Career progression and motherhood: the impact of Covid-19

What have been the consequences of the pandemic for working mothers who had to split their time between homeschooling and their job?

Words work life balance and family on table collected with wooden cubes


Covid-19 affected different areas of our lives, with many having to readjust to a new routine and new challenges. For many working parents, particularly mothers with younger children who have borne the brunt of the Covid work-life merge, it is likely that the pandemic has impacted their jobs and, as a result, their career progression.

One of these working mothers who had to reconsider her work-life balance and therefore her career trajectory is Kris Kovarovic. Originally from Connecticut, Kris moved to the UK to do postdoctoral work. After some back and forth between America and England, she is now an Associate Professor at Durham University in Human Evolution, or as she defines it “a cross between a palaeontologist and an archaeologist”.

She has been working at Durham University for the last 11 years where she teaches, does her research and takes part in other roles in the university. She is the co-chair of the university’s mothers network and the chair of the academic electoral assembly, two projects she is very passionate about and which she describes as probably the best part of her job.

Work-life balance during a pandemic

Juggling between childcare responsibilities and work can often be a challenge without adequate support. Due to lockdowns, homeschooling and self-isolation, many parents have struggled to keep up with work and childcare demands during the pandemic.

“Over the past year and a half, my children have been at home more than they’ve been in school,” says Kris. “My husband and I in the first part of the lockdown tried to split childcare quite evenly. I really insisted on that. I wanted some kind of schedule.”

She decided to split the week up with her husband who has been working from home full time for the past three years to take care of their children. But that meant she only had half the usual time for her job and was unable to continue at the same rhythm as before the pandemic, without having to compromise her weekends.

“You can’t do 100% of your job in 50% of the time, nor can you be 100% of the parent you need to be in 50% of the time. So, it was just an incredible struggle, and everything fell by the wayside that would be considered a traditional promotion marker,” says Kris.

She knew that she had to sacrifice something in order to manage all of her responsibilities. This meant putting her research to one side, even though it is a key part of her road to promotion.

Mental health and well-being as a working mother

The pandemic had repercussions in other areas of many workers’ well-being, with 65% of survey respondents saying that their mental health has deteriorated due to Covid-19, with 61% of these saying that homeschooling and childcare issues played a role.

With a history of anxiety and panic attacks, Kris was well aware of her mental health long before Covid-19 hit. However, whilst trying to navigate through her job and her responsibilities as a mother during the pandemic, she says she did not realise how burnt out she truly was.

“I got really sick last summer and I didn’t see it at first. I knew I was super stressed and not coping very well and I was also advocating for myself and a lot of other mothers at the university because of the position that I hold with co-chairing the mothers’ network,” states Kris.

It was only when a senior member of the university told her how worried she was for her health that Kris realised she needed to get a grip on her mental health.

“It was like the penny dropped that somebody could see the me starting to kind of crack. It took about a week of sort of cogitating on this. And I just realised ‘wow, I am really sick, I can’t continue like this because this pandemic is not going to end any time soon.’ This wasn’t a case of me just holding it together for another few weeks or another couple of months,” she says, recalling the moment when she first decided to ask for help.

Kris was one of the many workers who was taking on too much without realising the impact it was having on her well-being. Her GP told her that she needed to take a month off from work to reset and get back on track. “I was lucky in that because I was off of work for a month, but there was no assumption on my husband’s part that I would then just look after the kids for that full month because clearly that was not working well for me,” Kris says.

This meant giving her some free week days to fully concentrate on herself. However, she still had to use some of that time to complete work-related tasks, despite being told that she should not feel responsible for them.

When asked whether she felt supported by her employer, she says “my gut tells me no, they were not. They are the reason for my mental health declining”.

She believes that in general the university was trying to be supportive, but leaving it to individuals to make decisions about their priorities and not providing support was difficult.

“I think there was a lot of sympathy and understanding from a lot of people in my workplace, but that didn’t translate into practice,” she says. This also led to another problem relating to the jobs she was carrying out when working less hours. “So the things I was being told that I should try to do within my limited hours were things that frankly were not going to get me any respect and were not going to help me with promotion.”

Only 19% of respondents from the survey said their employer had helped them with their mental health. According to Kris, this is because the system is broken because of a lack of policies that support workers in her situation, even though employers might have expressed feelings of empathy or sympathy.

Career progression and Covid-19

All of these different but connected events led Kris to halt her career progression and she is not the only one: 24% of the survey’s respondents said they were less likely to seek promotion as a result of Covid-19.

“I’m even more miles behind than I felt before just by virtue of the fact that I’m both a woman and a mother and now Covid just kind of blew a lot of progress,” says Kris.

Working in a male-dominated field, the competition was already tough before Covid-19. Now promotion just seems out of reach whereas her male colleagues have kept on publishing research papers during the pandemic.

The effort needed to get back to their level would require too much sacrifice, which means she may have to forego any changes of career progression or may have to downgrade if she changes university. Kris has now come to terms with her choice and there are still many aspects of her career which she enjoys.

She says: “I don’t see myself as being able to leave Durham and maybe three or four years ago I would have said that was a terrible thing. Now I can see that there’s the possibility for it to be okay.” That is in large part because of her advocacy for other working mothers, investigating the impact of the pandemic on their careers.

She adds: “At least what I have now at Durham is meaningful, even if I don’t feel that it has embedded much gender equality or many other types of equity, which I think is probably a more important concept. I see that there’s a kind of core group of people who work there who do care and are trying hard to make changes.”

Kris describes herself as “a feminist fossil hunter”. She says: “Maybe I’m not getting a lot of career satisfaction or recognition for the things I thought I would, but I think there’s some positive energy there in other ways that I can capitalise on to keep me happy enough to stay,” she says, adding: “Even if the work is hard and sometimes depressing, it’s still meaningful and I can see it being meaningful.”

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