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How Women in STEM Adapted to Disrupted Boundaries During the Pandemic

As COVID-19 took hold in March of 2020, universities across the U.S. announced closures, a switch to online course delivery, and social distancing. At the same time, K-12 schools and childcare centers closed and businesses drastically changed how they operate.

According to work-life expert Ellen Ernst Kossek, the Krannert School’s Basil S. Turner Distinguished Professor of Management, this unprecedented situation created a seismic disruption to work and nonwork boundaries, particularly among women. Both the popular press and scholarly research suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has set back women’s careers and gender equality a generation.

“More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce, many to manage increased domestic and care demands,” she says. “But we know much less about the highly career-invested women who stayed, including the adaptations they made to continue and the contextual factors that allowed them to.”

Kossek and coauthors Tracy Dumas, Matthew Piszczek, and Tammy Allen address that knowledge gap in a recent paper published the Journal of Applied Psychology, “Pushing the Boundaries: A Qualitative Study of How STEM Women Adapted to Disrupted Work-Nonwork Boundaries During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Kossek says female, tenure-track faculty in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and related fields are particularly underrepresented due to gender norms and a professional culture that is inhospitable to women.Ellen Ernst Kossek

“STEM women were already subject to conflict between their work and nonwork roles prior to the pandemic, both in juggling responsibilities and in facing perceived incompatibility between being a scientist and being a women,” she says. “Many STEM women had carefully kept nonwork roles separated from work as much as they could to prevent conflict, but this was not feasible when work-nonwork boundaries were disrupted during COVID-19.”

Like other professionals, one of the most pressing changes STEM women faced was the sudden, involuntary transition to remote work. “Childcare, homeschooling, and job tasks like shifting to online courses and restructuring grants dramatically increased, straining the already delicate work-nonwork interface,” Kossek says.

The study was conducted with a national U.S. sample of 763 tenure-stream academic women at 202 universities whose jobs involved research and teaching. According to the authors, STEM women adapted their professional image management by concealing nonwork roles in new ways or by revealing them.

“Given that work was taking place in the home, boundary disruption increased the possibility that colleagues could have greater glimpses into women’s personal lives,” Kossek says. “Responses showed that many women had concerns about their professional images and career advancement.”

Some adapted by concealing their nonwork roles, such as blurring the background of video calls, working in private spaces to avoid family members appearing in meetings, and positioning a web camera to restrict views of home or maternal roles.

In contrast, many women adapted by revealing their nonwork roles to colleagues in ways that countered ideal worker expectations. “Some women felt that the pandemic helped normalize the need to manage nonwork demands and were more comfortable revealing,” Kossek says. “Others adapted by revealing in order to advocate for increased support from their colleagues.”

Women also adapted to disrupted boundaries through forms of role sacrifice, including trading off roles, psychological role withdrawal or behavioral role exit. Examples include withdrawals from domestic and family roles, as well as abandoning work goals.

“For many, it was difficult to fully handle the increased work and nonwork role demands created by the pandemic,” Kossek says. “They felt they had no choice but to prioritize one over the other.”

Exiting a role in part or entirely is the most extreme and rarest form of role sacrifice. “This could range from saying no to specific tasks to lowering your work standards,” Kossek says. “It could also include leaving a job.”

Kossek says the findings have critical implications for women’s career equality, suggesting that disrupted boundaries caused by the pandemic posed a serious threat to STEM women’s career progression. “Importantly, some women chose to sacrifice their family roles to preserve their careers, which challenges the dominant narrative that women with families are less committed to their work roles.”

The study further highlights the importance of enabling women to remain active in both their work and nonwork roles. “Many women in STEM and related fields wish to remain in the workforce, they just need support for doing so,” Kossek says.

With regard to practice, the findings provide lessons for how organizations can transform to support women’s careers now and beyond, offering practical insights on how to retain a valuable yet vulnerable segment of the workforce that lacked organizational support during the pandemic.

“It’s not enough to have a good boss,” Kossek says. “You also need supportive peers and a supportive organizational culture, structure and occupational norms.”