The Challenges of Research During Covid-19 for Women

The past year has been special in many ways. The pandemic has exposed everything that was already weak and on shaky foundations, but which, in the heightened circumstances, has collapsed and crumbled: from health systems to democratic arrangements, which are under threat in many places… The pandemic, with its necessary reinforcements to contain its spread, such as quarantine and the shutdown of public life and the compulsion to work from home, has unfortunately dealt a particularly heavy blow to women. The burden of caring for the family, educating the children and carrying out daily household chores has fallen on them. This made the pursuit of research a major challenge. Here is a testimony form Slovenian female researchers.

Dr. Helena Seražin

Researcher at the France Stelet Institute of Art History, where she has been working for the last few years on the MoMoWo (Women’s Creativity since the Modern Movement) megaproject, which has included numerous exhibitions and events, and she was also co-editor of this year’s excellent monograph Into the Fore, which brings together 40 pioneering women in the field of architecture, design and construction in Slovenia.

Dr. Helena Seražin

“Although the virus closed us in between the four walls of our home in the spring, it did not stop me from carrying out my research and editorial work. Like most of my colleagues at the institute, I was not hindered by teaching or child protection at home and other related factors, but as a consequence, I shouldered some additional, unforeseen work in solidarity. It also took a great deal of the proverbially feminine ‘bravery’ to be able, with the help of my colleagues, to realise my commitments in these uncertain circumstances, particularly on one of the projects that ended this autumn; the most challenging of these was the organisation and execution of the international scientific conference at the end of August, which took place partly virtually and partly in situ in Nova Gorica. There was virtually no time for actual rest this summer, because in the break between the two quarantines, in addition to organising the aforementioned conference, I was in a hurry to gather material in archives and libraries for the possible autumn closure of institutions and homework, which did in fact happen. Of course, what we have collected will not be sufficient for writing scientific papers, so we have already established a kind of informal network with some of our colleagues, through which we exchange information or scans from books in our home libraries. I am now rushing off with my last commitments, including the preparation of a paper for an international zoom conference, which, at least in my experience so far, will not be able to replace the usual face-to-face meeting where scientists, especially in informal meetings, can exchange ideas very fruitfully and pave the way for further collaborations in the form of international projects.

Finally, I regret to say that this year will almost certainly not see the following: the public talk with women architects, which we are discussing in the monograph In the Foreground and which should have taken place in the ZRC Atrium in mid-October; the cycling tour of examples of architecture by women in Ljubljana, which we have created in collaboration with the Centre for Architecture of Slovenia and the Azil bookstore, and which should have premiered at the end of October this year.”

Dr. Saša Poljak Istenič

Dr. Saša Poljak Istenič

Researcher at the Institute of Slovenian Ethnography; Editor-in-Chief of the Newsletter of the Slovenian Ethnological Society; lecturer at the Faculty of Tourism, UM, and external collaborator at the Alpen-Adria Universität in Klagenfurt. Her current research focuses on urban futures. In 2020, she participated in the launch of the blog Everyday.

“2020 is a strange year. Is there even a better word to describe it? Bizarre, perhaps? Its biggest peculiarity was probably the oscillation between the “normal”, “familiar”, “old” life and the “new” (and now a little less new) “normality” (which I hope it is not). So this year, up until mid-March, we skied with the family as much as ever, but at the same time, in the following months, we spent an incomparably large amount of time at home, behind four walls, bored and (as it turned out, idly) planning “normal” things, which of course then had to be abandoned, postponed or changed.

I have the feeling that my research work has more or less come to a standstill, but on the other hand, this year I managed to write and get a research project, intermittently take advantage of a research fellowship at the University of Klagenfurt, which also allowed me to do fieldwork in Vienna, and to set up the institute’s blog, Everyday, to disseminate ethnological research. This is probably why it seems ridiculous to some that I feel I am cheating my employer and receiving an unjustified salary from public funds, but the coronavirus has indeed so fundamentally changed my working hours and self-perception that I no longer meet the criteria of “work performance” by any personal criteria from my “former” working life. With measures that (still) keep me mostly at home playing school supervisor to three primary school children, I only exceptionally manage to devote several hours at a stretch to reading, thinking or writing. In practice, this means that I haven’t even started writing my book (which should be out by March next year at least), that I haven’t read a challenging scientific work for a long time, and that I prefer not to tackle more extensive tasks at all.

It has also been a particular challenge for me to move my lectures into a virtual environment. Although I feel that I am more successful at this than at research work, it is clearly not effective to pass on knowledge to future generations, i.e. to those black squares on the screen, given the knowledge that students – after suddenly turning on the camera and microphone without a problem – show in my exams. Some of the ‘most original’ answers have even become family anecdotes.

Another special ‘achievement’ of 2020 is that it has suddenly turned me into a housewife against my will and stolen my free time. Thanks to flexible working and a job that allows working from home, the bulk of the otherwise evenly distributed housework – and parenting – has fallen on my shoulders, mainly at the expense of my free time and the shift of work commitments into the night. “Weekend cleaning campaigns” of the flat have turned into daily coping with unimaginable messes, the relaxing cooking of Sunday lunch into the tedious brainstorming of at least three daily meals for teenagers or near-teenagers who eat everything they can find (and in untold quantities), and the occasional help with schoolwork into daily explanations of the material and furious educational tracts on the importance of education or the etiquette of online engagement. I understand the rationality of a woman – or a woman’s wife – taking care of the home and family when her partner simply does not have the privilege of working at home. I am no exception to this either, as the international surveys of women in science and their records show. Yet I refuse to accept that housework is more important than my (paid!) work and leisure time, and I firmly reject the stereotype that if you are at home, then “yes, housework gets done”.

Dr. Katarina Keber

Researcher at the Milko Kos Institute of History, where she works on social history of medicine, where she also works on epidemics and their consequences. In 2020, she observed how her field of research moved into reality.

“Given that I am researching epidemics in previous centuries, it was 2020 was a very interesting year for me as a researcher, and as a participant as a participant. Experiencing the emergence of a new infectious disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine, for a researcher of past epidemics, is it an extraordinary and unexpected experience. To observe how people react today to anti-epidemic measures, some of which are centuries old, the emergence of disease deniers, conspiracy theories, miracle cures, doubts about scientific discoveries, vaccines, all of this reminds me very much of the time of epidemics… That’s why my work this year was different. I became

an interpreter of past epidemics and a promoter of them here rarely represented in our country in the field of social history of medicine. A historical topic which is not one of the most sought-after in normal times, is “The covirus pandemic has made it relevant to the general public.”