Are women with kids struggling more under lockdown?

Let’s be clear about this: a lot of people are struggling during these trying times, and for a variety of reasons. Many people worry about the health and wellbeing of themselves or their loved ones, about keeping their jobs, and about paying their bills.

I have a permanent position in academia, which means that I am in the very fortunate position of not having to worry about losing my job. Universities might be hit in the long term, but there are little immediate consequences of the corona crisis for their economic viability.

But academia is infamous for its high workload. A recent survey under Dutch academics indicated that they work on average 36% more than their contractual hours a week. It’s also known for its persistent bias against women. Only 23% of Dutch full professors are female (not to speak of women of colour!). In addition, there is a motherhood penalty: women who have children are disadvantaged in their career even more than those that don’t have children, while men that have children are not disadvantaged at all.

Like many others around the world, I am trying to work from home while caring for and home schooling my two children. And this means that I am struggling to keep up with work and am seriously worried about my sanity. I have effectively halved my workload by scrapping all non-core activities. What’s left is teaching (which had to be changed to online teaching), supervising project students (whose projects I’ve had to rapidly change to data analysis projects), and supporting and supervising my research group (consisting of two PhD students, three postdocs, and two technicians across two universities). I am also supposed to be leading the wider group of people working on soils within my department (but I am failing miserably at that).

And I guess I am also still supposed to be somewhat academically productive, not the least because academic career progress heavily depends on publications and grant funding. But I have not written a single sentence of a paper or a grant proposal since the schools closed. I am struggling to even keep up with the most basic of core activities. I have never been this stressed in my life, and around me, I see people in a similar situation crumbling too. But remarkably, others seem to be doing fine.

(and yes, the irony that I’m now using my valuable time for writing a blog post about this is not lost on me)

So, I was wondering whether having kids at home is causing a divide in academic productivity, and whether this effect depends on gender, as was suggested in this recent article. I started a poll. Do people fall back into the traditional gender roles when stuck at home with their kids? Or, do these patterns change? In the Netherlands, 2/3 of people in vital jobs are women, which presumably resulted in more men being at home with kids, so maybe the gender gap is going in the opposite direction now? I asked whether people had written a paper or grant proposal since the lockdown started, whether they were male or female, and had children or not.

Of course, I realise that not everything is down to being male or female and having kids or not. As some people rightly pointed out, there are many other reasons for people not being productive, which the poll did not take into account. I also recognise that this poll ignores non-binary gender and assumes two-partner, heterosexual relationships. But, despite all these caveats, it should be able to answer the questions above, and give some insight into whether the lockdown is going to disadvantage any of these groups in the hyper-competitive academic model (with a large enough number of respondents, and assuming that these are a true representation of academia, which of course is questionable!).

Anyway, the poll results.

Numbers of men and women who have been writing since the lockdown, split by those that have kids vs. those that don’t. Bars represent total number (in white) of respondents belonging to that particular category.

In total there were 504 respondents, of which 290 men and 214 women, roughly following the demography of twitter. And most of us are still managing to write! Interestingly, a larger proportion of women has been writing than men, 71.5% of women versus 59% of men (and this difference is significant according to a simple test of equality of proportions, p = 0.005).

There is clearly no effect of having children on men’s productivity. But it looks like more women manage to write when they don’t have children, and of those that are not writing, more have children. However, this difference is not statistically significant (p = 0.18). When we lump men and women and focus on whether there is a difference in productivity between people with and without children it looks as if of those who are not writing, more people have kids than of those who are writing (this pattern is again not significant though, p = 0.1)

What’s the take home? There’s no evidence here to suggest that women’s productivity will suffer more because of being stuck at home with children – if anything, it looks like women are being more productive than men at the moment! But perhaps those who are stuck at home with children really are a bit less productive.

[Update 26 April 2020] About a week after I ran my poll and published this post, an article came out on reduced article submission rates by women, suggesting that the lockdown really is hitting women’s productivity, and likely careers, especially hard.

The reality is, many of us are struggling – according to my follow up poll around 60%. Some of us are struggling because of obvious, and perhaps socially accepted, reasons: small children that require lots of attention, sick or old relatives, other caring responsibilities. But many are struggling because there’s a global pandemic going on. Because they are alone in their house. Because they miss being outside. Because they crave physical contact. Because they miss their friends. Or just because. And many of those people do not feel seen or heard. So please, check in on your friends or colleagues. Because you might not see their struggle. Let’s be kind to each other.


1 thought on “Are women with kids struggling more under lockdown?

  1. Thanks for your post, I’m pleased that you took the time to do the research and write up your findings. Your closing sentence, let’s be kind to each other, is a valuable reminder of the default way to relate to each other during, and after, the pandemic. We don’t know what it is about living through these times that will leave a mark on us, individually and/or collectively.

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