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Pandemic Imperils Promotions for Women in Academia

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Like millions of parents, Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, a political-science professor at Northwestern University, saw her work life upended when her third grader’s school shut down in March. Later, she was demoralized to learn that local schools would not reopen this fall.

But Dr. Marion Suiseeya faced an additional source of stress: her looming all-or-nothing tenure evaluation, which will determine whether she earns a lifetime appointment at Northwestern or must find a new job.

“This year was critical for me to finalize my tenure packet,” she said. “I stare at my computer and try to be productive. And every five minutes my daughter comes in and says, ‘My Zoom link doesn’t work.’”

The pandemic has been brutal on many working mothers, especially those with little leverage on the job. Experts say it may be uniquely unforgiving for mothers in so-called up-or-out fields, where workers face a single high-stakes promotion decision. The loss of months or more of productivity to additional child care responsibilities, which fall disproportionately on women, can reverberate throughout their careers.

“Will this disproportionately affect female lawyers, accountants, people in various positions in finance, management, academics, all of whom have up-or-out or winner-take-all positions?” asked Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard who studies women in the labor market. “I would say yes.”

The angst has been especially evident on some college campuses, which tend to be more fertile grounds for activism than other up-or-out workplaces.

ImageBecause of the pandemic, Northwestern and other universities have extended the deadlines for faculty members to publish work that would help them earn tenure.
Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

At Northwestern, hundreds of female faculty members have pressed the university to alleviate the disruption of the pandemic, but with limited success. “The present is unsustainable,” said Susan Pearson, a tenured Northwestern history professor who has helped rally colleagues to seek more accommodations.

Dr. Pearson, who is divorced and is the primary caregiver for her two children, said parenthood was too often seen in academic settings “as a personal choice” rather than as a societal obligation — “like if you choose to live two hours away from work and you have a long commute, the university shouldn’t have to do anything about it.”

Northwestern, like other universities, initially responded to the pandemic by pausing the so-called tenure clocks of junior faculty members, giving them an extra year to publish academic work that would help them earn the promotion.

But research has shown that stopping the tenure clock is an imperfect policy. According to a study of tenure decisions in economics departments published in 2018, men were substantially more likely to receive tenure at their first job after the university allowed an extension for new parents of either sex, while women were substantially less likely to receive tenure than they were before the policy change.

The reason, said Jenna Stearns, an economist at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author of the paper, is that men appear to devote more of the additional year to academic research, while women appear to spend more of it managing parental obligations.

There is evidence that the pandemic is having a similar effect, with the gender divide in new academic papers skewing more male in recent months.

Several women on Northwestern’s faculty said they doubted that the additional time for tenure consideration would offset the pandemic’s impact on their work.

Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

Dr. Marion Suiseeya, who is completing a book that she considers critical to her tenure prospects — about the injustices facing people who live in forests — estimates that she was two months from finishing the manuscript in March, but that it will take her at least four more months to finish now.

She said that she was spending no more than two hours a day on the project, versus the three or four she would spend in a typical term, and that the quality of those work hours had declined significantly.

“I’m literally working in a closet,” she said. “My daughter has different perceptions. She thinks all I do is work. But I work a lot less.”

Dr. Marion Suiseeya intends to come up for tenure in the spring as originally planned because the stress of an unfinished book is too hard on her family and she doesn’t want to prolong it. But she is not sure she’ll be ready.

Instead of an extension, she would prefer additional child care subsidies and a more nuanced evaluation process with less weight on whether her book has been published.

Magdalena Osburn, a geobiology professor at Northwestern, divided days into two-hour shifts with her husband, a fellow research scientist, when their son’s day care facility shut down in March.

“With a 4-year-old, there are interruptions even when it’s your time to work,” she said. “Mommy knows where everything is. Nothing can proceed without Mommy’s permission.”

Dr. Osburn, who submitted her tenure materials this month, said she was down to three or four hours of daily work after the pandemic hit, with much of the time spent figuring out how to teach a lab course online. Though her son’s day care provider reopened in July, her output had been further squeezed by months of unreliable lab access for herself and her students.

In the winter term, she is scheduled to teach two courses online that will again require considerable preparation, she said, and some relief from her teaching obligations would have been far more helpful than delaying the tenure decision.

“I don’t need a clock extension,” Dr. Osburn said. “I need an acknowledgment that this year is trash.”

Other Northwestern professors seeking tenure echoed those concerns, as did a survey of nearly 200 female faculty members by a campus group. The survey also highlighted the tendency of other workplace obligations, such as advising students struggling with emotional stress, to fall disproportionately on women.

Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

“Beyond the pandemic, there’s the protests and everything that’s happening with Black Lives Matter,” said Sylvia Perry, an assistant professor of psychology who teaches a course on prejudice and stereotypes. “Students wanted to take time to talk about what’s going on, how it’s impacting them as individuals, because they know I study it, because of my identity.”

Dr. Perry, who is Black, said additional flexibility in her teaching schedule would be “extremely helpful.”

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Thus far, however, Northwestern has offered faculty members few across-the-board policies beyond the tenure-clock extension — primarily a subsidized rate for up to 10 days of child care. While it has announced support for alternative work arrangements such as sharing teaching responsibilities, faculty members must consult their supervisors about these options — and many junior faculty members are wary of doing so for fear of being labeled slackers.

In an interview, Kathleen Hagerty, the university’s provost, said there was always a trade-off between blanket policies like the tenure-clock extension, which she conceded could have inequitable effects, and more tailored accommodations that put the onus on employees to arrange them.

“That’s the contradiction,” she said, adding that she generally favored the latter approach. “Maximum flexibility is the university policy. That has been the order from the top: to be as flexible as you possibly can, as empathetic as you possibly can.”

Faculty members say they have been disappointed that there wasn’t more planning for the possibility that schools and child care facilities would not reopen in the fall — or more sensitivity to the challenges.

“I have two young ones at home and a working spouse, though she has definitely taken on the heavy lift and allowed me to focus on Northwestern!” one administrator remarked in an email after Dr. Pearson asked about plans for the fall. The administrator assured her that the university took the issue very seriously.

Unsatisfied — “that set of assumptions and practices is EXACTLY what I am suggesting that NU not perpetuate,” she later told the university’s president by email — Dr. Pearson teamed up with a fellow historian and mother, Amy Stanley, to write a letter to the administration. Among the options they urged the university to explore was paid leave for parents with pressing child care needs and a reduction in teaching obligations.

Both women have tenure and said it allowed them to speak up for more vulnerable colleagues, including assistant professors and faculty members not on the tenure track concerned that their jobs were in danger. More than 200 faculty and staff members signed the letter, but the administration barely acknowledged it, Dr. Pearson said.

Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

Dr. Hagerty said that while the administration didn’t respond directly to the letter, it later circulated information to deans about resources available to faculty members, which she said the university might not have done enough to publicize.

Last week, the Organization of Women Faculty, the campus group that produced the survey of female professors, released its own proposals. They included additional child care subsidies and adjustments in tenure standards to “reflect pandemic realities.”

Dr. Hagerty, who said she was willing to take part in a moderated discussion that the group had requested, said the concerns raised in the survey were painfully familiar to her as a longtime professor with three children.

“In my younger days, I didn’t want to ever suggest that I couldn’t do something because I had kids,” she said. “They said, ‘Be department chair, even though your husband is in Washington all week and you’ve got three kids under 6.’ You know, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’” She added: “It was killing me, but I did it.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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