Regaining balance: How women faculty can navigate expectations in a pandemic world

// Biomedical Engineering

Photo of Kristyn Masters and Pamela Kreeger

Kristyn Masters (left), a Vilas Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering and H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellow at UW-Madison, and Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Pamela Kreeger.

Amid the fog of pandemic life, Pamela Kreeger planned a simple diversion: a special dinner of pork tomatillo stew for her family of four. And, this being 2020, as she prepared it, a fuse blew, leaving her stove ruined and her house reeking of burnt wiring. It took Kreeger, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, three days to find time to call a repair person between the demands of work and childcare.

“I don’t think that’s abnormal for anybody right now: This one little extra thing, you’re just teetering so close to the edge that it shoves you right over,” says Kreeger, who studies ovarian cancer progression at the cellular level.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted academia as a whole, the crunch of balancing research, teaching and family responsibilities has fallen particularly hard on women faculty members. Reports have already indicated significant drops in paper submissions among women researchers during the pandemic, while numerous studies have broadly confirmed that women unsurprisingly bear the greater brunt of household work among heterosexual couples.

With that in mind, Kreeger and frequent collaborator Kristyn Masters, a Vilas Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering and H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellow at UW-Madison, have put together a list of 10 suggestions for women principal investigators to better navigate the juggling act of research, teaching, mentorship, service and at-home commitments during the pandemic. Their article, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology and coauthored with seven other women faculty members from across the country, drew more than 5,000 views within 24 hours of publishing online, along with a steady stream of tweets.

“This article seems to be striking a chord with people,” says Masters, a single mother of two who uses tissue engineering to study cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The group’s recommendations—preceded by one rule, “There literally are no rules”—are:

1. Find a peer group of women to provide professional support
2. Say no to requests to do anything outside of your main responsibilities
3. Drop something
4. When you have energy to do more than the minimum, use that in support of women and underrepresented groups
5. Remember, you know yourself best
6. It’s OK to push back
7. Remember, you have some flexibility to make your own schedule
8. Whatever help you can get, take it
9. Do your best to remember that others are struggling too—be empathetic and work to build a community
10. Don’t lose your sense of humor

The authors also included recommendations for institutions to help support women faculty members and improve gender equity in workloads. Women faculty generally handle a greater share of the service burden, a dynamic confirmed by a 2017 study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Indiana.

Kreeger, Masters and their coauthors suggest, among other tactics, that colleges and universities assess teaching and service loads within departments, reevaluate tenure and promotion criteria (including increasing the value placed on service, particularly in regard to work on diversity, equity and inclusion), and educate supervisors on the unique challenges women and other primary caregivers are currently experiencing.

“We are frequently hearing this message of, ‘We’re all in the same boat here,’ in terms of something being really hard. And I’ve really pushed against that. We are not all in the same boat,” says Masters, who is part of a UW System task force developing ways to support caregivers and examining the varied effects of the pandemic on faculty and staff across genders. “An analogy that I’ve heard is that we’re all in the same storm, but we have very different boats. And I think it’s really important for people to recognize that people have very different resources available to them.”

As the pandemic drags on, Kreeger and Masters say institutions also need to plan for the longer-term “aftershocks,” such as research funding gaps in the next one to three years that will result because some faculty members currently have less time to write grant applications. Those gaps will not only cut into university budgets, but will also mean fewer graduate students, since research grants fund their work.

And the two say that while many universities and colleges have extended their faculty tenure time clocks in recognition of COVID-19’s effects, they should also revise their expectations for tenure given the scale of the pandemic’s influence on faculty work.

“We really don’t have the answers yet, and I think that’s OK,” says Kreeger, “but I think we need to do a better job of making it clear that we’re having the discussions.”

Author: Tom Ziemer