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The barking dog is okay

President Timmons considers women's challenges during COVID-19

Campus and Community

By Dr. Vianne Timmons

I’m hearing some interesting stories as faculty, staff and students pass the one-month mark working from home.

One manager’s two-year-old son told her he wanted to do a conference call.

A professor’s two young children had a contest involving their noses while she invigilated a PhD defence.

They are fun stories. They’re also telling. Women in their thousands are working in new workplaces – their kitchens or bedrooms or basements. And their co-workers are the cats and kids.

I personally found it challenging moving into a new home with two daughters and three dogs.

Strange new reality

I want to highlight the excellent article published in The Telegram on May 6 that focused on women’s issues during the pandemic.

It’s a strange new reality for both women and men. But while many partnerships are truly equal, women traditionally take on the greater percentage of home and child care. I’m not diminishing the active role many men take on in the home; I’m simply acknowledging that sometimes women do a whole lot more.

With schools closed, moms have become the teacher and the entertainer, the cook and the cleaner. Maybe sometimes the mental health monitor.

If I’m not parenting, I’m working

Dr. Alyson Byrne, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business Administration, studies work-family dynamics and makes some interesting observations about the situation women find themselves in over the past month while working from home.

The first is that you can’t hide your personal life anymore. With people meeting online and with visuals, you can’t hide the dirty dishes, the crying child or the unfolded laundry. The layers are being peeled off, something we are all experiencing, so there’s no judgments to be made (though maybe some jokes!).

“The results of slowed research output will be seen for a long time.”

Another positive aspect is that partners tend to have a greater appreciation of what the other does at work. They are learning new things about themselves and their partners. They see, in ways they couldn’t before, what the other one does during a typical day and may have greater respect for what they do or how they do it. They may also provide support for the other that wasn’t an option when they headed in different directions each morning.

Challenging times

But it’s not all good news, particularly for women academics. As noted above, women tend to take on more child and home care duties. Combined with the need to continue researching or teaching, it can make for some very long, difficult days.

It can also have some long-standing consequences. Some journals are reporting that women researchers are producing less. They are submitting fewer articles for publication. In one Facebook group, one brilliant scholar said this is the end of her career.

Because there is no end in sight of the 24/7 dual roles many women are experiencing, the results of slowed research output will be seen for a long time due to inability to develop new research, submit new grants or simply to write.

“As women struggle to cope, as the layers are peeled away, we know there’s more we can do.”

Across the university, women from senior leadership to support staff are struggling to produce, to remain active and engaged in their work, while at the same time supporting their families at home.

“Whatever situation you have, on average it’s the woman doing more, and it’s not because she’s working less,” said Dr. Christopher Rauh, an economist at Cambridge University.

Researchers are taking the opportunity to learn from this. For example, Dr. Byrne and two co-authors at Queen’s University are proposing to study how COVID-19 is impacting couples who now have to work at home together and if there are certain triggers, such as breadwinning status, that make it more or less difficult for couples.

As has been said so often, we are in a new reality – we are all in a new reality. And as women struggle to cope, as the layers are peeled away, we know there’s more we can do.

More can be done

I have said before that there are many concrete ways in which women working in senior positions in universities can support other women. Firstly, it is important to recognize the challenges that women face. In these times we have to be flexible with meetings and often unexpected guests.

In the longer term, Memorial will fill the new position of vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) who will work to foster and enhance diverse, inclusive and equitable learning and working environments across Memorial. I suspect the experiences of women working during COVID-19 will ultimately factor into future institutional EDI goals.

In the meantime, children joining our conference calls is okay. The barking dog is okay.

If we all just take a deep breath, we’ll be okay.

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