Nicole Westmarland is a widowed and solo mother of one infant school and one junior school child. She is Professor of Criminology and Director of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA) at Durham University.

Kris Fire Kovarovic is a mother of two primary school aged children. She is Associate Professor of Human Evolution in Durham University’s Department of Anthropology and co-chair of the MAMS Network.

Kirsten Hall is a mother of one pre-schooler and one primary school child. She recently completed her PhD in the Department of Sociology at Durham University, where she has worked as a research assistant on multiple projects.

Michelle Dixon is a mother of two primary school aged children. She is a Senior Business Development Manager in Durham University’s Research and Innovation Services and co-chair of the MAMS Network.

When the first England lockdown was announced in March 2020 we shared a sense of outright panic with many of our colleagues who are parents.

But we are lucky to be part of Durham University’s Mothers and Mothers-to-be Support Network (MAMS), which was established in 2013-14 with the aim to support and advocate for mums who work at the university. When Covid-19 hit and the lockdowns started, the support network – at one time something to be drawn on if required – quickly rose in importance as many mothers working either as academics or as professional services staff saw their personal and professional worlds collide literally overnight.

It was during one of our online support events in the summer of 2020 that the idea of documenting this struggle arose. We had individual experiences to bring to the conversation which, when shared, seemed more common than we may have thought from the isolation of our own homes. Could we evaluate the extent to which these challenges were shared by mothers across other universities? In true “the personal is political” feminist style, this is exactly what we did when we launched a survey in March 2021 for all mothers working in any role within any UK higher education institution.

How it was for mothers

Our recently published report “The impact of Covid-19 on mothers working in UK higher education institutions” details the experiences of 2,888 mothers with kids under 16. Nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of participants said that their workload had increased during the pandemic. On the other hand, just 18 per cent felt that their workloads had been adjusted adequately in order to manage childcare requirements.

Sixty per cent of mothers agreed that they were responsible for the majority or all of their children’s developmental childcare. It will therefore come as no surprise that so many (84 per cent) had to work evenings, mornings, and/or weekends in an attempt to keep up, or that the knock-on effect was that 90 per cent felt exhausted most of the time, and that their mental health had suffered (85 per cent). That 63 per cent of participants had to use their allowance of annual leave in order to look after their children, thereby being denied the time needed to truly rest and recreate, should seriously concern universities. An unwell and exhausted workforce cannot sustain itself. Nor can it easily develop, innovate and expand its professional horizons – many mothers (54 percent) fear that they have already missed opportunities or milestones in their career development as the result of their struggle to balance childcare and work.

Of course, just as Covid-19 as a virus has impacted on people in different and unequal ways, the impact on working mothers has also varied. Some participants recognised that other sectors had been hit much harder than ours and expressed gratitude for their jobs. Some professional services staff were pleased that there had been a levelling of the field in terms of working from home – an opportunity many had been denied in the past in stark contrast to academic colleagues. Others felt frustrated about the unequal application of the furlough scheme within teams or departments, but those who were furloughed expressed relief.

What was on offer

There was another layer to this uneven impact, in that universities varied quite substantially in what they offered to staff. Examples of good practice included reducing workloads, cancelling exams (and therefore marking), giving staff meaningful financial bonuses across the board, and providing equipment to work from home. Line managers who proactively offered individualised support were also vital.

We also saw the other side of the coin – universities which did not provide staff with the equipment they required, where no line manager asked about how staff were getting on, or which only delivered top-down, impersonal “look after your wellbeing” messages. Expectations of business as usual was a phrase used by many mothers who felt that the reality of their situation was not understood or mitigated appropriately. As one explained:

Being told that I could complete my hours outside of the usual working hours was supposed to be helpful but it just made me feel as though there was an expectation that I should still be able to do it all on top of homeschooling.’ (Participant 2768, a single parent, working in a professional services role in a pre-92 university)

Indeed, working flexibly seemed to be offered as a universal solution. Whilst it did work for and was appreciated by some – and there is a desire for a certain level of flexible working to be adopted post-pandemic – it was clearly inadequate in light of increased workloads:

At no point did the institution acknowledge that in a global pandemic it was simply unreasonable to expect parents to add in childcare and homeschooling to their normal full- time working schedule and stay sane.’ (Participant 1623, working in a professional services role in a Russell Group university

It can get better

In all honesty, much of our data makes for extremely frustrating reading. However, there are some rays of light. What worked, and what participants hope will continue, include greater flexibility for professional services staff, visibility of children and other caring responsibilities (in all roles at all levels of the institution), and a more compassionate leadership style. We need to build on these positives in the immediate future. But we also need to monitor the long-term effect of Covid-19 on women’s career progression for years to come – the impacts must be properly recorded and taken into consideration in appointment panels, promotion applications, grant applications, and reward schemes.

The ongoing fight for women’s equality in the workplace has already been long and hard. Now everyone must play a part in making sure that the pandemic does not further disadvantage the role that working mothers have in higher education. Covid-19 has forced us to reckon with a number of inequalities quite visibly; as mothers and educators (in the broadest sense of the word) we believe strongly that the time to act in reversing them is now.

Our project report is available, and there is a video.

(Audio overlay version)


2 responses to “All over higher education, mothers are exhausted

  1. Nicole, Kris, Kirsten and Michelle, thank you. Thank you for revealing the reality of mothers’ lived experience and for making such a moving video. Thank you for showing the gap between espoused values and what actually happens. Thank you for listing what works – it is so powerful to see compassionate leadership coming out at the top. Most of all, thank you for all the sacrifices you had to make yourselves to do this work….the evenings, the weekends, the 5am starts. I was right there with you and I hope those sacrifices a compassionate change that benefits everyone…

  2. Hi Kate, thanks for your supportive and empathetic comments. We will soon be embarking on further analysis of our survey data, looking at intersectional factors (such as mothers with disability, single mothers, or having kids with special educational needs). But in the meantime we hope the initial report provides a framework for developing better policies that adequately acknowledge our shared challenges and provide flexibility to tailor support. Watch this space! And thank YOU for sharing this journey with us!

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