As both parents and scientific researchers at Columbia, we are panicked by New York’s surging COVID-19 infection rates. Since March, no student has completely returned to school. Some students are in blended schooling—in person a few days a week—while others are learning fully remotely at home. Most after-school programs have not reopened since closing in March. The pandemic has led to serious scheduling and financial pressures on families with children, and uncertainty around when schools will open again makes it impossible to plan ahead. While some can afford to hire a nanny, many parents, and especially scientific researchers cannot.
Over the summer, Columbia distinguished itself from its peer institutions by doing the right thing: providing parents with up to $3,000 to address urgent childcare-related needs. This benefit was a major step in the right direction. This benefit, which came less than a week after we approved our first union contract with Columbia, showed that change is possible when we come together to advocate for ourselves. In light of resurgent infection rates and school closures, we organized a petition calling on the Columbia administration to extend the emergency childcare benefit through the end of this school year. As of early December, the administration has not committed to providing any further support.
COVID-19 has brought unprecedented attention to the childcare crisis in the U.S., particularly to its devastating effects on mothers. We have experienced firsthand how the lack of sustained support for childcare affects our ability to do our best work and deepens gender inequities within academia—from time spent on research, to number of papers published.
There’s no need to take our word for it—respected sociologist Suzanne Bianchi, along with others, has consistently found that women do far more housework and child care than men. A recent Harvard Business School paper showed that in the U.S., female academics’ research productivity dropped by 13.9 percent compared to that of their male counterparts during lockdown. Yet the principal investigators who supervise our research groups often resist considering alternative time schedules for researchers with children—even for those coping with 100% remote learning situations.
These struggles also tap into existing inequities. Even before the pandemic, parents (particularly mothers) faced persistent obstacles to building a career in academia. With the arrival of COVID-19, women researchers now face lasting career damage as they struggle to care for their families while simultaneously showcasing the skills that will help move them up the professional ladder.
Raising children as full-time researchers has become a zero-sum game. We must choose between working long hours in the lab to make progress, or staying at home to supervise children and facilitate their online learning. Very few of us have the means to pay for outside childcare, which could cost up to half of our monthly salary.
Living in one of the most expensive cities in the country does not give us much latitude to absorb additional financial burdens. Through our experience talking to fellow researcher parents, we have seen some of our colleagues have to cut back on food items, fall behind on rent, and incur serious debt. Alleviating this financial pressure would greatly improve our ability to focus on our work and to maintain progress on our research.
In our first union contract, we made progress towards addressing gender-based inequities when we negotiated paid parental leave and ensured that those of us on external fellowships can access child care benefits. Double standards not only persist, but are heightened during a pandemic. In the short-term, Columbia should provide additional child care as part of an ongoing effort to enhance gender equity and the retention of women in academia, and extend the emergency childcare benefit. However, there is a real need for affordable in-house day care and after-school options for scientists in all campuses. The Rockefeller University, another renowned New York City research institution, has already committed to supporting its staff by providing affordable in-house day care for researchers.
Though parents are in an impossible position, we formed a union so that we could build a more equitable, inclusive university. The pandemic provides an opportunity to continue establishing greater equity for researchers who also have parental responsibility. Now, we call on Columbia to rise to the challenge of this moment by providing the support parents need to do our best work, ensure the education and safety of our children, and get through this crisis. What could be a greater example of Columbia’s commitment to justice?
Zunaira Shuja is an associate research scientist at the department of physiology and cellular biophysics.
Subrata Chowdhury is a postdoctoral research scientist at the department of genetics and development.
Abhishek Kar is a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia World Projects.
Hila Milo Rasouly is an associate research scientist at the department of medicine.
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