In February 2020 we submitted an ARC Discovery application entitled Understanding and Addressing Everyday Sexisms in Australian Universities. Thinking that we would have zero chance of getting an ARC with the word ‘sexisms’ in the title (spoiler alert – we did get it!), we planned to do a pilot study that year that would trial a number of our proposed survey items and follow up interview content. While we were writing up the ARC application in January 2020, one of the team was working in Hong Kong as a guest lecturer at a local university. There were rumours flying around about a ‘strange flu’ that had come out of Wuhan city, Hubei province in mainland China…
By March of that year we had, to use popular vice-chancellorian parlance, ‘pivoted’ and were living in various stages of lockdown in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. We worked remotely, some of us with children at home, as we tried to grapple with strange new realities and the terrible knowledge that this strange flu, now known as COVID-19, could kill us. As the months wore on, we noticed that gender-based inequalities at our workplaces had not pivoted, and given our focus on gender and Higher Education in Australia, we decided to investigate the impact of COVID-19 working conditions in this space. We brought Jo Pollitt into the pilot who, at the time, was working as a postdoc at ECU. The study sought to understand the ways in which everyday sexisms were playing out for academic workers in universities across Australia and the impact that the pandemic was having on the pre-existing gender inequalities in Australian Higher Education. Whilst not shocking or surprising, our findings were bleak.
That the effects of the pandemic were/are not evenly distributed is, by now, well documented and research shows us that women globally are more likely to be precariously employed and/or engaged in ‘frontline work’, unpaid care work and volunteer community work. The global recession that COVID precipitated meant that women-dominated employment sectors such as retail and hospitality businesses have been adversely affected by social distancing and stay at home directions. As British feminist scholar Elaine Swan articulates, the impacts of COVID-19 on paid work and domestic labour were racialised and classed as well as gendered, and “that it became visible that women, especially women of colour in paid and domestic carework and key worker roles were keeping the system running”.
Within higher education, social inequalities were similarly amplified. Research so far shows us that the domestic division of labour and stresses upon women’s time precipitated by increased domestic responsibilities mirrored that of the general population. Alarmingly, the lack of women scientists involved in COVID-related medical research means that there may be gendered effects of the virus itself that have not been attended to. This early research also illustrates a significant decrease in journal article submissions from women during the pandemic.
Our survey was taken by almost 200 participants, and while our convenience sample was not representative, it nonetheless provided a ‘snapshot’ of the experiences of academics for whom our survey focus was most relatable: those experiencing sexism and gender-based inequalities during the early stages of the pandemic.
One of the things that we noticed was how women-identifying participants spoke about how their perceptions of the pandemic’s impact upon their working lives were not shared by their (cis)male colleagues. Participants spoke of being in meetings where (cis)male members of staff would talk about what a ‘great year’ 2020 had been for them, how their research productivity had gone up. They got books out and were able to use time previously earmarked for commuting to write for publication. Participants who shared this experience talked about how no space was made for their conflicting experiences of the pandemic – for them to encourage their senior/leadership colleagues, as one participant articulated, to “look at the literal wreckage around (them)” and take action. The masculinist orientation of the contemporary neoliberal university was amplified by the pandemic, and those who haven’t historically been welcomed or belonged found out that, at the worst of times, they were left to clean up the mess. Our research showed that the university sector’s, ‘business as usual’ approach during the pandemic manifested as a refusal to allow academics pause, to sit with our fears, our losses, our grief and to attend to the needs of our families and communities.
Perhaps one of the starkest findings was the impact that messaging from university management had upon participants. Many spoke of a weird juxtaposition between ‘business as usual’ and ‘we’re all in it together’, which were both popular slogans that were used simultaneously by VC’s and upper management at universities. Several participants spoke of the psychological impacts that this had, including one participant who had previously been in a violent domestic partnership. This participant spoke of being triggered because the mixed messaging was tantamount to gaslighting – a coercive control tactic deployed by abusers in order to make another party feel insecure, belittled and ultimately insane. Within higher education, such gaslighting went along the lines of, as one participant phrased it: “Two days to pivot online, it’s business as usual. We care about you, but your student evaluation scores are low. We’re in this together – where are your three research outputs?”. Many participants also spoke of a disconnect between the lived realities of regular academic workers and university executives, who, in the early stages of the pandemic, were telling us all that ‘we’re in this together’ to a Zoom backdrop of expensive (often Aboriginal) artwork or Danish mid-century furniture. This was hard to swallow for many, especially precariously employed academic workers, one of whom we interviewed who had half of an IKEA kitchen table in their share-house as a workspace during periods of lockdown.
Quantitative data showed that feelings of dread and insecurity about the future even characterised the experiences of ‘safe’ academic workers in ongoing positions. This was especially the case where universities had ‘voluntary’ redundancy programmes or were encouraging staff to ‘gift’ time and/or research income in order to relieve some of the financial burdens upon schools and institutions. Because the domestic division of labour continued to be mirrored at work, many women-identifying and minority academics found themselves suddenly feeling precarious because they had been so busy attending to the needs of students and/or colleagues, they had not had time for research-related work, which often requires prolonged periods of uninterrupted focus. This was near-impossible for academic parents/carers and those providing pastoral care for students, including cohorts of international students stranded far from family support.
As the pandemic continues, we are left wondering if our institutions see the literal wreckage around them, and more importantly, what they are doing about it. The gendered, racialised and classed impacts of the pandemic upon universities is likely to continue for years and will be reflected in lowered numbers of research outputs and failed promotion applications. COVID-19 needs to be understood as a career interruption for many, and a traumatic experience for all. Universities have to acknowledge this, to give us time to stop and reflect on the past 2 ½ years, to let us grieve for the time we lost, the fear that has become part of the lives of many, the births we missed, the funerals we couldn’t attend. That the pandemic amplified pre-existing inequalities so spectacularly means that the Higher Education sector writ large needs to stop and reflect, to make changes to masculinist neoliberal measurement techniques that punish those for whom universities were not made: women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities. These are the people who kept the system running in crisis, who continue to navigate the wreckage, who, in the words of an Aboriginal woman participant, are ‘broken but alive’.
‘I’m broken but I’m alive’: gender, COVID-19 and higher education in Australia was published in Higher Education Research & Development.
From left to right: Emily Gray is a senior lecturer in education studies at RMIT’s School of Education. Her interests within both research and teaching are interdisciplinary and include sociology, cultural studies and education. She is particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality and with how understandings these identity categories are lived by individuals and experienced within social institutions. Jacqueline Ullman is an associate professor of Adolescent Development, Behaviour and Wellbeing at Western Sydney University, where she teaches in the areas of educational psychology, sociology of education, research design and research methods for preservice secondary teachers and educators looking to pursue continued education. Her primary research focus is in the area of diversity of genders and sexualities and associated inclusive educational practices. Mindy Blaise is a vice chancellor’s professorial research fellow at Edith Cowan University. She is leading an interdisciplinary project on children’s common world relations with place, materiality, and the more-than-human. Her research interests include creating and practising experimental and innovative pedagogies for the Anthropocene; interdisciplinarity; postdevelopmentalism; queer theory; feminism; post empiricism; multi-species ethnography. Jo Pollitt is a post doctoral research fellow at the School of Education, Edith Cowan University. As an interdisciplinary artist and researcher Jo’s work is grounded in a twenty-year practice of improvisation and her work in dance, dramaturgy and writing has been presented both locally and internationally. Her research applies choreographic thinking, expanded embodiment, experimental writing, and creative response in thinking with more-than-human worlds to explore children’s relations with common worlds.