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COVID-19 and the Status of Women at Iowa State

Content Author:
Karen Kedrowski

Since COVID-19 struck the United States in March 2020, the news media has been full of stories of how the story of COVID is a story about women. Most notably, women are disproportionately impacted because they:

  • Comprise a majority (56%) of the elderly population (65+), which is a high risk group;[1]
  • Carry a disproportionate share of responsibilities in the home, including child and elder care;[2]
  • Often assume more responsibility for emotional labor;[3]
  • Saw their domestic responsibilities increase as schools moved to remote learning; and[4]
  • Are more likely to work in occupations that were negatively impacted due to the pandemic-induced recession.[5]

ISU Women’s Vulnerabilities in the Age of COVID: Women are a majority (52.5%) of all employees at Iowa State University.[6] However, they are not equally distributed across employment categories and women are still in positions of some vulnerability due to the pandemic and its consequences.

  • Term faculty: Women are a majority of term (non-tenure eligible) faculty (56%), compared to 32.7% of tenured and tenure-eligible. Given that the University is are facing budget shortfalls due to declining enrollment trends and some increased costs due to the pandemic, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences issued “notice of possible nonrenewal” letters to term faculty whose contracts were expiring. Many of these faculty were renewed and some were not.
  • Furloughs and Pay Cuts: While Iowa State has avoided institution-wide layoffs or reductions-in-force (RIFs), various units have not been able to avoid doing so. Employees of Stephens Auditorium faced furloughs and pay cuts.[7] Other areas that were forced to reduce staff include the ISU Alumni Association, the ISU Book Store and ISU Dining Services.[8] While exact numbers are not available, women were employed in all of these areas.
  • Lost Productivity: Initial studies indicate that women’s research productivity, as measured by journal submissions, has declined.[9] This decline could have long term impacts on women’s ability to earn tenure, promotions, merit raises and/or awards. Such setbacks also negatively impact faculty member’s financial stability and retirement contributions and will perpetuate the gender wage gap.
  • Enhanced teaching workload: The pandemic led to a higher workload for some members of the Iowa State community, which has led to exhaustion and low morale. For instance, instructional faculty often had to “reteach” their classes to students who were quarantined or isolated. Faculty were also instructed to be flexible with deadlines and attendance, which also enhanced the faculty members’ workloads. This burden fell especially hard on term faculty with higher teaching loads, who are disproportionately women. Similarly, the health and counseling staffs also reported higher levels of student demand for mental health services. About 75% of the Student Counseling staff are women.
  • Enhanced service responsibilities: There is ample evidence that women and BIPOC faculty carry heavier burdens of institutional service and student mentorship than their white male colleagues. COVID appears to have exacerbated this inequality. Shalaby and Allam found in that 68% of women faculty surveyed reported an increase in service responsibilities, compared to 55% of men. This lopsided allocation of work will also have a detrimental impact on women’s research productivity and this is in addition to the lost productivity due to other COVID-related reasons.[10]
  • Disproportionately Student- and Public-Facing: Women hold a majority of merit (56.8%) and professional and scientific (55%) positions, including over 90% of the merit clerical positions at Iowa State University. Many of these positions, especially clerical and those in the Division of Student Affairs, are student- or public-facing. Given the University’s emphasis on remaining open for business during the academic year, women are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or of bringing it home to their family members, resulting from casual contact.
  • Enhanced Care-giving Responsibilities: Like women nationwide, Iowa State’s female employees are likely to face additional caregiving responsibilities as schools use remote or hybrid-learning modes and/or day care centers close due to COVID exposures.
  • Students: Students are also vulnerable, especially if they have child or elder care responsibilities or were employed in occupations, such as the restaurant sector, that were negatively impacted by the pandemic. Students who have young children also face the same pressures of homeschooling or providing child care due to closures. In the Spring, many students also lost on-campus jobs as dining service locations shut down and lectures and special events were canceled.

The College of Veterinary Medicine, whose students are overwhelmingly women, was not able to convert to remote learning in Spring 2020 because of the nature of the program. This put – and continues to put -- these students and faculty at higher risk of illness.

Iowa State Responses:  Iowa State has taken many steps to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the members of its community. We applaud these efforts and urge that these supportive measures continue for the duration of the pandemic. Among those that are most helpful for women are:

  • Alternative Work Arrangements (AWAs): The University has allowed many employees the option to work at home, as approved, if they are in a high-risk category or they live with someone who is high risk. This has helped many women to balance their work and care-giving responsibilities and to ensure the public health of the community.
  • “Cyclones Care” campaign and other precautionary measures: The University took many action to help curb the spread of COVID-19, including free testing; engaged in an aggressive public education campaign to encourage (or mandate) the use of masks, social distancing, and cleaning practices; altered the academic calendar; and provided beds for students in residence halls to quarantine or self-isolate. This has helped to keep COVID-19 transmission among employees fairly low, although it was higher among students. Transmissions also do not appear to be related to classroom instruction; rather most were due to social interactions.
  • Allowing tenure-clock extensions: The Provost allowed tenure-eligible faculty to extend the tenure clock during the COVID-19 crisis. Initially, only 37% of the faculty who exercised this option are women, however.[11]
  • COVID-19 sick leave: Iowa State University provided all employees with 80 hours of COVID-19 sick leave to use in case of illness or the need to care for a family member.
  • Additional child care options: Iowa State provided additional child care services for school aged children engaged in remote learning. This provided a structured environment for the children to work and eased the parents’ double burden.
  • Flexible work arrangements: Instructional faculty were allowed to choose their mode of course delivery to accommodate personal needs and preferences. This opportunity was afforded to many others as well.
  • COVID-19 Testing: Iowa State offered free COVID-19 testing for all members of the Iowa State Community. Providing this service is no small task. However, it certainly helped the University’s public health efforts and enabled members of the community to monitor their own health.


The pandemic is likely to continue through much of the year 2021, its impact on people’s lives will no doubt last even longer. Thus we recommend the University build upon its positive steps by:

  • Adjusting tenure and promotion criteria: Given that the research interruptions faced by women especially may have long term consequences on research productivity, we recommend that the Provost direct all academic colleges to revise their tenure and promotion documents to account for this fact.
  • Instructing personnel committees how to equitably and accurately evaluate tenure extensions, lost productivity, and enhanced workload burdens: Paradoxically, research shows men benefit from tenure clock extensions, due to higher rates of productivity, while women are penalized. The University needs to educate its personnel committee members on these trends and also educate them on the role that implicit bias may play.[12] Similarly, it is important to remind personnel committees of the disproportionate impact the pandemic has on women faculty members.
  • Extending flexible work opportunities: Whenever possible, supervisors should allow employees to have flexible work arrangements. We understand some positions require an employee to be on campus (i.e. custodians, food service workers, groundskeepers, laboratory instructors and assistants). However, for those who can work at home or outside the 8-5 paradigm, supervisors should be instructed to work with employees to balance their work and caregiving responsibilities.
  • Continuing AWAs through the entire pandemic: This will ensure that employees will not have to choose between their own or their family’s health and employment.
  • Extending COVID sick leave: COVID-19 is an unpredictable disease, with some individuals having lingering symptoms for weeks or months after they test negative for the virus. The additional COVID-19 sick leave should remain in place should individuals require a gradual return to work, or to transition to disability benefits.

[1] United States Census Bureau. “The Population 65 Years and Older in the United States: 2016.” October 2018. Available: Accessed December 4, 2020.

[2] United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Average Hours per Day Spent in Selected Activities by Sex and Day.” N.d. Available: Accessed December 4, 2020.

[3] Erickson, Rebecca J. “Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor.” Journal of Marriage and Family. 67:2(May 2005): 337-351.

[4] See for example Mangan, Katherine. “Working While Parenting is a Reality of COVID-19. One University Tried to Forbid it.” Chronicle of Higher Education. July 1, 2020.

[5] Alon, Titan, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey, and Michèle Tertilt. “Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Women’s Employment.” Econofact. August 27, 2020. Available: Accessed December 4, 2020.

[6] All Iowa State statistics are taken other sections of this report or Iowa State University Institutional Research. “2019-2020 FactBook.” Available: Accessed December 4, 2020.

[7] Belinson, Matt. “VenuWorks staff feeling the effects of tough times at Stephens Auditorium.” Iowa State Daily. September 14, 2020.

[8] Personal interviews with the author.

[9] Flaherty, Colleen. “No Room of One’s Own: Early journal submission data suggest COVID-19 is tanking women’s research productivity.” Inside Higher Education. April 21, 2020.

[10] Shalaby, Marwa and Nermin Allam. “Gender, COVID, and Faculty Service.” Inside Higher Education. December 18, 2020.

[11] Data provided by the Office of the Provost.

[12] Antecol, Heather, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns. 2018. “Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?” American Economic Review, 108(9):2420-41. DOI: 10.1257/aer.20160613.