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What is the reality for mothers in academia–motherscholars–of suddenly being forced to work from home while also guiding their children’s online learning during COVID-19?

Beyond Work/Life Balance: A Photovoice Study of Motherscholars in a Global Crisis was conducted during then COVID-19 pandemic (from May-July 2020) with those who identity as mothers and academics (referred to as “motherscholars”). Issues of gender equity and parity are issues worldwide, including in higher education. The pandemic added untenable roles for mothers working in academia and will have unprecedented effects on recruitment, retention and promotion. This study sought to understand first-hand what motherscholars were facing during those first few months of the pandemic. It moves beyond experiences to identify structural issues and hidden obstacles faced.

The following photos, associated descriptions and background information were provided and shared by motherscholars from around the world. (Each picture can be clicked on to see the images in larger format, with additional photos to be added soon. All names are pseudonyms.)

Seeing the experiences: Themes and essential points emerge

While the pandemic has created new working environments for all academics around the world, mothers in academia started to experience structural inequity facing unexpected challenges. The study uncovered modifications in lived experiences of women with children and their changes in work-life balance. The main themes that arise from the analysis of the data were:

(1) blurred boundaries in working spaces,

(2) emotional burnout,

(3) decrease in research productivity,

(4) struggles to balance children’s needs,

(5) facing engrained gender roles, and

(6) developing strategies. 

The majority of participants reported that home spaces were no longer just the place for rest and family gatherings, but working space, nursery, schooling, and entertainment as many countries introduced strict measures of lockdown. These blurred boundaries influenced greatly on the professional and personal lives of the study participants. Having no longer isolated working spaces many women expressed that they were working in the chaos, messy spaces, kitchen, or shared rooms.

“how would you describe your photo?”

When we asked the participants if they had any children with special needs, we were surprised to see the outpouring of response and the varied considerations. These responses stand out as as families with special needs have by and large been overlooked when discussing mothers in academia and in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“do any of your children have special needs?”

The final question asked participants was about what the image can tell us to help improve life as a motherscholar during COVID-19. What jumps out in this word cloud is “time” – the power of time in which to address these untenable intersections of academic work, mothering, and caretaking for children in online learning during the pandemic. Without any policies in place to address these unprecedented times, the academic expectation of “publish or perish” takes on new, and potentially detrimental, meaning for motherscholars.

“how can this image help us understand more and provide solutions?”

About Us

This study was conduced by Anna CohenMiller, PhD, faculty member at Nazarbayev University (Kazakhstan) Graduate School of Education and Co-Founding Director of the Consortium of Gender Scholars (www.gen-con.org) and Zhanna Izekenova, PhD candidate in Education at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education. This study has been presented at the NVivo Virtual Conference (Adapting photovoice for online use during times of disruption: Addressing issues of equity and inclusion in higher education, 2020).

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