Our Covid disadvantages were eased by a Zoom room of our own

A writing group has become a vital support network for female academics facing everything the pandemic can throw at them, says Sorcha MacLeod

April 4, 2021
Four women on a video call screen
Source: iStock

Last week it was an earthquake. The week before it was an elderly relative’s ill health. The week before that it was concerns about a child. Normal workplace topics of conversation – but with a difference.

For almost a year now, I’ve spent a part of most weekdays hanging out with academic colleagues in our virtual Zoom room – although to call them colleagues is to downplay what these clever and talented women have become to me.

When I started a new job in a new country – Denmark – in October 2019, it was important for me to get to know my colleagues and to establish healthy research routines so that I could hit the ground running with my research. To that end, at the beginning of 2020, I attended a law faculty academic writing refresher course, persuading another international colleague to join me. It was there that we connected with a PhD student from a different research centre over a shared interest in human rights.

From that starting point it was easy and fun to meet up a couple of times a week in a seminar room to work on our various academic writing projects, sharing suggestions about technique and offering accountability for productivity. Others joined us. We became the “Writing Buddies” group.

Then Covid hit and Denmark went into hard lockdown. Suddenly we found ourselves isolated and working at home. It was a shock. Danish academic work culture is incredibly social (there’s even a specific word for workplace contentment: arbejdsglæde) and I’d relied on it heavily. But now there would be no more research seminars with fabulous cake and coffee (Danes love their coffee), no more genial staff association trips to the ballet or wine tasting evenings. So I suggested to the writing buddies that we should try to keep meeting up online to maintain some semblance of normality.

Eleven months later, five of us meet most workdays, with several other colleagues rotating in and out. We now operate across time zones after acquiring a Brazilian and a UK branch. Zoom has become our second home, giving us insights into each other’s lives as we cobble together home offices, raise children or navigate moving house or even country, all while striving to produce high quality writing and research.

It has not been easy. During the first few months of lockdown, we all struggled. We wrestled with the challenges of death, miscarriage and despair – not to mention home-schooling – far removed from our loved ones abroad, all while endeavouring to deliver the best possible virtual lectures and seminars and to offer support to our students (who grappled with their own challenges). Even sending an email was an achievement to be celebrated.

In truth, however, many of the challenges we have faced over the past year have long been issues in the university sector globally. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the endemic mental health crisis within universities, which disproportionately affects women, carers, early career researchers and precariously employed staff.

These groups – as well as those in various other minority racial, sexual and ability categories – are also affected by other pre-existing inequalities that the pandemic has reinforced. A series of studies and anecdotal reports – including from my own field of international law – indicate that women have been submitting fewer articles than their male counterparts during the past year, often because of the greater caring burden they bear.

Even in Denmark, which generally scores very highly on gender equality metrics, “female researchers with younger children” were disproportionately affected during the first lockdown, a study has revealed. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that my writing buddies are all women, many with caring responsibilities, others racialised and some facing mental health challenges.

The question is how universities and funding bodies are going to deal with such issues in a post-pandemic environment. To what extent will gender, caring responsibilities and mental health, among other things, be taken into account around promotion, probation, appointment to permanent positions, consideration of student evaluations and scrutiny of research outputs? The sector must acknowledge the complex pandemic experiences of individuals and plan accordingly to ensure fairness of treatment and outcomes.

In the meantime, it’s not an exaggeration to say that our Zoom room has become a significant and important part of our lockdown lives. We are no longer simply writing buddies. We’ve laughed until we cried, and cried until we laughed as the seasons have unfolded outside each other’s windows. We’ve shared our successes and failures. We’ve become each other’s cheerleaders and consolers. We’ve watched our new friends’ children grow up, seen kittens become cats, shared the pain of bad hair and celebrated birthdays and holidays.

As I write this, a flurry of messages are popping up via Slack, our other virtual home.

“Wrote 370 words,” the first reads.

“Woohoo!” comes the first reply.

I can’t help but smile. Sure, we finished a few articles and chapters along the way. But, more than that, these amazing women enrich my life on a daily basis. And for that I have to thank a pandemic.

Sorcha MacLeod is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow and associate professor in the Centre for Private Governance at the University of Copenhagen.

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