Academics from minority groups ‘carrying the scars’ of Covid

Disproportionate impact must be considered by universities when assessing performance of staff, study finds

July 24, 2022
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The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the difficulties academics from minority groups face, and universities must take this into account when assessing staff performance, Australian researchers have concluded.

A survey of mostly female academics has found that the disruption they experienced in the early stages of the pandemic was accentuated if they had disabilities or chronic health issues or came from linguistically, culturally or sexually diverse communities.

They confronted similar teaching and research difficulties as other female colleagues, and more disruption to their private lives. Eighty-five per cent of respondents from minority groups reported experiencing domestic or personal challenges, compared with 67 per cent of other respondents.

Lead author Emily Gray, a senior lecturer in education studies at RMIT University, said Covid had been tough for everybody. But while the disproportionate impacts on female academics had been widely documented, minority groups had largely been overlooked in research that “tended to focus upon heterosexual family forms and cisgender identities”.

This meant that some groups’ distinctive experiences were absent from the literature, Dr Gray said. For example, Aboriginal academics experienced spikes not only in their “domestic burden” but also in the work they were doing in their communities.

“These groups of people were much more likely to be doing the care work in the university itself, and that work is invisible and unrecognised,” she said. “Yet we’re all subject to the same measurement techniques for promotion and that kind of thing – how many publications you’ve had, how much research income, what your student feedback’s like. There needs to be something that acknowledges this work that’s been going on behind the scenes.”

The survey of 177 academics was conducted between July and September 2020 as a pilot for a larger Australian Research Council-funded study into “everyday sexisms” in Australian universities. Dr Gray said that while the sample had been too small to support “generalisable statements”, the observations – published in the journal Higher Education Research and Development – offered a snapshot of “that particular moment in time”.

The study found that the pandemic had affected some academics in corporal ways. One respondent said her eating disorder symptoms had returned, while a second reported hitherto unknown heart problems that – after numerous tests – proved to be stress-related.

A third recounted a cocktail of symptoms including chest pain, insomnia, fluctuations in appetite, “toxic” levels of anxiety, survivor’s guilt and “fantasies of suicide”.

Those who lived alone experienced “particular stresses on their mental health” during Melbourne’s extended lockdowns, and Dr Gray said she had colleagues who “didn’t touch another person for 18 months” because they were immunocompromised and lived alone.

The study also tracked a deteriorating sense of job security during the pandemic’s early phase. This was not restricted to casual staff and people on fixed-term contracts, with 58 per cent of respondents reporting “anxiety or dread” about their employment.

These worries were elevated at universities that openly discussed their financial struggles – particularly those that invited staff to “volunteer” or “gift” their time to help out financially.

Dr Gray said such messages added to people’s general fears about their health and the impact of pandemic rules, adding that this meant “it was really frightening on many levels”.

She said the scars from the pandemic would add to the damage from long-standing issues such as the hostile treatment of minority academics in student experience surveys.

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Reader's comments (1)

"Dr Gray said that while the sample had been too small to support “generalisable statements”, the observations – published in the journal Higher Education Research and Development – offered a snapshot of “that particular moment in time”." Hmm... Anecdote then!


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