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Helping Our Junior Faculty – Now Is the Time

During this time of crisis, we have seen many women emerge as strong leaders. Women have been prominent as leaders of nations and as care-leaders. Almost 80% of healthcare workers are women, and over 80% provide social services (see TimesUpFoundation). Even though they have been warriors during this time of crisis, we need to pause and think about the additional burden we have placed on them and how much we are expecting from them. We need to try to give a helping hand. 

I have been outspoken about issues related to women in computer science. In this blog post, I am going to branch out beyond my discipline and call on universities and senior faculty to find creative ways to help our junior faculty who are trying to balance demanding academic careers and young kids that need their attention during COVID-19.

Research and statistics are emerging that show parents of younger children, especially women, falling behind with their research agendas during this COVID-19 crisis (see articles below).  As an academic and a mom of two older children (high school and college), I am very worried about this issue. How do we in academia help junior faculty with dependents? How can we help give them options so they do not fall behind or feel guilty about spending time with their young kids when childcare is not available? I am attempting to be gender-neutral since I have a lot of colleagues who are male and spend a lot of time with childcare. However, there is research that shows on average moms spend more time with their kids than dads  (see Sani and Tres, 2017 as an example), so we need to understand that this problem may be worse for female faculty. To add to the complexity of the challenge, female faculty only made up 26% of the tenured faculty in 2017 (see Kelly, 2019). How can we improve this ratio if we do not support women, our warrior women, during this crisis? 

Here I throw out a few ideas and possible ways to help. I do not think there is a magic bullet for every person, but if there are a pool of strategies, perhaps subsets of them can be used to support junior faculty with dependents (JFD) who are more impacted during these difficult times. 

1. Allow JFD to extend their tenure clock without penalty: This one is a no brainer. Letting everyone who does not have tenure delay their tenure clock to ease the pressure they are facing is important. Many universities, including Georgetown, have already done this. Of course, we will not understand whether women or faculty of color will use this more and possibly fall more behind until we are a year or two out. But irrespective, this needs to be an option.  

2. To maintain research productivity, allow JFD to delay or reduce teaching obligations: This recommendation is likely one of the more controversial ones, but probably the one that would help the most. Because faculty with young kids need to spend much of their day with their children, teaching during the day can be very challenging. I propose giving junior faculty the option of delaying one course they are teaching until after they receive tenure or possibly even just reducing their teaching load. This means that senior faculty will have to pick up additional courses, but in their case, they would teach a little less after universities are fully open again.

If there is no option for reducing teaching schedules, we should be able to make sure that courses taught by JFD are the smaller ones that require less coordination with TAs and/or less grading.

3. Recalibrate funding expectations: For some fields and research areas, the funding may be increasing. However, for most, it is harder to get right now. Expecting that junior faculty will not get additional funding for the next couple of years needs to be the norm. One way senior faculty can help junior faculty is to find more areas of collaboration so that their chance of getting funding increases. With dwindling resources, senior faculty may have a better chance of obtaining funding than those who are just starting their careers. 

4. Proactively limit distractions: Like many faculty I have spoken to, I strongly dislike Zoom. The cost of a meeting is very low, but the toll of having hours and hours of Zoom meetings is very high. Unless a meeting is really important, let’s not have it, or let’s shorten it. For example, do we really need faculty meetings every month? What about a faculty meeting at the beginning of the semester and then again at the end of the semester? Most of the issues that are being discussed can wait or can be resolved by a subcommittee. If a meeting must occur, can we compress it into 30 minutes or an hour? We have to proactively pause and determine whether or not a meeting is really necessary. There are always time constraints, but while faculty are caring for young children, the constraints are harder and more complicated. If meetings cannot be eliminated, the expectation for JFD should be “try to attend”, not “you must attend.” 

5. In line with limiting distractions, take these JFD off of committees: Not having committee assignments until there is normal child care available will not destroy a department. Yes, that means senior faculty will need to do a little more. But this is about salvaging the mental health of our JFD. As a senior faculty member, this means that my workload will increase. But I assume if I help my colleagues during their time of need, they will help later when others need their help. 

6. Survey all the faculty to understand their concerns and needs: Every university community has its own unique issues. My list is based on issues I have heard through my network of colleagues and friends. However, each university needs to understand its own faculty. Toward that end, set up a (short) survey and get ideas about the largest concerns faculty have and their proposed solutions. It is amazing how many good ideas can emerge by asking those who are most impacted – they have probably been trying to come up with solutions anyways. 

7. Proactively provide stress relief and mental health support: Faculty, particularly faculty in STEM, are notoriously bad at asking for help. A university cannot force mental health support for faculty, but setting up help specific to faculty needs and publicizing it to faculty is important. Another option is to assign all JFD a senior mentor from a different department who had a similar family profile (young kids pre-tenure, etc.) to have a one session chat. This allows these junior faculty a connection outside of his/her department. This can be important if there are political issues within a department. Also, no one wants to believe he/she needs help. By having this informal chat, if help really is needed, the mentor can make suggestions, possibly averting a larger issue later in the year.

We can also help faculty organize “coffee chats” where parents struggling with the same issues of work/life balance can build a community amongst themselves. They can share their challenges and discuss how they have dealt with different issues. Some departments have very few JFD and would not be able to find others in similar situations without help from senior faculty or administration.

8. Help identify viable child care options: Faculty may need an hour of child care support when they teach their classes. Having a pool of child care providers that can be called on to help during class times (especially if we are on-campus in the fall) is very important. As an example, Georgetown has child care under normal circumstances, but it may not be available in its traditional form in the fall. Let’s find a way to utilize the existing infrastructure to help faculty for short periods of time through the day. The format may need to be outdoors in a one-on-one setting or for a socially distanced walk, but thinking through this issue will help many faculty. 

9. Promote JFD work: Since JFD are less likely to participate in conferences and networking during this time, find ways to feature their work and highlight their research. This may be as simple as creating some articles for the university website. It may also be nice to have some video interviews or new faculty research spotlights. Some departments are very good at this, but this is a place where universities can really make a difference. 

We are in a crisis. I am a senior faculty member and I find it challenging to manage my new schedule. Junior faculty with small kids or those caring for elderly parents may be struggling significantly more. I have no doubt that all these JFD and warrior women will figure out how to manage juggling everything during this crisis. However, wouldn’t it be nice if we were proactive and helped them thrive, not just survive.  As senior faculty and administrators, let’s find innovative ways to support them. Let’s set an example of caring for others in our community and making small sacrifices for the greater good. Let’s show that universities know how to lead during times of crisis. Let’s give a helping hand.

Women and research productivity:

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