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Study highlights pandemic plight of SA’s women academics


Research speaks of chaos and burnout as lines blurred between work and home during lockdown

Working from home became a nightmare for many of South Africa’s women academics during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced lockdown in 2020, a study found.

The article, published earlier this year but highlighted by Stellenbosch University to commemorate International Women’s Day on 8 March, found that the pandemic unsettled the meaning of “home” for women.

Home became a working space, an online teaching space, and so, a more stressful place, write the study authors Cyrill Walters and Jonathan Jansen from Stellenbosch University, Linda Ronnie from the University of Cape Town, and Samantha Kriger from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The four surveyed 2,000 women academics from the country’s 26 public universities, asking them how working from home during the lockdown affected them personally and professionally.

Overlapping duties

The respondents reported an adverse impact on their academic output, productivity or dedication. “Even if they had dedicated spaces, sometimes they found themselves competing with their partners for space or resources to complete their work,” the authors write.

One respondent said home no longer felt like a refuge during lockdown: “Home was no longer that place of refuge from the demands and disorder of the outside world.” Instead, it became a “crowded and congested” place.

Another academic, who was also a mother, said sharing her workspace with children and a partner was challenging. “Young children saw the presence of their mother at home as signalling access and availability. This dynamic reduced concentration and generally led to insufficient time to do academic work,” the authors write.

Burnout common

The researchers found that many of the respondents simply postponed any professional goals that were not absolutely “essential” during the hard lockdown. For example, they suspended their own studies, research, papers and proposals to take charge of household duties.

Many found themselves burnt out as they tried to juggle personal and professional demands. “They often internalised the chaos created within their home spaces, citing it as evidence that they had not succeeded,” the authors write.

The researchers conclude that universities need to recognise and prioritise the gendered nature of the home as a workspace as a “talent management issue”.

“The meaning of home cannot be explained outside of the gender inequalities that divide the allocation and understanding of ‘work’ between women and their partners,” they write.