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Boat floating over a sunken boat

COVID-19: We’re not all in the same boat

A guest blog by Dr. Jennifer Flemming and a short introduction by me.

The planet has seen over 4 million cases of COVID-19 and over 250,0000 deaths. However, this pandemic is far more than a health issue. It has disrupted the global economy and changed every aspect of life for Canadians. One area that I had not appreciated until Dr. Flemming brought it to my attention was the disproportionate burden the pandemic has placed on women in academia. Case in point; I am the guilty one to suggest Dr. Flemming write a blog about the issue (you will understand when you read her blog below). In the case of women in research and medicine, the removal of hard-won support systems (day care, schools, family) that allowed them to maintain the delicate balance of their complex academic lives as physicians, scientists and mothers disappeared with COVID-19. Dr Flemming pointed to a blog that noted that while publications by men are going through the roof during the pandemic, women were falling behind.

photo of 3 women titled women academics submitting fewer papers

I can attest to the male side of this equation, having painfully produced 2 manuscripts and 4 grant proposals in the last 2 months. What I failed to understand was that while I toiled upward in the night so were my female colleagues, but they were doing so only after all the activities of the day were met, on top of providing patient care and doing eVisits and telephone clinics. The consequence of the extra job that women disproportionately hold – running the family, household and providing childcare – has seen a relative surge in male publication; leaving talented women to manage everything else! When I asked my daughter, Anya, and my second-in-command Ms. Anita Ng, what I could do about this problem, they observed that an important first step is to acknowledge the reality. Acknowledge that women are carrying a disproportionate load and that this is slowing their academic productivity during the pandemic. Anita suggested the blog’s title, reflecting that while we are all sharing some of the disruption caused by COVID-19, it is women who are (statistically) most likely to be the major caregiver in families and households, and, as a result, they are in a different boat, handling the oars, the tiller and the kitchen too! I am acutely aware that this applies not only to research-oriented faculty but also our female faculty in all domains as well as the support staff who keep all our lives running smoothly. So without further ado, Dr. Flemming:

headshot of Dr. Jennifer Flemming

Dr. Jennifer Flemming, Gastroenterology

Today is Mother’s Day. It’s the first time all week that I have been able to set aside a short period of time to devote to this (two grants due next week and kids and husband currently making me dinner [aka going to pick up take out]) so it’s going to be short and sweet. 

I recently approached colleagues about the struggle I have been having keeping up with the doubling of my responsibilities since COVID-19 lockdown has begun. I am now not only a full-time physician, but also a full-time care giver for my 5 and 6 year old boys as well as fully responsible for the day-to-day functioning of my household. I shared an article posted by another physician mom that resonated with me (find it here) about having difficulty finding time to devote to academic writing during this pandemic. The irony was not lost on me when the suggestion was to take time to write a blog about it. So here it is.

It’s been a difficult two months for everyone. Whereas some have experienced difficulties adjusting to a significant slowing down of responsibilities during COVID-19 and been searching for activities, hobbies, cooking, entertainment, (Tiger King?, Tik-Tok?) to fill their newly freed-up time, others have experienced an unprecedented exponential increase in their roles and responsibilities. I am a clinician-scientist mom to two young boys, married to a full-time clinical physician husband. We have no family in the province. Before March 2020, I thought I finally had it together. Five years on faculty, my research program was productive and funded, I had adequate protected time for academic writing and activities as I had built up my ‘offensive line’ to take care of my home situation; a domestic worker who dropped the kids off at school, did laundry, cleaned, cooked, grocery shopped and ran errands so I could continue to keep myself protected and balanced. Then, when the provincial state of emergency was declared – my offensive line disappeared without notice. However, both my own internal as well as external academic expectations remained the same along with the ‘mom-guilt’. To all of you out there dealing with a similar situation, whether you have a young family or are responsible for other dependants and feeling like you are drowning – you are not alone. From the never ending Zoom meetings with research trainees and collaborators interrupted by someone who is hungry and needs a snack, or meltdown because they just got punched in the face “accidentally” by their brother, the weekly emails from the teacher asking you why your kids aren’t participating in the Google Classrooom like all the other kids, colleagues asking you how the manuscripts and grant writing is going since COVID has “slowed everything down”, from multitasking by folding laundry, cleaning the floor or cooking meals while Zooming with Bluetooth headphones into rounds – you are not alone. Stay strong, you’ve got this. Adversity breeds character. 

Although difficult now, I know I will be stronger when I come out the other side. I haven’t come up with any long-term solutions to my new normal but continue to try new things to keep afloat. Whereas early mornings used to be my protected selfcare exercise time, 5:00 am to 7:00 am is now my two hours to concentrate in peace with exercise now being shifted to be done at home during the chaos of the day and have my kids participate. Instead of the homeschooling responsibility lying solely on me, I have hired a tutor who Zooms with the kids for an hour a day to practice reading, writing and math (which gives me another hour!) and I have ignored any further teacher emails. The support from the Queen’s University medical students has been invaluable and I would like to give specific recognition to Rae Woodhouse (Class of 2021) who has been a great support to us. She has been coming to take care of the boys when both of us are required to be in the hospital and has done so with grace and innovation (see her learning activity about worms on a particularly rainy day!). kids worm activityMy husband’s Department has also been trying to help accommodate and this month he has been able to work from home one day a week to help out with the childcare and housework in between reading cases. I have also discovered the benefits of meal delivery services and FaceTime evening chats with friends and family to stay connected. Finally may I also recommend a new fur baby as a therapeutic strategy and a way to distract your kids – here is our new 10 week old kitten Vader with my 6-year old Sam…both trying to keep quiet….while I Zoom. I would love to hear how other Department members are innovating their work-life balance during these unprecedented times.

photo of young boy looking under a table with kitten in his lap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Flemming

 

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Rachel Wamboldt

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 09:51

Thank you Dr Flemming for your insightful blog and for highlighting how difficult this time has been for women in medicine with young children. We too found our family’s somewhat stable existence rocked into chaos with the COVID pandemic. Our routine has changed dramatically and we have had to be creative in the way we organize our time. It’s been difficult meeting my own personal expectations for my role as a mother and a resident. What I have learned though is that women are resilient and innovative. We will always make it work. Take care of yourself and your family. You’re doing great!

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Rachel Wamboldt

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Lacey Cranston

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 15:29

Thank you so much for writing from a mom's perspective, Dr. Flemming. It's exhausting! I'm balancing my position as Managing Editor of the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health with getting groceries, keeping my husband from "renovating" too many things, being the unofficial household entertainment chairperson and making sure my 6-year-old son survives quarantine intact. In addition to furry creatures for distraction, may I also suggest roping Grandparents or other family members into "virtual babysitting"? One hour, twice a week, of Facetime with a favourite relative means one hour of time to yourself! Best quarantine hack I've found so far! Good luck!

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Lacey Cranston

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Jill McCreary

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 18:37

Thank you for sharing this blog post. It definitely resonates with many women in the workplace. During this pandemic there is an increasing demand on all, but I do agree this is more so felt by females (mums/wives).
I would like to point out that there is another level of disparity that isn’t captured (fully) in the blog post (although you do acknowledge it to some level).

I would like to take a moment to delve a little deeper. If we look past the pandemic, when everyone else (in this example female faculty) returns to normal, we are left with administrative staff who still continue to carry this disparate burden of responsibility in perpetuity.

Looking at our respective teams of administrators and researchers in DOM and DEM, we have numerous women who lead their households as mothers, wives, cooks, cleaners, healers, grocery shoppers, taxi driver, educators (AND MORE). These women, by virtue of salary and annual home income, often don’t have funding to support nanny’s and cleaners (or other support staff) to ease this burden. They are the ones who will continue to juggle a majority of these tasks post-COVID. All of this responsibility is on top of working full time (and let’s be realistic - more than full time) and pursuing their own further education and professional development opportunities.

I fully understand that this blog is shining a light on one aspect of COVID-19's impact on females at work, however I feel that this would be a great opportunity for a specific kudos and nod our administrative teams (and other non-academics who read your blogs).

Even though COVID-19 might end soon, we all need to have a more heightened awareness of the daily workload of all females who work around us. Some may return to a more ‘normal’ state where help can be instituted again, while others will remain carrying all of the tasks whilst still trying to climb the corporate ladder. I for one am going to send a note around to my team acknowledging this – so thank you for bringing this to top of mind.

Let's keep this dialogue open. Thanks to you both for sharing your perspectives on this hot topic.

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Jill McCreary

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Julie Burch

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 09:28

Thank you for sharing. I am certain that it will ring true for many of us, although much clearer for other young mothers like Jennifer. I think one of the most important things that we (but especially men in positions of power) can do is to realize and acknowledge – now and during performance reviews – that not everyone has MORE time to concentrate now.

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Julie Burch

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Julie Burch

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 09:46

Thanks for the heartfelt post Jennifer. I can only imagine how tough this is for young moms. I think one of the most important things that we (but especially men in positions of power) can do is to realize and acknowledge – now and during performance reviews – that not everyone has MORE time to concentrate or produce now.

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Julie Burch

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Paula James

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 18:00

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The fact that it was written on Mother's Day is the perfect irony! What is interesting to me is that COVID-19 has simply uncovered issues that have been there all along. Now that it has been acknowledged, my question is - what are we going to do about it? I hope there are system-based solutions, rather than individual ones. Women, like Dr. Flemming, have proven themselves capable of working harder, and juggling more, year after year. I'm interested in changes that will make it easier for her to do her job.

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Paula James

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