Covid-19 Academic
Research Study

The impact of the pandemic-enforced lockdown on the scholarly work and productivity of women academics

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The impact of the pandemic-enforced lockdown on the academic work of women

The proposed research is the first in a series of studies on the impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on education. In the process, Stellenbosch University will become a major holding site for studies on the broader educational consequences of pandemics including the development and maintenance of a major bibliographic database on the subject.

This particular study surveys women academics spread across South Africa’s 26 public universities, to determine the impacts of the lockdown on their academic work. Academic work in this specific context will refer to teaching and research. Once completed, the refined study will be expanded to all 26 public universities.

Why is this study important? We know from research that academic work is unequally distributed between men and women academics. Women, moreover, are subject to “the second shift” when they leave the academic office for their homes. This means that in a pandemic-enforced lockdown, of the kind experienced world-wide, it can be assumed that women will experience academic work differently from men. What we do not know yet is how exactly the novel coronavirus has impacted on women academics working from home - raising important research questions.

Background Reading


The impact of the pandemic-enforced lockdown on the scholarly productivity of women academics in South Africa

Published in Research Policy, Volume 51, Issue 1, January 2022, 104403

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Graeme Mehl | Patrizio Piraino | Jonathan Jansen | Samantha Kriger

The underrepresentation of women in research is well-documented, in everything from participation and leadership to peer review and publication. Even so, in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, early reports indicated a precipitous decline in women's scholarly productivity (both in time devoted to research and in journal publications) compared to pre-pandemic times. None of these studies, mainly from the Global North, could provide detailed explanations for the scale of this decline in research outcomes. Using a mixed methods research design, we offer the first comprehensive study to shed light on the complex reasons for the decline in research during the pandemic-enforced lockdown among 2,029 women academics drawn from 26 public universities in South Africa. Our study finds that a dramatic increase in teaching and administrative workloads, and the traditional family roles assumed by women while “working from home,” were among the key factors behind the reported decline in research activity among female academics in public universities. In short, teaching and administration effectively displaced research and publication—with serious implications for an already elusive gender equality in research. Finally, the paper offers recommendations that leaders and policy makers can draw on to support women academics and families in higher education during and beyond pandemic times.

“Academic guilt”: The impact of the pandemic-enforced lockdown on women's academic work

Published in Women's Studies International Forum, Volume 88, September–October 2021

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Linda Ronnie | Jonathan Jansen | Samantha Kriger

According to anecdotal accounts, the guilt engendered by the conflict between employment and family that is pervasive in the academy (or “academic guilt,” in this paper) has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic-enforced lockdown. To date, there has been no systematic research that provides a detailed account of, and explanations for, the “academic guilt” experienced by women academics, in particular, outside of the Global North. The research team conducted a large-scale systematic survey of all female academic staff in a nationwide study of South Africa's 26 public universities during the period of the lockdown. A total of 2029 full responses were received from women at different stages in their academic careers. The survey included an open-ended section that allowed for detailed, unlimited responses by the participants; this section provided a substantial volume of qualitative data, which was coded and analyzed. Leveraging the richness of the open-ended survey data, this study presents findings showing significantly high feelings of “academic guilt” among women academics during the pandemic-enforced lockdown for a variety of reasons relating to the working conditions imposed by the lockdown mandates.

The impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Female Academics with young Children in South Africa

Published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the South, Volume 6, Issue 3, December 2022

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Armand Bam | Jonathan Jansen | Samantha Kriger

Against the backdrop of an increase in research on the effects of COVID-19, this article uses the analysis of survey data of female academics from the 26 higher education institutions in South Africa to identify how female academics with young children coped with academic output during the pandemic-enforced lockdown. A growing body of research documents the influence of children and childcare on the careers of female academics. In this article, we see how female academics who stayed at home during the enforced lockdown period negotiated childcare and home-schooling, and how the lockdown influenced their academic output. An online survey questionnaire was administered, consisting of 12 Likert-scale questions followed by an open-ended section that solicited a narrative account of academic work and home life during the lockdown period. Data on female academics with children under the age of six years was extracted for this study. The quantitative and qualitative data that emerged from our study of 2,018 women academics at 26 universities across South Africa describes how academic mothers felt, and how they struggled to complete the academic work required by their educational institutions. Such academic work directly influences future career prospects. This study highlights the influence that the presence of young children in the home, the pressures of home-schooling, traditional gender roles, and household responsibilities have on the academic careers of women.

How COVID reconfigured family relationsips: Explaining the work of academic women through the lens of complexity theory

Published in Perspectives in Education, Volume 40, No 3, 2022

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Jonathan Jansen | Samantha Kriger

Since 2020, there has been a flurry of research on the impact of Covid-19 on families, and some research on the effects of the pandemic on academic parents. However, little is known about how the pandemic reshaped academic women’s family lives and how this influenced their teaching, research, and inner selves. This innovative study of South African university-based female academics from 2020 to 2021 investigates how Covid restructured family lives in relation to children, partners, elderly parents, and outside support (domestic workers, gardeners, etc.), and what this meant for their academic work. A complexity paradigm is used as the framework, and it provides a relevant approach by recognising that elements interacting in a system result in emergent outcomes that are more complex than can be predicted at the outset. This paper will show that the pandemic-enforced lockdown exposed vulnerability threats to the Education for Sustainable development (ESD) both in terms of the direct education goals (such as lifelong learning opportunities and discrimination in education) as well as the cross-over goals from other sectors (such as health and wellbeing, gender equality, and decent work and sustainable growth).

Women academics and the changing psychological contract during COVID-19 lockdown.

Published in Front. Psychol, Volume 13, 2022

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Linda Ronnie | Marieta du Plessis

This study examines the psychological contract between academics and their institutions during a time of great stress—the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that relationships between these parties have been found to be deteriorating prior to the pandemic, we believed it pertinent to explore how environmental changes brought about through lockdown conditions may have shifted the academic-institution relationship. Through a qualitative research design, our data is from 2029 women academics across 26 institutions of higher learning in South Africa. The major shifts in the psychological contract were found to be workload and pressure, provision of resources, top-down communication, as well as trust and support. Whilst these shifts altered the transactional and interactional nature of the psychological contract, violation, rather than breach, occurred since the emotional responses of participants point to incongruence or misalignment of expectations between academics and their institutions during this time of crisis. We offer recommendations for rebuilding trust and negotiating the psychological contract to re-engage academics in the institution.

How to do social distancing in a shack: COVID-19 in South African context

Published in South African Journal of Science, Volume 118, No 5/6, 2022

Authors: Jonathan Jansen | Shabir A. Madhi

The somewhat ironic title for this special issue captures a dilemma that we seek to address: how to bring together the best thinking in the social sciences and the biomedical sciences to work through the complex challenges posed by COVID-19. How, indeed, does one do social distancing in a shack, or expect people to survive by shutting down the economy in a country where one third of the population is unemployed and Government is unable to offer a meaningful social security net? In the early months of the pandemic, the social and policy interventions in South Africa (and other African countries) were very much based on middle-class sensibilities – that for every citizen there is adequate housing with ample physical spaces that allow for this important mitigation measure called social distancing.

The precarity of women's academic work and careers during the COVID-19 pandemic: a South African case study.

Published in South African Journal of Science, Volume 118, No 5/6, 2022

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Armand Bam | Philippa Tumubweinee

The novel coronavirus set off a global pandemic of the COVID-19 disease that affected higher education institutions in profound ways. Drawing on the experiences of more than 2029 academic women, this article shows the precarity of academic women’s work under pandemic conditions. We analysed seven persistent themes that emerged from the qualitative analysis of the open-ended responses to an online survey across South Africa’s 26 higher education institutions. In short, these seven factors have rendered women’s work precarious with serious implications for an already elusive gender inequality in the academy. Finally, we aim to provide insight for academic leaders and policymakers to accommodate support for women academics and families in higher education during this time and in the future.

Emotional Wellbeing: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Academics in South Africa

Published in Frontiers in Education, Volume 7, 2022

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Armand Bam | Linda Ronnie

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, countries around the world responded with state-mandated lockdowns. Emerging data on the adverse psychological impact of the lockdown shows that women as a whole are among the most vulnerable groups. This study explores the specific stressors manifesting for women academics during lockdown and their toll on emotional wellbeing. A qualitative interpretive analysis of responses from 2,029 women academics showed participants experienced frustration, weariness, anxiety, and being overwhelmed as the result of emotional taxation from three sources: home responsibilities, social milieu, and work environment. The work-life merge that occurred during lockdown seemed to have a concertina effect on emotional wellbeing as participants were pressured to manage an inordinate number of responsibilities at once. The specific consequences of the concertina effect found in this study highlight opportunities for the academy to better support the wellbeing of women academics.

The changing meaning of ‘home’ in the work of South African women academics during the pandemic-enforced lockdown

Published in PLOS ONE 18(1): e0280179, January 2023,

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Linda Ronnie | Jonathan Jansen | Samantha Kriger

This article shows how the meaning of home and ‘working from home’ were fundamentally transformed by the pandemic-enforced lockdown for women academics. Drawing on the experiences of more than 2,000 women academics, we show how the enduring concept of home as a place of refuge from the outside world was replaced with a new and still unsettled notion of home as a gendered space that is a congested, competitive, and constrained setting for women’s academic work. In this emerging new place for living and working, home becomes a space that is claimed, conceded, and constantly negotiated between women academics and their partners as well as the children and other occupants under the same roof. Now, as before, home remains a deeply unequal place for women’s work, with dire consequences for academic careers. It is therefore incumbent upon women academics and higher education institutions to develop a deep understanding of the social meanings of home for academics, and the implications for the ‘new normal’ of working from home

Academics in Lockdown: A Gendered Perspective on Self-Esteem in Academia during the COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown

Published in Sustainability: 15(6), 4999, March 2023,

Authors: Cyrill Walters | Linda Ronnie | Marieta du Plessis | Jonathan Jansen

This qualitative research explores the experiences and sense-making of self-worth of 1857 South African women academics during the enforced pandemic lockdown between March and September 2020; the study was conducted through an inductive, content analysis process. Since worldwide lockdowns were imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, women academics, in particular, have reported a unique set of challenges from working from home. Gender inequality within the scientific enterprise has been well documented; however, the cost to female academics’ self-esteem, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, has yet to be fully realized. The findings of the study include negative emotional experiences related to self-worth, engagement in social comparisons, and the fear of judgement by colleagues, which were exacerbated by peer pressure. Finally, the sense-making of academic women’s self-esteem as it relates to their academic identity was reported. Beyond being the first comprehensive national study on the topic, the study’s insights are more broadly useful for determining what support, accommodation, and assistance is needed for academic women to sustain performance in their academic and research duties at universities worldwide

Research Team

Prof Linda Ronnie
Dr Cyrill Walters
Dr Samantha Kriger
Prof Marieta du Plessis
Prof Jonathan Jansen
Principal Investigator
Dr Armand Bam
Prof Patrizio Piraino
Graeme Mehl

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Wellness Contacts

The list below contains the contact details of the Wellness Centres at the 26 Higher Education Institutions involved in this study. Click on one of the links below to see the details: