Education

Remote Work and Gender Equity | Inside Higher Ed

 

Yesterday’s query about possible tenured remote positions elicited many responses along the lines of “I’d love to know what people say,” but very few of people actually saying what they do.  It strikes me as a “you first” problem.  There’s widespread interest in the idea, apparently, but at least so far, it looks like a lot of places are waiting for other places to blaze the trail.

 

One particularly thoughtful response, though, raised a question about gender equity.  

 

A few months ago, I would have predicted confidently that women would struggle more with the demands of remote work than men, on the grounds that women (on average) perform more of the work of childcare.  As hard as remote work is anyway, doing it well while also riding herd on young children is not for the faint of heart.  Based on unequal work in childcare, I would have predicted that women faculty would have been more impacted by remote work than men faculty, on average.  I would have gone on to predict that the disparity would be largest among parents of young children, and much smaller among folks who either don’t have children or whose children have left the nest.  

 

(The obligatory disclaimer: these are aggregates.  Of course there are exceptions.)

 

I say “would have” because a few months ago I made a similar prediction about the gendered disparity of community college enrollments since COVID hit.  I assumed that disparate levels of family labor by women would lead to greater attrition by women; as I saw it, they’d be overburdened.  And there’s certainly no shortage of support for the idea that working parents of young children are severely stressed.

 

That prediction was logical, intuitive, and wrong.  In fact, men’s enrollments dropped much more severely than women’s.  I haven’t seen an explanation that strikes me as better than post-hoc, either.  The best attempt at an explanation has been that female-dominated industries like hospitality got hit hard, while male-dominated industries like construction have done well, so the opportunity cost of college for women is lower than it is for men.  

 

Whether that’s actually what’s behind the disparity, I don’t know.  The more fundamental point for present purposes is that what seemed obvious turned out to be backwards.

 

Remote work for faculty, admittedly, is different than for students.  Remote work can allow people to live near extended family, which can make childcare easier.  In some cases, it may allow people to escape high-cost areas and live in places where faculty salaries allow for a more comfortable life.  It may also work well for dual-career couples, who are often otherwise paralyzed by the two-body problem.  If one job is portable, then many of the strains that dual-career couples face may be mitigated.  

 

How that would play out in practice is hard to say.  

 

As with so many things, I think the biggest challenge would be the transition.  For colleges that have built cultures around presence — and have some programs that require it for practical reasons — I could see a cohort of full-time remote faculty gradually and without malice exerting a sort of centrifugal force on the culture.  

 

(Yes, I know, properly speaking it’s centripetal force.  But the visual for ‘centrifugal’ is so much better.)

 

That could be helpful, to the extent that it extends the network of contacts a given college has.  But it could make shared governance much harder.  It’s hard to build a sense of “us” with people you never see.  And I would guess that when layoffs hit, it would be politically and psychologically easier to lay off the folks who you never have to face in the first place.  If that comes true, then the appeal of remote work would diminish considerably.

 

The key, I think, will be for places in a position to try it, to try it, and for us to follow the evidence where it leads.  If it turns out to have a disparate impact, then it needs to be adjusted or abandoned.  I only suggest some epistemological humility going in; sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce the way you would expect.

 

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