Women academic scientists have long juggled unequal family caregiving and domestic demands and faced gender discrimination, and this is particularly true in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM), where women are significantly underrepresented (Zimmer, 2020). While the COVID-19 pandemic is not responsible for the domestic labor challenges that increasingly affect the careers of many academic scientists, it has exacerbated them and shined a light on the work-life inequality that women experience, one that is a growing form of job inequality (Kossek and Lautsch, 2018; Kossek and Lee, 2020b). In fact, reports suggest that such work-life inequality could result in setbacks in gender representation and advancement in STEMM fields and the loss of early-career women in academics, particularly those with children (Cardel et al., 2020a). These reports indicate that growing numbers of professional women (Coury et al., 2020), particularly those in academia (Buckee et al., 2020), are considering cutting back or leaving the workplace altogether because of family demands brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This chapter focuses on the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the personal-professional boundary interface and work-life issues for women in academic STEMM; how gendered expectations of domestic labor and caregiving responsibilities for children and elders have shifted or affected professional labor and well-being for women; how research has informed emerging
1 This chapter is primarily based on the commissioned paper “Boundaryless Work: The Impact of COVID-19 on Work-Life Boundary Management, Integration, and Gendered Divisions of Labor for Academic Women in STEMM,” by Ellen Ernst Kossek, Tammy Allen, and Tracy L. Dumas.
individual boundary management and family-care coping strategies; and how the events of 2020 have widened the gap between current and desired organizational practices to support increasingly blurred work-life boundaries as well as preferences for integration and separation.
This review of pre-COVID-19 pandemic literature is organized into two main parts, with a focus on data-based studies that were specific to academic women and particularly those in STEMM.2 The first part provides a brief overview of work-life foundational concepts relevant to this report, including work-family (or personal) life conflict, enrichment, boundary management, and their relationships. The second part examines the implications of these concepts for women’s careers in their academic social contexts, which have work structures and cultures that were largely developed before women increased their participation in STEMM fields. These themes reflect how work-family dynamics play out in academic social contexts that can be characterized as not being responsive to a growing mismatch between women faculty’s career and personal life synthesis needs and the design of academic institutions.
Foundational Concepts from the Work-Life Literature
Work-Family Conflict, Enrichment, and Gender
Tensions between work and nonwork lives can be understood from the individual and organizational psychological science behind role theory and the associated concepts of role conflict and enrichment. All individuals have multiple roles in life—employee, parent, partner, daughter, and volunteer, for example (Katz and Kahn, 1966)—in which a role is defined as a position in a group or organization with accompanying responsibilities, rights, and behavioral expectations (Kahn et al., 1964). Role conflict occurs when an individual perceives incompatible time, strain, or behavior-based demands between work and nonwork roles (Greenhaus and Beutell, 1985; Kahn et al., 1964). For example, a tenure-track faculty member who is a parent may perceive that the behaviors she must carry out to care for her children interfere with the research, teaching, and service demands at an academic institution. Qualitative studies in academic medicine have described similar challenges (Strong et al., 2013). During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that these work-nonwork demands may be increasingly at odds, particularly in families with school-age children when, for example, the
adult is scheduled to teach a class via Zoom at the same time that a child needs help with online schooling.
Historically, work-family research has suggested that women’s work-family experiences can differ from those of men. An early meta-analysis found that the relationships between work-family conflict and both job and life satisfaction had stronger negative associations for women than for men (Kossek and Ozeki, 1998). Evidence from another meta-analysis, conducted two decades later, suggests that as men become more involved in household tasks, they are starting to report as much work-family conflict as women do (Shockley et al., 2017). While men may believe they more equally share household tasks, the data on actual household labor time show that women with children under age 6 spend less time in the labor force and more time on household tasks than do men, a trend that continues for school-age children (Bianchi et al., 2012; Glynn, 2018) and generally for eldercare (Porter, 2017).
Complementing the literature on work-family conflict is a growing body of research on work-family enrichment, defined as the positive transfer of knowledge, skills, and emotions from one domain to another (Greenhaus and Powell, 2006). Work-family enrichment theory assumes that having multiple roles can benefit well-being. This relationship between multiple roles is most likely to occur when one’s work and nonwork demands can be carried out in ways that align with preferences for how one synthesizes work and nonwork roles. For example, employed men reported positive work-to-family enrichment relationships in the transfer of positive emotions and engagement from the work-to-family realms, while women are depleted in the spillover from work-to-family roles (Rothbard, 2001). Though women also experience enrichment, it tends to go in the opposite direction, from the family role to the work role (Rothbard, 2001).
Boundary Management Strategies, Control, and Work-Family Conflict
Work-life boundary management is defined as the organization of work and nonwork roles to reinforce or weaken the boundary between them cognitively, physically, and emotionally (Allen et al., 2014; Ashforth et al., 2000; Kossek et al., 2012). Boundary control refers to an employee’s ability to control how they manage the boundary between work and nonwork roles and considers whether an employee can maintain the boundary aligned with their preferences (Kossek et al., 2012; Wotschack et al., 2014). When individuals lack boundary control and the ability to choose the amount of work-nonwork segmentation, they have lower person-environment fit (Kreiner, 2006).
Individuals vary in the ways that they prefer to organize and synthesize work and nonwork roles to align with their career and family identities and roles (Kossek et al., 2012). Those who prefer integration are comfortable removing or blurring boundaries between work and nonwork, whereas those who prefer segmentation would rather keep boundaries between work and nonwork more
intact (Allen et al., 2014; Ashforth et al., 2000; Kossek et al., 2012). Others cycle frequently through varying boundary styles as work- and family-role demands shift in peaks and valleys over time (Kossek, 2016). Figure 4-1 summarizes different boundary management styles validated in several studies.
Research suggests that an individual’s preferred alignment of work and nonwork roles may shape their boundary management style and the degree to which they integrate and segment those roles (Kossek et al., 2012). However, besides family structures, organizational policies, job structures, and occupational norms may determine the extent to which individuals have the ability to integrate or segment work and nonwork roles, as well as their overall amount of control over the work-nonwork boundary (Allen et al., 2014; Ashforth et al., 2000; Kossek, 2016). Organizational contexts may also influence the degree to which one perceives the ability to access and customize work flexibility to manage boundaries and the effectiveness of boundary management strategies (Kossek and Lautsch, 2012; Kramer, 2020b; Rothbard et al., 2005).
In general, research shows that a more permeable work-nonwork boundary is associated with increased work-family conflict, increased distress, higher turnover intentions, and diminished work performance (Boswell et al., 2016; Chesley, 2005; Kossek et al., 2012). For example, interviews of Navy personnel, their commanding officers, and family members found that the use of cell phones and email while on duty resulted in distractions, interruptions, reduced productivity,
and mistakes at work, resulting in organizational policies restricting such work-nonwork integration (Stanko and Beckman, 2014). Permeable boundaries can make employees feel as if they never truly leave work behind, and they feel the burden of the expectation that they must be available at all times to meet work demands (Duxbury et al., 2014; Jostell and Hemlin, 2018). Such continuous availability is associated with increased work-family conflict (Eddleston et al., 2017; Lapierre et al., 2016), emotional exhaustion (Dettmers, 2017), and the inability to recover adequately from work (Dettmers et al., 2016).
For many professionals, including women in STEMM, creating separation between professional identities and personal boundaries can be challenging (Dumas and Sanchez-Burks, 2015). Studies show that work-life boundaries can be more permeable for women than men, as they are likely to interrupt work for family demands (Rothbard, 2001). As a result, variation in boundary management strategies can result in varying effects on work-family conflict and employee well-being, including outcomes such as engagement, stress, depressive symptoms, and exhaustion (Chesley, 2005; Olson-Buchanan and Boswell, 2006; Powell and Greenhaus, 2010; Rothbard, 2001).
Women’s Second Shift at Work and Home, Diverse Needs, and Ideal Worker Tensions
The extra work and nonwork demands that women faculty face compared with their counterparts who are men are numerous. The term second shift is based on research showing that employed mothers face a double day of work (Hochschild, 1989). After returning home from a day of paid work, most begin their second shift of unpaid work that includes childcare and housework. Decades after second shift was coined, the gendered division of nonpaid labor remains (Shockley and Shen, 2016). Specific to faculty, time expenditure studies show that women faculty spend more time caring for children than do their men counterparts (Golden et al., 2011; Misra et al., 2012).
Eldercare, which also falls more heavily on women than men, has a different life cycle and care dynamics than childcare (Kossek et al., 2001). Though there are exceptions, such as in one study of faculty that found no gender differences in eldercare involvement (Misra et al., 2012), women account for more than 60 percent of caregivers for elderly parents or other aging family members (National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 2020). About 60 percent of eldercare providers work while caregiving, with most reporting that caregiving negatively affects their work (National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 2020). Those adults who care for dependent children and an older adult are referred to as “sandwiched caregivers.” Women account for three in five sandwiched caregivers, who as a whole account for 28 percent of all caregivers (National Alliance for Caregiving, 2019). Sandwiched caregivers are more racially or ethnically diverse than non-sandwiched caregivers (Schiebinger et al., 2008).
Different family structures or marital status and household career configurations can privilege the caregiving resources available to men faculty who are more likely to be in family structures where their career is primary in a couple. For example, reports indicate that in dual-academic couples, men faculty are four times more likely to have a partner who provides full-time domestic care than are women faculty (Jolly et al., 2014). Similar findings have been reported among STEMM faculty.
Researchers have examined the time that physician recipients of a National Institutes of Health K08 or K23 award spend on parenting and domestic work (El-Alayli et al., 2018). Women in this study were more likely than men to have spouses or domestic partners who were employed full time. Moreover, among married or partnered physicians with children, women spent 8.5 more hours per week on domestic activities than did men after controlling for work hours and spouse employment (El-Alayli et al., 2018).
The gender differences associated with caring for others is not limited to home, and, in fact, women’s care work roles often extend into the work domain. Women professors, for example, report having more teaching-related work and receiving more special favor requests from students than do men professors (Guarino and Borden, 2017) (see Chapter 3 for more on service tasks).
Academic Scientists as Overloaded Ideal Workers
With increasing workloads and the rise of personal electronic devices that blur work-life boundaries, many academic STEMM professionals face role overload. Similar to other professionals with a large investment in human capital, many STEMM faculty are socialized to work long hours after having invested years into earning a doctoral or medical degree and then working to advance in their careers to tenure and beyond. Such work devotion continuously competes with nonwork passions or interests (Blair-Loy and Cech, 2017).
Norms encouraging adherence to “ideal worker” behaviors contribute to the overwork pressures that often prioritize work over personal life (Kossek et al., forthcoming; NASEM, 2020). The concept of the ideal worker reflects a breadwinner-homemaker model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution (Williams, 2020) and perpetuates the myth that work and nonwork lives are “separate worlds” (Kanter, 1977). Ideal workers try to ensure that family or other nonwork matters do not hinder work commitments (Kossek et al., forthcoming). This behavior results in overworking, the idea of working more than is needed to perform one’s job to the detriment of one’s health and well-being (Blair-Loy and Cech, 2017; Kossek et al., forthcoming).
Occupational cultures, such as academic culture, often socialize to believe success requires sacrificing their personal lives, which reinforces overworking (Blair-Loy and Cech, 2017; Kossek et al., 2001; NASEM, 2020). In addition, early-career scientists and physicians are often juggling romantic relationships,
partnering, and starting a family, which are assumed to potentially harm future career prospects because they can distract from work roles (Kossek and Lee, 2020a). For example, a 2019 study showed that the rates of leaving the profession after the birth of a first child for academic STEMM women were double the rates for men (Oliveira et al., 2019).
Intersectionality and Work-life Research
Scholars have pointed to the growing relevance of diversity and inclusion concepts (Kossek and Lee, 2020c) and intersectionality theory to work-life research issues (Mor Barak, 2020),3 and the concept of intersectionality is opening up new avenues for work-life research and policy. For example, the work-life issues of single Black women have been largely ignored by academic institutions that have often considered and prioritized work-life issues in terms of gender and overlooked race issues that intersect with gender (Creary, 2020).
It is important to examine intersectional work-life issues because underrepresented faculty, such as Women of Color, are more likely to report perceptions of work exclusion where they feel that their personal and professional needs and values are not being addressed (Mor Barak, 2020; Zimmerman et al., 2016). For example, national data show that a Black woman with a college degree in her midthirties to midforties is 15 percent less likely to be married than a white woman without a degree (Brookings Institution, 2017). This trend is exacerbated in less racially diverse rural and small city college towns where many academic institutions are located (Creary, 2020).
Work-life preferences for employer support intersect not only with race and gender but also with other forms of difference, such as parental status, disability, age, and career stage (Kossek and Lee, 2020a, 2020c). In spite of this, organizations and scholars have largely not attended to growing diversity and intersectionality in work-life needs (Kossek and Lee, 2020c; Mor Barak, 2020), which can impact how work-life boundaries are managed in racially and gender-imbalanced work units.
Boundary Management of Personal Identities in Gender and Racially Imbalanced Contexts
Whereas most research has focused on boundary management as a means to handle conflicting role demands, existing research also addresses the effect of boundaries on workplace relationships and employees’ professional identities (Dumas et al., 2013; Dumas and Sanchez-Burks, 2015). Employees not only attend to whether the tasks associated with their work and family roles conflict
3 The concept of intersectionality is a lens for understanding how social identities, especially for marginalized groups, relate to systems of authority and power.
but also whether aspects of their personal identities conflict with the accepted or desired norms for professionalism in their workplace. When women work in fields dominated by men, as many women in STEMM do, many report feeling that their gender is seen as incompatible with professional norms. As a result, their boundary management practices take the form of concealing aspects of their personal lives that highlight their gender or parental status if they are mothers (Cheryan et al., 2009; Jorgenson, 2002; Prokos and Padavic, 2002).
Similarly, work organizations often send the message to members of marginalized groups that they must alter their behavior to fit with professional norms (Ramarajan and Reid, 2020). As a result, Black, Latinx, and other People of Color are often intentional in managing the boundary between their personal and professional lives to preserve workplace relationships with dissimilar others (Dumas et al., 2013). For example, Black employees report refraining from disclosing personal information to their white coworkers because of concerns over career repercussions (Phillips et al., 2018). When they do disclose personal information, they may be careful to share only what will enhance their status at work and downplay their racial or gender category (Phillips et al., 2009; Yoshino, 2001). Research also indicates that refraining from discussing personal information at work, or strategically downplaying one’s demographic categories, is also within the realm of managing the work-nonwork boundary.
Work-Life Policies and Practices Traditionally Offered by Academic Institutions
While most academic institutions believe they provide an environment that supports a healthy work-life balance, research suggests they generally fail to some degree (Kossek and Lee, 2020a, 2020c; Matthews, 2020). A few innovative programs have emerged that provide workload assistance to relieve time pressures, such as for physician scientists (Jagsi et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2019). Such programs may help to reduce the stigma of disclosing the caregiving responsibilities described above, as participants share experiences and increase awareness of the frequency and legitimacy of such caregiving challenges (Jones et al., 2020). However, with the exception of some of these newer piloted programs, which have yet to be fully integrated into academic institutions, far less attention has been devoted to using work-life policies to support the development of healthy work-life boundaries and cultures of well-being as a vehicle for faculty retention (Kossek and Lee, 2020b, 2020c).
The most common ways that academic institutions have responded to faculty work-life needs are (1) offering dual-career hiring to attract and retain academic faculty, with less consistent support for hiring nonacademic spouses; (2) offering childcare centers on campus, though spaces are often limited with long waiting lists, particularly for infant care; (3) allowing faculty to extend the tenure clock with parental leave; and (4) offering help with realtors and school information for
faculty with children when hired (CUWFA, n.d.; Kossek and Lee, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c; Matthews, 2020; Schiebinger et al., 2008). While it seems less common for academic institutions to provide work flexibility for employees who are parents and those with eldercare demands, such as control over the timing of early morning or night classes and meetings, more evidence is needed to corroborate this view. An ongoing National Science Foundation study is exploring this observation to see if it does indeed hold true (Kossek et al., 2019–2021).
Supervisors and Peer Cultural Support Matters
A large body of work on supervisor support for family and personal life suggests it is likely that much of an academic department’s support for how it accommodates family and personal life scheduling needs is often determined on an ad hoc decision-making basis by the department chair, resulting in wide variability (Kossek, 2005, 2006a, 2006b). However, evidence shows the benefits of strong, consistent leadership and an organizational culture that supports work-life issues. Meta-analyses show that when individuals perceive their supervisors as supporting work and family or personal roles, they are more likely to experience less work-family conflict and perceive their organizations as work-life supportive (Kossek et al., 2011).
Regarding eldercare and sandwiched care supports, given these are often outsourced to employee assistance firms, with universities often taking a hands-off approach, it is likely this support is also uneven in effectiveness, though once again this needs to be systematically investigated (CUWFA, n.d.). Support for the tensions of juggling dual academic careers that may vary in job security or career progress or for single parents is also limited (Thompson, 2020).
Systematic Work: Redesigned and Reduced-Load Work Options Overlooked
While academic institutions have overlooked adopting work redesign and cultural interventions to increase organizational support for work-life issues as a form of support for diversity and inclusion (Kossek, 2020), they do often provide leaves of absence for common work-life needs such as unexpected family care needs due to illness. It may be easier to offer faculty time off as a short-term solution rather than experiment with redesigning occupational work cultures and reducing job demands. Many private-sector employers offer customized, reduced-load work options to enable high-talent employees to experience a more balanced life during career advancement as a means of fostering sustainable careers and retaining employees (Kossek and Ollier-Malaterre, 2019). Faculty, however, are largely expected to self-manage and know how to create their own healthy boundaries. Overall, many academic institutions have yet to move work-life issues from
the margins to the mainstream of job design and talent management strategies (Kossek et al., 2010).
Stepping out of the workforce for even a few years can risk career derailment and significantly decrease lifetime earnings with accrued pension effects from career gaps. Such trends have led scholars to depict women’s careers as having “the sagging middles”; the tendency of many women to decrease hours and work productivity or leave the labor force after a first or second child (Goldin and Mitchell, 2017). Indeed, a study of pay equity of faculty from 1980 to 2004 found that gender pay gaps can be attributed to career interruptions and declines in accumulated human capital due to stepping out of the workforce or cutting back for children (Porter et al., 2008). These effects vary within STEMM disciplines.
Given the lead-time for publishing academic articles, few published studies directly examine work-life challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic for women faculty in STEMM. However, the common themes in the articles published during 2020 were consistent with findings in foundational work-family literature and, while not STEMM specific, with the literature on the work-life challenges of academic motherhood (Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2012).
Rise in Childcare and Homeschool Demands and Increased Partner Tensions
As workplaces, schools, and childcare centers closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents faced new and unusual dependent care and domestic demands, including homeschooling their children. With children and working parents in the home all day, parents had to reorganize caregiving time and work time. Several studies during spring and summer 2020 showed that caregiving time fell largely to mothers (Carlson et al., 2020a; Craig and Churchill, 2020; Myers et al., 2020; Shockley et al., 2020).
In one COVID-19–specific study, researchers analyzed data from the International Society for Stem Cell Research member survey (Kent et al., 2020), nearly 56 percent of which came from academics.4 More than 85 percent of survey respondents reported increased caregiving responsibilities, and almost 50 percent of these respondents indicated that the additional family responsibilities disrupted their work. This trend was even greater among early-career faculty members, as 71 percent reported that their increased childcare responsibilities were hindering their work. The only reported home intervention for securing stretches of time to complete work was to trade off working shifts with a partner.
Several studies have shown there are health and well-being implications of these unequal childcare responsibilities. One recent study found that for couples in which the wife was working remotely and taking on all of the childcare responsibilities, women reported the lowest family cohesion, highest relationship tension, and lowest job performance (Shockley et al., 2020). Similarly, a study of the rates of anxiety among physician mothers showed that 41 percent scored over the threshold for moderate or severe anxiety (Linos et al., 2020). Other studies have also found that the mental health of working mothers has suffered during the pandemic (Zamarro and Prado, 2020). In addition, women business leaders and women employees reported greater work-related stress compared with their counterparts who are men (Catalyst, 2020a) (see Chapter 7 for more on mental health and well-being).
To cope with additional caregiving demands, women are reducing their work hours (Madgavkar et al., 2020). For women in STEMM with children or other dependent-care responsibilities, many had significantly less time in the day to network and engage in collaborations because of increased nonwork tasks (Heggeness, 2020; Kossek and Lee, 2020b; Myers et al., 2020). One study of dual-earner, married couples with children found that for parents in telecommuting-capable jobs with children between 1 and 5 years old, mothers report nearly 4.5 times larger reductions in work hours than fathers (Collins et al., 2020). Moreover, in another study of 25 U.S. women faculty members and 55 Italian women faculty members, all of whom had children, the women reported a perceived cognitive deficit from managing the demands of children all day (Minello, 2020). These responses were consistent with research showing that blurred work-nonwork boundaries are associated with increased work-family conflict (Hecht and Allen, 2009; Kossek et al., 2006; Krukowski et al., 2020).
A potential positive change was that one-third of employees who are men and nearly two-thirds of business leaders who are men reported taking on a more equitable share of chores at home in a survey (Catalyst, 2020a). Emerging work from several nations suggest that men have started shouldering more caregiving and child-rearing duties, a view corroborated by their partners (Carlson et al., 2020b; Savage, 2020; van Veen and Wijnants, 2020). A study by a consumer marketing group found that 62 percent of men wanted to keep working at home specifically because it increased family time (Fluent, Inc., 2020). In addition, slightly more women than men expressed the belief that the new working environment during the COVID-19 pandemic may provide more flexibility in work-life balance and control over their schedules in the future (Catalyst, 2020a).
Work-Life Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Faculty of Color
While the committee could not find refereed empirical scholarly literature on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work-life challenges specific to STEMM women Faculty of Color, there were media reports of disparate negative
health, career, and work-life effects. Many news reports provided anecdotal evidence that the pandemic negatively affected the well-being of many Faculty of Color compared with their white counterparts. Faculty of Color were more likely to have or know a family member or friend who got ill or died from the virus than white faculty. The COVID-19 pandemic also made it difficult for more junior faculty hires to find housing, which became more expensive and more difficult to secure (Brooks, 2020). The tightening labor market, rescinded new-hire positions, institutional layoffs, and dissolution or reorganization of departments to manage the decline in student enrollments negatively affected the careers of Faculty of Color (Aviles, 2020) (see Chapter 3 for more on academic careers).
Women faculty in STEMM faced unique challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic related to juggling growing second-shift challenges juxtaposed with increased boundary permeability, rising workloads, and persistent ideal-worker cultures. Remote work can be a double-edged sword for women’s careers (Kossek et al., 2014). For example, while it can facilitate the management of work-family roles, it also increases multitasking, process losses from switching frequently between tasks, and interruptions and extended work availability that may harm mental health and well-being. Data from the survey discussed in Chapter 2 identified strategies that women faculty use to manage boundaries during the COVID-19 pandemic. A potential positive outcome from the enforced work-from-home arrangements associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may be that individuals developed new skills in setting technological, temporal, and spatial adjustments to manage boundaries. These new skills in boundary management may continue to be useful to their career development in the long term. Adjustments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic present the opportunity to compare the benefits and detriments of different boundary management styles.
Finally, there are likely differences at many levels between individuals whose careers were derailed and those who are more successful. In other words, the evidence was not yet established to understand how differences in departmental supervisor, discipline, and university context influenced the experiences of women in STEMM around overwork culture and boundary norms during COVID-19. Moreover, how intersectionality influences the experiences of Women of Color in STEMM remains undetermined at this time.