Caroline*, a junior professor at the School of Arts and Sciences, works two full–time jobs at once. With her daycare center closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Caroline must teach multiple Penn classes and conduct research while watching her two children, both of whom are under the age of five.
“[My children] require constant supervision. It's not that I can have them do something independently or play outside by themselves. They need a parent—or someone—watching them at all times,” she says.
Caroline has to be creative to get her work done. She records a snippet of a lecture late at night while her children are asleep. She grades papers early in the morning before they wake up. She steals moments while her partner is watching her children to do research.
“It’s exhausting,” she says, in tears. “For me and my partner, workdays are spent dividing up the time where we would normally have had a regular child care provider. If you take a 40–hour work week, which is the coverage that we had child care for previously, it's cut in half. The time that I have devoted to research has really been slashed.”
Caroline’s story illustrates the obstacles that women at Penn, and across the country, must endure as they try to balance caregiving responsibilities with their professional lives. In addition to their day jobs, working women have often been left to shoulder the “invisible” burden of care work—bathing, clothing, feeding, cleaning up after, and supervising children—in the privacy of their own homes, out of sight from their employers and colleagues. Estimates from the United Nations say that women dedicate, on average, 3.2 times more hours to unpaid care work than men. At Penn, this burden has taken a toll on the University's female professors, many of whom have been left behind by Penn's inadequate child care support system.
For Marie*, a tenure track professor in the humanities at Penn and a single mother with full custody of a five–year–old child, the pandemic exacerbates her pre–existing child care burdens, halving her work productivity.
“There is nobody else to make dinner. There is nobody else to prepare for the next day. There is nobody else to supervise or bathe a child who still requires full assistance,” she says. The exhaustion in her voice is immediately clear. “The expectation that anybody who is doing remote school alone without a co–parent or child care would be able to continue along a normal avenue of productivity is not reasonable. It’s impossible.”
In academia, where women are historically underrepresented, caregiving burdens brought on by the pandemic may have lasting consequences for those on the tenure track. Junior professors vying for tenure, or an indefinite academic appointment, embark on a six–year journey where they are expected to teach and conduct groundbreaking research. When the tenure clock stops ticking, their portfolio of research enters an admissions “black box,” where it’s scrutinized by university administrators and experts in the field who will return with a lucrative job offer or harrowing rejection.
In response to research and productivity obstacles brought on by the pandemic, the University created a blanket policy that allows all junior faculty to add a one–year extension to their tenure clock or opt out of doing so.
Even so, many professors are still left with unanswered questions, particularly for those that work in male–dominated departments where administrators may understate the influence of caregiving duties on a candidate’s productivity and research output.
“You compare somebody who, when things are remote, is managing one, two, three kids at home versus somebody who has no children. That's a significant difference in terms of what you're able to accomplish,” John*, an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences and father of multiple young children, says. “Not only that there will be a deficit on the CV for the people who have children, but there will be an unnatural flourishing of work from people who don't.”
Penn does not tenure female faculty with the same frequency it tenures men, which the pandemic will intensify. Although Penn hires junior female professors at roughly equal rates to male professors, women are less likely to get tenure. Women currently comprise nearly 50% of the University’s standing faculty in the assistant professor standing ranks, but only represent 35% of the total standing faculty.
That number is even lower in the Wharton School, where women represent 24% of standing faculty members as of April 2018; Penn Law School, where women comprise 31% of the standing faculty; and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where women represent a mere 18% of the standing faculty.
Associate Dean for Arts and Letters Jeffrey Kallberg says that the large majority of faculty—regardless of gender—have chosen to take the tenure extension. Outside reviewers have received explicit instructions to count the extra year as if it were part of the normal clock and adjust their expectations accordingly, he added.
But until they receive a tenure offer, junior professors with children say they are hesitant to voice their concerns.
“There's tremendous shame. There's a sense that people will be penalized for talking about their children,” Marie says.
For Associate Director of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program Gwendolyn Beetham, child care is a lifeline that allows her to sustain her career while raising her 2–year–old daughter. But, Beetham acknowledges, child care is also a substantial expense, prohibitively so for other professors at Penn.
“As a single parent, luckily my kid’s daycare is open for now, but if it closes again, I don't know what I'll do. I'll probably have to go live with my parents in Ohio because I don't have any other option,” Beetham says.
And to those who suggest she should opt out of the workforce for a while, Beetham responds with a sigh, “Why should I give up my career for a structural problem?”
Beetham’s experience galvanized her to help craft a petition in August to the University recommending specific care work recommendations, such as creating a child care fund for faculty and staff. The petition garnered over 230 signatures from professors and graduate students at Penn.
In response, Penn enacted a COVID–19 child care grant for graduate students, faculty, and postdocs that offers a reimbursement of up to $2,000 for the year. Yet experts estimate that the cost of enrolling two kids in a child care center in urban Philadelphia is $17,753 a year, making the grant money a “drop in the bucket,” says John.
Access to affordable, quality child care remains a persistent problem for caregiving faculty at Penn—particularly newer junior faculty less familiar with the competitive daycare enrollment process in the city.
In Philadelphia, four–star quality daycare centers, rated by the Keystone Stars program of the state of Pennsylvania, are expensive and have lengthy waiting lists. One such daycare is the Penn Children’s Center. Located on the University campus, the Penn rate of tuition for a five–day week of daycare for toddlers starts at $444 per week, and the waiting list starts at 12–18 months, according to Center Director Natalie Subeh Nuhn. To secure a coveted spot in a child care center, many professors must put their child’s name on waiting lists while they are still pregnant.
Faced with a lack of communication from Penn regarding resources for caregiving faculty, female professors have turned to informal networks among colleagues to share information about child care options.
Jerry Lee Assistant Professor of Criminology Aurélie Ouss, for example, says she feels “lucky” to have negotiated in her teaching contract that her child would be guaranteed a spot into the Penn Children’s Center, bypassing the waitlist, after other female faculty recommended she do so.
For some professors, the lack of official communication surrounding child care options in the city and the mindset that female professors will simply “figure it out” is indicative of the University’s permissive and haphazard approach towards accommodating caregivers.
Newly tenured associate professor of Arabic literature Huda Fakhreddine, who has an 8–year–old daughter, felt like she was “operating in the dark” during the tenure process. In a male–dominated department where only four of the 12 tenured professors are women, she knew her research output and work would be compared to her predecessor, even though she was carrying the added weight of child care duties on her shoulders.
“As I go through the process, I'm always compared to my predecessor, who was a white man [and] a brilliant scholar. But the circumstances in which I work and how much time I have and what my responsibilities are outside of work are different,” she says.
While her child advanced through daycare, prekindergarten, and kindergarten, she tried to establish a line between her professional and private life. But sometimes the two worlds would collide: her daughter would get sick and there was nobody else to take her home, or her daughter’s daycare was closed and there was nobody else to watch her. When her child care responsibilities were on public display—having to leave work early or bring her daughter to the office—she felt out of place.
“It feels very strange when I have to bring my daughter with me to the office, and it's not something that's part of the culture of the workplace,” she says.
Fakhreddine’s experience reveals the catch–22 that many caregiving professors at Penn face. They often feel compelled to conceal their child care duties for fear of being stigmatized, but those very same duties affect their job performance and work productivity, all of which are pertinent to the tenure review process.
The pandemic, however, has made hiding caregiving obligations all but impossible.
“I think people go to great lengths to hide the care work they do,” Beetham says. “You can hide it when you are at the workplace, but you can't hide it when your kid is running around in the back of a Zoom call.”
Since the start of the pandemic, experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of women have left the workforce. Many may never return.
“I don't see why that wouldn't be the case in academia,” Caroline says.
But there may be a silver lining. As more people than ever before are beleaguered by caregiving duties, the pandemic has made child care responsibilities more visible, providing an opportunity to create lasting change.
The University could lower the tuition rate at the Penn Children’s Center, expand it to accommodate more children, or invest in other daycare centers in the city. This year, only 26 children were welcomed back in June, according to Nuhn. Penn could also lobby the Pennsylvania legislature to enact universal, free prekindergarten for all city residents, like in New York City, Beetham says.
Not to mention immediate, more pragmatic solutions. Caroline, like many other junior faculty, called on the University to go beyond a blanket tenure clock extension and implement targeted teaching relief measures that allow faculty with caregiving responsibilities to teach fewer courses during the year.
Other universities, such as the University of California, Berkeley, implemented teaching relief policies that enable caregivers to apply for service and teaching modifications during spring and fall of 2021. Such measures free up more time for caregiving professors to conduct and publish research, the hallmark of the tenure process.
The blanket tenure clock extension alone may exacerbate inequalities rather than solve them. Because of the pandemic, junior professors without young children have, in many cases, more free time than in years past to dedicate towards research—and now have an extra year to do so—while caregiving professors lag behind, says John.
“I've heard from friends who edit journals that in particular, the outpouring of submissions from young faculty and graduate students has been through the roof, in part because they've had a bit more time to do that work. I think faculty with kids are lucky to get today’s lecture recorded.”
The gravity of the situation looms over tenure track professors, particularly those with children: the six years of the tenure track can determine the rest of an academic’s life. Those who are denied tenure may drop out of the workforce entirely or restart the tenure process at another institution, awaiting an uncertain outcome.
Without additional remedial efforts by the University, many faculty say they feel hopeless as they witness—in the few spare moments they have, often with the the sound of children screaming, crying, or playing in the background—projects they’re unable to get off the ground, works in progress that have been stalled, and data they cannot collect. And while an end is in sight for the pandemic, these professors may feel the effects for years to come. Until their tenure clocks stop ticking.
* Indicates a name has been changed for anonymity.
An earlier version of this article stated that Gwendolyn Beetham, associate director of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program, is tenured. She is not on the tenure track. This article has been updated to reflect this correction. Street regrets the error.