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Is COVID-19 turning back the clock on gender equality in academia?

Almost overnight, COVID-19 turned me into an elementary school teacher, a housekeeper, a hair dresser, and a professional worrier – all things I am terrible at, with the exception of the latter.  My full-time job as an academic economist has become an afterthought: I now jot down research ideas between snack time and tantrums, read and write papers while I guiltily plug my kid into yet another device, and conduct Zoom meetings that are sometimes crashed by unexpected visitors. 

     As a full-time working mom, I am not alone.Across the board, the disproportionate burden of the disruption created by COVID-19 is being borne by women, especially by those with young children and no other childcare options (see for example, here and here).The full effects of the pandemic on gender gaps in the labor market – my area of research focus – will take time to emerge. However, a quick look at the differential impacts on the productivity of male and female academics can give us a preview of th…
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Redefine “Promotable”

I only wrote one post in 2019.  It was not for lack of inspiration or important topics, but rather because writing op-eds is a “non-promotable” task for me. Other examples include serving on a committee, speaking on a panel, and talking to the press about research. So what is “promotable,” you might ask?For an economics professor, it’s research. Actually, not so much the research itself, but publishing said research. (Somewhat tangential, here is a piece on bias in publication in economics and how it relates to promotions.) At some institutions, teaching counts too, as long as you aren’t doing it “too well” or too much, so as to not get pigeon-holed as “teaching faculty.” In the world outside of academia, non-promotable tasks may include things like organizing a social event for the firm or serving on a committee.Broadly defined, these are tasks that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.It turns out, women are …

Why I chose left

A few weeks ago, on March 1, 2019, I wrote a seemingly innocuous post on Facebook seeking my network’s opinions regarding my most recent professional photos.Specifically, I wrote: “Time to pick my new work profile pic! What looks more “professorial” - left or right?”The two photos are reproduced below.     Little did I know that this post would generate the greatest number of non-birthday comments ever (87!). On Instagram, the same post got 25 comments. Without even realizing it, I was conducting a survey experiment.The photo on the left displayed only a hint of a smile, chin up, and head slightly tilted to the right. The one on the right had me smiling a toothy smile, chin down, and head tilted left.Otherwise, the pictures were identical, down to the arm fold, slightly unruly hair, and outfit.(The only give-away that I didn’t originally plan this as an experiment was the fact that the two pictures were cropped differently, with the one on the left more zoomed in, so that less of m…

Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 2

Fall of 2017: my closet is out of control.  Bursting at the seams with hardly ever-worn party dresses, jackets, and jumpsuits, it still manages to be completely devoid of options.  How is this possible, I muse, digging through the racks, laden with hangers, each carrying two or more items. Among the multitude of impulse buys and total duds, I locate that 15-year-old black jacket, two sizes too big and 20 dry cleans past its prime.  I wear it with a belt, and it looks ok.      Fast-forward one year: I no longer fall for impulse buys, and I almost never dry clean anything! Thank you, unlimited membership at Rent the Runway.   In a nutshell, I rent clothes, keep the four items I pick as long as I want to, and then return (no dry-cleaning required!).  As soon as the returns arrive back at the distribution center, I can pick my next items (conveniently "hearted" in the app).  First, this is a perfect mental replacement for shopping (hello, commitment device!).  I no longer go for …

Redefining success

I can hardly believe it: last week marked the 10-year anniversary of my becoming a faculty member at Wellesley College.Over the last decade, I’ve coached countless students through health crises, anxiety over recruiting for jobs, striking the right school-life balance, and struggling over seemingly impossible problem set questions.But no concern looms larger for Wellesley college students than their angst over grades.      Grade anxiety isn’t just a Wellesley thing, of course. Yet the extreme extent to which grades define student experience at Wellesley has always bothered me, and never more so than now. Only at Wellesley would a student show up in her professor’s office after an exam not to argue about her grade, but rather to apologize for disappointing the professor. Oftentimes that “bad” grade is a B+!  More importantly, it seems like this self-defined “bad” grade is viewed as more than just academic weakness. Students see it as a failure in life in general – a profoundly disturbin…

Saying Yes and No

Gender gaps in representation at senior levels in the workforce are widespread, especially in academia.One possible explanation is that women just find it harder to say “no” when asked to do extra ‘stuff’ that detracts from research and is undervalued at the time of promotion.Indeed, women tend to perform more service than male faculty. Studies show that women also on average spend more time on teaching-related activities and advising students, while men spend more time on research.A clever experiment reveals that women are twice as likely as men to volunteer for tasks that are deemed by all as undesirable yet benefit of the group as a whole (service and advising are commonly thought of in academia as examples of these so-called ‘non-promotable’ tasks).

It is true that a typical academic derives little to no pleasure from administrative work or from interacting with students. In fact, at many research-oriented institutions putting effort into teaching is discouraged.Once, when I was a …

Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 1

In about two weeks, a new cohort of college graduates will don their caps and gowns and receive their college diplomas.The speakers on the podium will undoubtedly talk about their accomplishments: the knowledge gained, the awards and accolades attained, and the life-changing experiences had. The speakers will also talk about the big challenges these graduates might face as they enter the world beyond the safety of their Alma Mater: issues like climate change, mass shootings, discrimination, and geopolitical tensions around the world.I will sit among my faculty colleagues, as proud of my students as can be, all the while thinking about the small challenges.    Small challenges of everyday life can loom larger and take up more energy and time than you anticipate as a college student.  If banks are only open 9-4PM and you have to work 9-5, when do you go? (Set up online banking ASAP.)  Same goes for any doctor’s appointment.  Even if you don’t have to fix the kitchen sink or the AC b…