Over the last two weeks we (Dr Luciana Esteves, Professor Ann Hemingway and I) have been giving the BU community a blog update of the findings from our opportunistic, cross-faculty survey focusing on the work-life balance of academics within and beyond BU. The previous blogs, Part 2 and Part 3 , have provided data detailing participant responses on the difficulties, or otherwise, of managing a work-life balance during the current pandemic lockdown.
Today’s update puts some additional qualitative flesh on the bones of statistical data. Thematic analysis of the qualitative comments provided some very important insights into the impact of lockdown restrictions; and here we found a broad consensus on certain issues, although these were strongly split between negative and positive viewpoints. It should be noted again that the gender balance of respondents was weighted heavily towards women academics over male respondents; and given these demographics a body of findings carried clear gendered overtones in the survey comments, in terms of the experienced ramifications of lockdown.
While some responses applied to both sexes any gender differences in survey responses appear to be strongly foregrounded by normative, but often overlooked, social constructions pertaining to gendered roles, which are being reinforced, or perhaps more likely, glaringly highlighted, by the material conditions under which lockdown is being enacted. The impact on the publication output of female academics during this period, compared to that of male colleagues, has already been highlighted in the Guardian newspaper, in addition to a recent article in the Times Higher Education regarding the marginalisation and muting of women STEM experts working on Covid-19, in comparison with a dominant male presence occupying the media stage, whether experts on the virus or otherwise.
Returning to the findings of the BU survey, in terms of positive aspects caused by lockdown academia, there were many responses referring to the benefits of working at home as a rule, rather than as a tolerated exception. One of the strongest points concerned the end of travel to the office. This was a significant plus for those commuting from some distance, while for others just the daily struggle of negotiating traffic, the ever-present anxiety of finding a vacant parking space (a particular concern on the Lansdowne campus), together with the exhausting morning rush of organising families prior to getting into work, was felt to be a real boon. Hours were magically freed up for many people and while the financial savings were appreciated, it was certainly not less than the warm feeling of being able to do something really positive in the fight against the climate crisis.
This new, novel freedom to work from home was managed in different ways and for several people could be fitted into a personally tailored and structured day; one with the added benefits of being not only better paced, but healthier as well in terms of improved nutrition, regular exercise, protection from Covid-19 exposure, reduced stress and physical wear-and-tear, as noted in these responses:
‘Freedom to engage with workload at times to suit me and my household. Online meetings were at first a positive as it highlighted to all that in future this could be a way forward instead of travelling up and down the M27 to attend meetings at our campus in xxx. Thus reducing our travelling costs, petrol consumption, stress free and reducing the carbon footprint on the environment.’
‘During lockdown I now do yoga and another form of exercise everyday- and my stress levels are reduced. I save money from the costs of the commute to work and exorbitant childcare costs.’
However, these positive accounts were balanced by those referring to high levels of stress and physical exhaustion, which for many, had been greatly exacerbated by lockdown. This was where gendered distinctions came strongly to the fore. Women academics were now suddenly out of the office outfit and back into the pinafore, overloaded by the typical gendered ‘double-shift’ of balancing waged work commitments and unpaid domestic labour and childcare – a clear case of ‘having none of it’ rather than the clichéd ‘having it all’, as this participant conveys:
‘Constantly feeling I am not doing enough work – knowing I just don’t have time to research. Feeling split between feeling I should be paying my young daughter attention but keep having to look at emails and sort admin etc. Dreading marking coming in as I will spend less time with my daughter while her dad works as a [key worker]. Feels like I am doing two jobs badly: bad mother, bad academic.’
In addition, the lockdown has brought considerable disruption to some professional programmes, where staff are working intensely long hours to mitigate the effects on students, with some struggling with inadequate home office equipment and incompatible or malfunctioning software.
‘Am working extremely long days (average of 12 to 16 hours) as both a mother and a worker. Support for student xxx [professional programme] and cover for colleagues while off sick has increased and requires a lot of personal emotional resources. Am having to deal with a lot of emotions masked as initial anger and frustration and to de-escalate this to support students. Little or no time for own research despite deadlines.’
Even in purely academic programmes the unprecedented strangeness of lockdown has greatly increased student anxiety, resulting in a flood of emails for advice and information, which needs continuous, laborious repetition and new channelling stratgies.
To sum up, this blog provides a limited snapshot of the richness of the qualitative data generated by the survey. While analysis and dissemination continues, a vital new question arises of what important lessons can be developed and applied arising from this very interesting data. While the general public are increasingly aware of the precarity that Covid-19 has unleashed globally, many would argue that these are merely an exacerbation of existing problems that have been around for a long time infecting societies and institutions therein, like academia. In some ways there has never been a better opportunity than now to address them comprehensively and courageously. The question now is how?
Please consider being a participant: the current survey is still open and we hope to gather more responses and which may reflect a greater gender balance from which to draw findings. If you are interested in participating please go to https://bournemouth.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/impact-of-lockdown-on-academics. We would be pleased if you would also share the survey with your wider networks as is open to all academics wherever there are. Please note, if you want us to be able to identify that you are BU staff, you will need to mention BU in one of the open questions.