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Pandemic heavily impacts on European ECRs with caring responsibilities

After the 12th of March 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic, more than one third of the world’s population entered lockdown in one form or another. In particular, schools, kindergartens, and universities closed and are not expected to reopen fully soon

Parents in academia are generally at a disadvantage; long working hours, considered the norm in academia, are not compatible with family life. Moreover, surveys among doctoral candidates show that parents feel less supported by colleagues and group leaders and sometimes are put at a financial disadvantage as a consequence. 

For example, annual surveys among the Max Planck Society’s doctoral candidates show that parents are three times more likely to finish their PhD theses on unemployment benefits or social welfare than non-parents. In the meantime, very few actually receive the parental benefits advertised by their organisations. As a consequence, in Germany, 49% of female academic assistants and 42% of their male counterparts at universities ultimately remain childless. Only 25% of university graduates with jobs outside academia are childless.

Several problems during the pandemic have led to most research activities halting, such as, limited access to labs, archives and libraries, difficulties in using specific software from home computers, and no travel overseas. All these are having severe consequences on the careers of ECRs. For example, a number of Italian Early Career Researchers (ECRs) had their contracts suspended “due to force majeure” without knowing when they will be able to get their salary back. In some French universities, the recruitment of postdocs is suspended and similarly, the University of Oxford announced a recruitment freeze for one year. 

All these difficulties hit ECRs harder, who are already disadvantaged by their choice of being parents. Parents’ difficulties in balancing their work and childcare responsibilities have increased in this period and whilst we refer to both mothers and fathers in this article under the general term of “parents”, both individual accounts and initial statistics show that mothers are more affected by the pandemic. Moreover, early journal submission data suggest that the lockdown is harming women's research productivity

Similarly, more and more ECRs now have to personally take care of their parents or other relatives. In the current situation, when elders should stay at home, many ECRs must provide for their relatives’ basic needs; many chronic health issues can’t be dealt with by professionals in hospitals, that became the front line of the fight against the pandemic. All this is now weighing heavily on individuals and their productivity.

The important question to be asked is “what is going to happen to those who are ‘not productive enough’ due to caring duties?”

Governments’ first answers leave questions open

Germany passed a law that amends the Science Employment Act to extend time limited contracts by six months, such that qualification goals are more achievable for ECRs. Moreover, for parents who cannot convert to a home office due to childcare responsibilities, 67% of the net loss of earnings will be granted for a maximum of six weeks

Meanwhile, in the UK, parents are given flexibility for working hours. But if they still cannot work, parents could be moved on the government’s furlough scheme that covers 80% of their salaries. Sadly, in order to cut costs, the University of Oxford decided that the Bridging and Family Leave schemes should be the first ones to go. In Italy, ADI - the national association representing ECRs in Italy - promoted a petition to the Government. This specifically called for extensions of contracts or project deadlines, a reorganization of the minimum requirements asked of PhD candidates, an increase in parental leave subsidies and continuity of recruitment through video interviews. Despite reaching almost 9000 signatures in just a few days, the petition has received no answer yet. 

Many other questions are still open. How many ECRs (parents and non-parents) will be put on governmental support schemes? How many academic careers will be interrupted? How will governments protect women, especially mothers, whose careers may be impacted more severely than their male colleagues’? Eurodoc would be happy to hear your thoughts, so please contribute with questions we should ask loud and clear. Please comment below or write at equality@eurodoc.net.

Eurodoc Equality Working Group

Special thanks to (in alphabetical order): Luciana Forti, Sara Pilia (WG Coordinator), Andreea Scacioc, Mathew Tata for their contributions to this article.