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By LaTonya Trotter

10/16/2020

The pandemic continues to expose pre-existing forms of inequality in the labor market. This state of affairs is as true for professionals in US higher education as workers in other sectors. While the realities of falling college enrollments, university austerity measures, and elevated coronavirus risk have been broadly felt by everyone in the professoriate, the impact on women, racialized people, and the precariously employed has been particularly severe.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest, the needs of students have skyrocketed. Moreover the administrative service work of managing these challenges have only broadened the demands on faculty. Even in normal times, we know that the low-status work of “caring for the organization” is not evenly distributed. The emotional and material work of supporting students and performing university service was already being disproportionally done by women and faculty of color. In a time of social and organizational stress, this pre-existing inequality has only heightened.

The pandemic has not only disproportionally increased care work obligations at the office, but also at home. As schools move to remote learning and child care centers close, the increased work of child care and homeschooling has disproportionally fallen to women. These increased demands at work and home not only have mental health and quality of life implications, but career ones. As women and people of color spend more time on these invisible or unpaid tasks, they have less time to spend on the research upon which making an academic career depends. While research productivity may have decreased for everyone, women are publishing less than their male counterparts, with the implication being that the effects of the pandemic will have long-term, and unequal impacts on career trajectories. There is also some evidence that, citing decreased revenues, departments are choosing to scale down or eliminate departments and programs most likely to employ women and faculty of color such as women and gender studies or ethnic studies departments.

For the precariously employed, these effects are even more pronounced. Part-time, adjunct faculty who make up over 70% of the academic workforce—are finding their positions on the chopping block as universities cut costs to make up for lost revenue. In the face of this increased precarity, adjunct faculty feel obligated to take on the increased risks of face-to-face teaching without complaint, and to take on the increased work of switching to on-line classes without demanding increased compensation. Prior to the present moment, the ranks of precariously employed faculty were already more likely to be populated by women and people of color, highlighting how a challenge for all workers works to exacerbate preexisting inequalities between workers. Adjuncts are not the only precarious workers in academia. In many PhD programs, graduate students perform a significant proportion of undergraduate teaching. The ability of graduate students to demand safe and fair working conditions is even more strained by their classification as students rather than workers.

The pandemic has shown us that preventing and fighting the effects of the deadly coronavirus has as much to do with the political will to address social inequality as hoped-for advances in vaccinations and medical treatment. Without a reorientation of our values and resources, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to widen, even among highly skilled workers.

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