. As a result, in such a society, the impact of the pandemic-related closing of schools and care-giving facilities would also be equally distributed. Unfortunately, the reality is otherwise. Even in pre-pandemic times, in heterosexual marriages, women do significantly more work, both in terms of housework and child-rearing, than their partners (see K. Manne, Entitled (2020), at 120-137). And in American law schools, data suggests a parallel phenomenon: women, and particularly, women of colour, often see their service responsibilities go unrecognized and unrewarded (see M. Deo, Unequal Profession (2019), at 87-88).

The unsurprising result of these existing disparities is that the impact of the pandemic on the workplace, including academia, has been distinctively gendered. In the U.S. alone, nearly 3 million women left the workplace last year. Globally, data suggests that women were more likely to lose their jobs as a consequence of the pandemic in comparison to men, and other gender disparities, both in payment and in domestic work, were also heightened as a result. A recent survey found that while 71% of fathers reported better mental well-being as a consequence of working from home, only 41% of mothers did.

In academia, the impact of the pandemic follows the same gendered pattern. While some studies have found that women are submitting and publishing less than before the pandemic, a new large-scale study has found that although both men’s and women’s productivity increased during the first months of the pandemic in comparison to the same period the year before, women’s productivity did not increase as much as men’s.

This is deeply concerning, and we hope that as the evidence continues to mount and data is gathered, academic institutions will give serious consideration to ways in which they can respond to these – in some ways predictable – impacts and inequalities. In our capacity as journal editors, we are particularly focused on the way in which the heightened impact of uneven caring responsibilities during the course of the pandemic is likely to be reflected in our tables of contents. As we wrote before the pandemic, the number of women submitting their work to I•CON has declined in recent years, and while EJIL had generally seen an upward trend, the last two years on which we have published statistics (including below) also show a drop. And it is now clear that the closure of schools and care facilities during much of the pandemic, and the greatly increased domestic burdens on those with care responsibilities – who are often, though not only women – has significantly affected the time available to them for academic research, writing, and submission of work for publication. In this editorial we outline some measures that we, as journals and journal editors, plan to adopt and to recommend, and we conclude by encouraging other institutions and actors to similarly reflect on what measures they might take to address the problem.

In spite of the limited reach and scope of the solutions that journals can implement, we want to do what we can about those dimensions of the problem that we, as editors, have the power to address. To that end, the EJIL and I•CON editorial boards held an extraordinary joint meeting to discuss what the journals might do. Intersectionality and the existing disadvantages faced by scholars in some countries of the Global South featured prominently both in the assessment of the problem and in brainstorming about ways to think about countering the impact. Many dimensions of the unequal impact of COVID are so entrenched as well as structural that they require responses well beyond that which individual journals can undertake.  Nevertheless, we hope that even by drawing attention in this editorial to the problem, our readers – including those in positions of leadership or influence within academic institutions – will be prompted to do their own brainstorming about what steps could be taken within other contexts to address it.

In terms of the measures EJIL and I•CON might take, a range of ideas was floated and some of these suggestions are currently being developed. We are, for instance, working on a symposium to shed light on the uneven impact of COVID on academic publishing, particularly for those with care responsibilities, and to present ideas for other actors such as universities whose contributions will be critical to addressing the problem.

We also aim to take steps that can be put into effect immediately. First, EJIL and I•CON have for some time requested authors to accompany their submission with a cover letter. We encourage authors, if they wish to do so, to use this cover letter to mention any impact that COVID-related caring responsibilities may have had on their work. It is not that we envisage a special rubric for ‘COVID-impacted articles’. Rather, we would like to have as much relevant information as possible regarding the ways in which COVID-related caring responsibilities may have affected the ability of authors to do their research. We do not have a predetermined view as to how we are likely to respond to individual impact statements: individual circumstances will vary considerably and different impacts require different responses. But in some circumstances we may be able to respond helpfully, and the information will in any case allow us to reflect further on how better to address the problem.

This cover-letter initiative, of course, refers only to those who have managed to produce an article and to submit it to the journal. Yet those who have been hardest hit by caring responsibilities and by their changed domestic-work relationship during the pandemic may find it difficult to reach the stage of submission, and hence of writing a cover letter to accompany it. What such scholars most need is uninterrupted time to research and to write, and this is not something that I•CON or EJIL can readily provide. However, we want to encourage scholars who have found themselves in such situations to make use of the many ways in which the journals publish ideas.

A lengthy, full-fledged article is not the only way in which to communicate an idea, to make an argument, to present a scholarly contribution or to plant the seeds of an idea for future research. EJIL and I•CON have developed numerous rubrics, sections and modalities to allow for a variety of scholarly inputs of different character, length and purpose. One possible vehicle for academics who have found themselves struggling to carve out the time for a longer paper during the pandemic would be the ‘Reply’ option in our Debate section. A reply of, say, 3000 words, which reacts to another author’s previously published article and which engages with the argument of that article can provide the opportunity for pitching a new idea. Similarly, a book review might be a forum for testing out some thoughts, which could provide the seed for the later development of a fuller-fledged argument or idea. A blog post onI•CONnect or EJIL: Talk! could serve a similar purpose, launching some thoughts and generating debate in an initial intervention, which might later become a more developed piece but which in the meantime keeps that scholar engaged in publication and in academic exchange.

Any kind of publication requires time, but some of these lighter or shorter forms may be more easily completed in the periods between caring obligations than the proverbial daunting academic article. We recognize, of course, that such measures will not always help those who have to satisfy more specific publication requirements. Those who are worried that such submissions do not ‘count’ because they are not perceived as being ‘peer reviewed’ should feel free to mention this in a COVID-impact statement in the cover letter, and we will try to address this too. Everybody needs peers, not to mention peer review. As the months without personal meetings and academic travel go by, COVID-induced isolation may take a toll not just on us as persons but also on our academic work. While online workshops and conferences can be more family-friendly than those requiring travel and time away, they often lack the closer engagement and relationship-building opportunities offered by in-person meetings, which can help stimulate collaborative scholarship. Peer review is certainly not an alternative to such events, but it is at least a form of academic exchange and engagement with scholarship. Perhaps such exchanges can momentarily interrupt the sense of isolation that carers in particular may experience: the professional world is marching on, while they feel disengaged from it and exhausted from care work.    

A number of suggestions were made in our joint editorial board meeting that went beyond the role of journals to other domains of academic life, and we would like to share these with our readers as they consider how to handle the impacts of the pandemic in their own academic institutions. Some of these suggestions reflect broader concerns about academia that we have voiced in previous editorials. Amongst them are the need for universities to recognize and give due credit to the importance of different forms of academic service in making tenure and hiring decisions. Given that service of this kind has typically continued through the pandemic – with women often bearing a disproportionate burden (see Guarino and Borden, ‘Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family’, 58 Res. in Higher Educ. (2017) 672 and here) – it has become an even more urgent and important issue to address. Universities should also consider lightening the teaching load of academics who have significant care-giving responsibilities or were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and/or extending the tenure period where appropriate.

Although universities have the primary responsibility to adopt measures to solve what is an institutional problem, given that resource-intensive solutions of this kind cannot or will not realistically be contemplated in all universities, it seems a good moment to encourage acts of solidarity both within and between institutions. We could consider supporting colleagues who have significant care responsibilities as well as asking for support when we need it ourselves. This horizontal solidarity could translate into collaborating with others on teaching or research or temporarily taking an increased administrative workload. Such collaborations might even have the effect both of helping to reduce the teaching burden for those with care responsibilities and, at the same time, foster productive disciplinary and collegial engagement. International law and comparative constitutional studies are global fields, and it is clear that online teaching, whatever its limitations and disadvantages, has provided opportunities for classes to be opened up to external speakers, exposing students to a broader and often transnational range of ideas. Nonetheless, it is worth stressing once again that individual acts of solidarity cannot, on their own, provide a solution to an institutional problem. And in any case, the most important form of solidarity will be to exercise one’s own power within universities and academia to push for institutional measures to whatever extent possible.

Finally, we note the obvious fact that the gender, racial and other injustices and disparities which the pandemic has exacerbated have long predated it, and that ex post measures of the kind we propose will serve as little more than a band-aid in the absence of an institutional and political commitment to acknowledging and addressing the underlying causes. Nevertheless, by drawing attention once more to these disparities and by pledging to do what we can in our capacity as journal editors to address them within this field, we also hope to prompt others to do likewise and to contribute to a broader and more fundamental debate on the issues.

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Kent says

August 16, 2021

Thank you for taking the time to consider these very important issues. I think that some of your points are good (solidarity), some are naïve (workload, institutional reforms), and that you are rightfully acknowledging that these measure will “will serve as little more than a band-aid”.
There is one point that, at least in my view, is counterproductive. Encouraging those who are already suffering from limited opportunities to invest their already limited time/resources in short “replies” or book reviews is highly problematic. As you write, in many academic institutions these shorter pieces will not count and will not contribute to already struggling academics’ career development. While you do acknowledge this problem, you are not offering any solution beyond “yes, this is a problem and universities should change”.
One thing that you can do – from your own privileged position - is to link struggling colleagues with strong co-authors. Co-authoring is much faster and much more productive than single authoring. It also addresses the problem of isolation that you wrote about, as well as the limited opportunities to network. Co-authorship with strong/well known authors will also do wonders for young/struggling colleagues’ CV and appraisal meetings. The editors of EJIL are well-connected and not many will say ‘no’ to an email from you, asking to join in as a co-author, especially as the reward is a published paper rather than a collective ‘thank you’ note from the editors.
Another route to take is that of the more forgiving, flexible and collegial (and yes, also demonised) edited collections.