Pandemic Imperils Promotions for Women in AcademiaHistorians in the News
tags: academia, women, tenure, professoriate, sexism, academic labor
EVANSTON, Ill. — Like millions of parents, Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, a political-science professor at Northwestern University, saw her work life upended when her third grader’s school shut down in March. Later, she was demoralized to learn that local schools would not reopen this fall.
But Dr. Marion Suiseeya faced an additional source of stress: her looming all-or-nothing tenure evaluation, which will determine whether she earns a lifetime appointment at Northwestern or must find a new job.
“This year was critical for me to finalize my tenure packet,” she said. “I stare at my computer and try to be productive. And every five minutes my daughter comes in and says, ‘My Zoom link doesn’t work.’”
The pandemic has been brutal on many working mothers, especially those with little leverage on the job. Experts say it may be uniquely unforgiving for mothers in so-called up-or-out fields, where workers face a single high-stakes promotion decision. The loss of months or more of productivity to additional child care responsibilities, which fall more heavily on women, can reverberate throughout their careers.
“Will this disproportionately affect female lawyers, accountants, people in various positions in finance, management, academics, all of whom have up-or-out or winner-take-all positions?” asked Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard who studies women in the labor market. “I would say yes.”
The angst has been especially evident on some college campuses, which tend to be more fertile grounds for activism than other up-or-out workplaces.
At Northwestern, hundreds of female faculty members have pressed the university to alleviate the disruption of the pandemic, but with limited success. “The present is unsustainable,” said Susan Pearson, a tenured Northwestern history professor who has helped rally colleagues to seek more accommodations.
Dr. Pearson, who is divorced and is the primary caregiver for her two children, said parenthood was too often seen in academic settings “as a personal choice” rather than as a societal obligation — “like if you choose to live two hours away from work and you have a long commute, the university shouldn’t have to do anything about it.”
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