For female academics, the narrative of our careers readily falls into two eras: before Covid hit and after. Before the pandemic, we bore the disproportionate burden of service, were less likely to be promoted to full professor, and felt the “baby penalty.” Since March 2020, all of the above still applies, only worse.
No doubt you’ve seen the headlines on the pandemic’s “sexist consequences” — how it has “hit female academics the hardest” and led to increased “gaps in productivity and publishing” and “lost research time.” Women have shouldered the burdens of “child care, eldercare, and student emotional support.”
And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. While my own career can be easily divided into before- and after-Covid eras, the distinguishing characteristic is that now — for the first time in my life — I write every day. Following changes I made early on during lockdown, I am writing and publishing more than ever before.
How did that happen? A key part of the explanation: I have a supportive partner, a tenured position, good health, and two decent-quality coffee machines in the home. Yet I had all of those things before the pandemic and only managed to publish an article a year. And that was in a good year.
So what changed? And the more important question for female academics, and especially for mothers: Is my experience an isolated case, or could this be something that others could replicate, given the right “lab” conditions, levels of support, and sufficient caffeine?
In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising finding of my inadvertent productivity experiment is that what happened was something that has always been within my control, but I simply did not realize it. To explain, I will go back to the beginning.
In March 2020, as the national lockdown began, my husband (also an academic) and I suddenly needed to do our full-time jobs from home. We were teaching and grading, and carrying out significant service obligations (I was wrapping up a stint as the “Quality Enhancement Plan director” for my campus — accreditation lingo), while parenting three children (then 14, 4, and 1).
As a household of obsessive Type A people, we coped by creating a rigid daily schedule. As part of it, and for the first time in my career, I built something new into my workday: an hour of uninterrupted quiet time, just for writing.
Every day at 4 p.m., my husband stopped work and took the two younger kids outside for an hour to run around the yard, look for dinosaur fossils (to date, that quest has fallen short), blow bubbles, and climb trees. I set up camp in the kitchen and devised two key rules for myself: No checking email during this hour, and no working on anything other than my research and writing.
The result was a glimpse of joy and sanity each day. It allowed me to enjoy my family and work much more than before, and certainly more than I would have otherwise, under pandemic conditions. The practical outcomes:
- By the end of that 2020 summer, I had done the research and written from scratch two academic articles on a topic that was outside my previous expertise. I sent off both to journals. As of this writing, one has been published, and the other has been accepted for publication.
- I started writing short pieces regularly in a new-to-me genre: public writing in mainstream outlets. It’s been an exciting opportunity to share my ideas. But this kind of writing also offers me an additional measure of accountability: I have monthly deadlines, which means that not writing is not an option.
- I am now finishing a book project that I started in January 2021. It’s under contract and due to the publisher by late August.
Most important, I am a much more fulfilled academic now than I was before the pandemic. This is particularly remarkable, given the internal strife on my campus.
I know I haven’t made a new discovery here. Plenty of studies and advice suggest the importance of a writing habit. People who write every day are (surprise!) more productive writers, and regular practice tends to make them better writers. It turns out that setting up a daily writing routine is far less stressful than putting it all off until you’ve “got time” during your spring and summer breaks. As I tell my students: When you write, you exercise certain muscles that atrophy when left unused. Not literally true, but a helpful analogy nevertheless.
All of this is well-known advice. So why is it so difficult for many academics to establish such a daily habit and stick to it? Indeed, why didn’t I do this earlier?
For me, the answer has to do with the service trap into which I and so many female academics fall without ever intending to — the “good girl” syndrome, as some have dubbed it, or the “academic housework” trap, as it is known in Britain. I appreciate the latter term, as it is a reminder of the general replication of gender roles from the home into the workplace.
And so, study after study shows that women are conditioned to believe that our most important contribution to the profession is our service. This is especially true, of course, at teaching-heavy universities like mine — a type of institution that also happens to be service-heavy. Surrounded by mountains of service duties, women are more likely than men to feel a sense of obligation: After all, someone has to do it. And if no one else volunteers, most often a woman will.
This is a trap into which a lot of female academics fall. For instance, in going up for promotion, a colleague was stunned to realize that she had literally done double the amount of service expected for promotion on her campus.
Too often, alas, that level of service comes at the expense of writing. There are only 24 hours in the day, and there are limits to the mental and emotional energy that anyone can muster. And so — while it seems strange to put it this way — I truly believed that my scholarly ideas were not as important as some of the other things I could do with my time, such as administer my department’s graduate program or my institution’s Quality Enhancement Plan. Were those things valuable? Of course. But I should not have allowed service assignments to squeeze out the pursuit of intellectual work that had brought me into academe in the first place.
It took a pandemic, and a concomitant sense of burnout, for me to realize that it was OK to prioritize the things that bring me joy. That meant prioritizing my own research and writing. In particular, I realized that my research on Cyprian — who was bishop of a bustling and diverse church in the Roman Empire at a time of another pandemic — was directly relevant to understanding the events through which we are living now.
My ideas, in other words, can serve the world around me in some small way that is no less, and maybe more, important than the countless committees on which I have been serving for the past decade. So now, when I have ideas for something about which I want to write, I write. At the end of this academic year, I will be stepping down as my program’s head of graduate studies, and trying to scale back my service to a more average load.
Pandemic or no, could this approach work for other female academics — given the all-important support structures?
Absolutely. The British academic and lay theologian C.S. Lewis once described hell as a room with a door that is locked from within. While I do not share his general theology on this matter, this seems to be an apt analogy for the academic service hell in which women are sometimes trapped. Unlock the door, and get out.