Little did we know that we would  start a university-wide project in the middle of a pandemic when we submitted our proposal to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in January 2020. In August 2020, just before the start of the fall semester, with classes online for almost all faculty, we received news: our three-year NSF ADVANCE Adaptation proposal entitled “Gender Equity Advances Retention in STEM at Wayne State University,” or WSU-GEARS (NSF #2017586, 2020), was funded!

WSU-GEARS aims to create systemic change to increase equity for women faculty and underrepresented minorities. We focus on eliminating barriers to hiring, retaining, and advancing women in the natural, physical, and social sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). While the number of STEM women faculty at WSU increased to 20% in 2018, up from 14% in 2010, only 13% of these STEM faculty were underrepresented minorities; and, from an intersectional perspective, only 2.6% of STEM faculty were underrepresented minority women as of 2019. Results from our previous campus climate and support surveys indicated three barriers for women: isolation and toxic work environments, work/family/life strains, and unequal/hidden workloads.

Our excitement upon receiving the award was quickly muddled with questions concerning how we could achieve our project objectives during a pandemic. Our meetings, workshops, events, and interviews were designed to take place on campus to build a culture of inclusion and transformation; how would we adapt to pandemic conditions on a practical level?

Data have surfaced that demonstrate academic women parents are burdened disproportionately due to COVID-19. For instance, from their nearly 28,000 survey participants, Deryugina, Shurchkov, and Stearns (2021) found that COVID-19 disruptions caused women with children to lose nearly an hour more research time than men without children per week. In contrast, men with children lost only 30 minutes more than childfree men per week. (The difference between childfree women and men was not significant). The most severe disruptions were observed in families with children under 7 years of age. Similarly, in their survey of 284 U.S. STEM and medical faculty Krukowski, Jagsi, and Cardel (2020) found that faculty with children 5 years or younger reported significantly fewer work hours compared to all other groups. Women self-reported that their first/corresponding author and coauthor article submissions decreased significantly during COVID-19, while men’s productivity did not change. Cui, Ding, and Zhu (2020) concluded in their analysis of 41,858 preprints in 18 social science disciplines that the negative impact on research productivity was most severe for women assistant professors; women scholars’ productivity decreased by 13.2% relative to that of men scholars. Similar studies highlighted a shift in research output due to COVID-19, a measure of academic work that neglects the pandemic’s impact on teaching and service and devalues these essential activities. Fewer studies have analyzed the disproportionate intersectional burden of gender and race and parenthood. In a survey of 3,345 Brazilian academics from various disciplines and institutions, Staniscuaski and colleagues (2020) found that academic women, especially Black women and mothers, have been experiencing the greatest drops in academic productivity during COVID-19.

These pandemic-related shifts come on top of existing inequities. For example, in some WSU departments, women are much more likely to chair department committees than men, even in departments where men outnumber women among faculty by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. These assignments represent an increased service load that can reduce time for research, especially during COVID-19 (Deryugina et al., 2021). Yet, as an R1 institution, faculty annual compensation guidelines at WSU tend to value discipline-specific research productivity over teaching and service. Hence, specific initiatives of WSU-GEARS are:

  • Implementing a workload equity tool so that departments can develop practices and policies toward increasing equity;
    Addressing toxic work environment with interactive bystander intervention workshops that include theatre;
  • Training chair and faculty on equitable faculty evaluation during COVID-19 and WSU resources and best practices for addressing work/family/life strains;
  • Launching a Family Advocacy Network to increase the visibility and optimize the use of resources and aid faculty across the lifespan of their academic career
  • Collecting nuanced data with an annual survey and interviews and focus groups.

Despite challenges, there have been benefits to launching WSU-GEARS during COVID-19.

These benefits include:

  • Decreased travel costs for our team because we have been able to attend seminars remotely (webinars) by universities from which we are adapting programs;
  • Allowed for weekly online meetings in a “central” virtual place for our interdisciplinary team, rather than finding a room on campus with different distances from our department buildings;
  • Provided convenient online access for stakeholders and advisory board members to WSU-GEARS normally strained by geographic distances;
  • Adapted to holding, recording, and sharing our own online workshops in collaboration with trainers to increase equitable participation; and
  • Increased flexibility and reduced commuting time associated with working from home for navigating work/family/life strains, especially for parents.

While we launched WSU-GEARS at an especially difficult time, the timing has created the opportunity to highlight and address the now-amplified issues around gender equity at WSU even more. To learn more about WSU-GEARS, visit:


Cui, R., Ding, H., & Zhu, F. (2020). Gender inequality in research productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management.

Deryugina, T., Shurchkov, O., & Stearns, J. E. (2021). Disruptions disproportionately affect female academics. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Krukowski, R. A., Jagsi, R., & Cardel, M. I. (2020). Academic productivity differences by gender and child age in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Women’s Health.

NSF #2017586 (2020). ADVANCE Adaptation: Gender Equity Advances Retention in STEM at Wayne State University (WSU-GEARS).

Staniscuaski, F., Kmetzsch, L., Zandonà, E., Reichert, F., Soletti, R. C., Ludwig, Z. M. C. … de Oliveira, L. (2020). Gender, race and parenthood impact academic productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic: from survey to action. Frontiers in Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.663252