We are women in academic medicine, and we are doing enough

A conversation with friends and family usually starts with, “How are you holding up?” My answer is not usually about work, but rather a response of …”Well, it’s going OK, but I wasn’t really meant to be a homeschool teacher.” As the pandemic marches on, many areas of the country have discussed the delayed reopening of schools, furthering the burden of at-home education.

Articles are being published commenting on the fall in productivity of women academicians, and our collective retort is nothing short of exasperated expletives. Our weeks are spent working clinical shifts, homeschooling and caring for children, and running our personal households in a time when typical resources may be unavailable. There wasn’t much time left before coronavirus to devote to academic work, and that extra time has all but disappeared.

On top of this, voices all around us tell us that we should be taking care of ourselves and shoring up our mental health to face the daily death and desperation that awaits us at work. Voices that tell us we should be cherishing this extra time at home with our children. To add to the mounting pressure, many physicians are currently experiencing reductions in pay and hours. With the fear surrounding financial instability added to the mix, it is sometimes hard to decide what to worry about most.

I wondered if I was the only physician mom feeling this way, so I surveyed over 130 of my colleagues – all physician mothers working on the front lines of this pandemic. What I learned is that 90 percent of my colleagues were dealing with a decrease in available childcare or cancellation of school and that the majority of these women were taking on extra childcare or homeschooling responsibilities. On top of that, the majority of women had taken on extra household chores, shopping, and meal preparation.

Female physicians contribute significantly to their household finances, but the effects of the pandemic have not spared physicians and other hospital workers. 35 percent of women surveyed felt they had experienced a stressful negative financial impact since the pandemic started. One factor that often plays into compensation for academic physicians is that of promotion along the tenure track at their institution, and promotion is often awarded based on the output of uncompensated time spent on research, teaching, and other forms of academic productivity.  57 percent of women surveyed were concerned about the pandemic’s impact on their academic careers, and 63 percent cited decreased productivity as a source for this stress.

So what is the solution? It’s obvious that life as we used to know it will not be returning any time soon. Perhaps we should show ourselves some grace and cut each other a break. But this is difficult in a time when women in academics are still fighting for equity in pay, recognition, and rates of promotion. Women can be left behind in the academic pipeline when they take time off to focus on family or other obligations, and the challenges of coronavirus have only exaggerated the challenges of competing. This is an opportunity to take a closer look at how academic departments support their female faculty.

Nicole Battaglioli is an emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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