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31 Jan 2023
Anna CohenMiller

Innovating Online Research for Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice during the Pandemic

In this NORRAG Highlights, Anna CohenMiller presents online research using photovoice on the challenges faced by “motherscholars”, while balancing their academic and personal lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19: Same boat, different storms

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the sudden transition to online work and education affected caretakers disproportionately (Higginbotham & Dahlberg, 2021). The added work for women has been described as an “unbridled” role conflict between work and family expectations (Adisa et al., 2021, p. 241), and deemed as “untenable” responsibilities and expectations for mothers (CohenMiller & Izekenova, 2022; Del Boca et al., 2020).

This research study sought to uncover the reality of life during COVID-19 quarantine for mothers in academia.[i] The pressure to continue working at a normal pace in the academic “publish or perish” environment, led to tremendous stress and point to broader underlying inequalities and challenges for caregivers working in academia. (CohenMiller, 2020a).

The study was conducted in an asynchronous manner, using photovoice to shed light on the reality during this crisis. The following provides an overview of photovoice, online photovoice, and a sample of the data, findings, and recommendations.


Photovoice is a participatory action research methodology grounded in theoretical underpinnings of emancipatory practice. Participants are actively engaged in developing the research, data collection, analysis, and sharing of findings. Wang and Burris (1997) explain that photovoice is intended: “(1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important community issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and (3) to reach policymakers” (p. 370).

Learning from the online photovoice study of motherscholars

In this study, I adapted photovoice for online use in an asynchronous mode. Participants of the study were mothers working in academia, who guided children through online learning during the pandemic. I collected data from May-September 2020 through purposeful sampling.

My work was framed by Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory, Holland et al.’s (1998) “figured worlds” (p.51), and O’Reilly’s (2021) matricentric theory. These overlapping ideas helped frame how participants see their roles as mothers and academics.

Questions to consider when starting

Fundamental to the process of any study is understanding the purpose and goals. For photovoice, social justice is a key element. Thus, multiple questions related to socially just practice should be considered when applying online photovoice in an asynchronous mode:

  • How is social justice integrated into the study? 
  • Whose voices are being amplified? Whose voices are being excluded?
  • How can the data be collected in a way that is simple for all participants? 
  • Will there be online interaction between participants?
  • How might the study potentially impact the real-world lives of participants? 

What can be learned about social justice and academia from the data? 

A key aim of the research study was to amplify voice and identify structural inequalities to improve academia and the lives of motherscholars. During the study, 68 motherscholars from across the globe participated by sharing photos and descriptions about their experience guiding children through online learning during lockdown. Most were from the United States and Kazakhstan; other countries represented included Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, Hungary, Ukraine, Lebanon, the UK, and Ireland. Motherscholars identified their positions as ranging across the academic “pipeline” from graduate student to senior lecturer/full professor and administrative leadership roles.

The photographs offered deep insights into the experiences of being a motherscholar at home during periods of social isolation, while supporting their children’s online schoolwork. The photos and descriptions clearly show the lack of academic institutional practice and policies to “facilitate success” for motherscholars.

For example, Karly, is an assistant professor in the US, with two children, in Grades 6 and 7, respectively. She mentioned that her son in seventh grade was on the autism spectrum (Figure 1):

“It’s my daily reality 8am-1pm. I have a hard time helping both of them at the same time. Caleb needs more help, but Abby needs help sometimes as well… Either I’m a good mom/home schooler, or a good academic. I’ve been unsuccessful at doing both.”

She described how the picture might help motherscholars and academic organizations understand:

“Focus on your health even in the chaos. It is our single greatest asset, and we have to protect it. Employers who are not empathetic to families must do better. Academia allows for flexibility, which can be great for working parents, but more has to be done to ensure our well-being is protected….”

Figure 1: Shared dining table and work space

Yelena in Ukraine is an assistant professor with two children, one who was in pre-school (age 3) and the other in middle school (age 11). She pointed out that this picture was selected for two reasons: “1) I wanted to have a memory of this 2) I wanted to have an illustration of what the triple load of mothers looks like.” (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Daily Zooming—teaching and children

Yelena continued to say:

“During the pandemic, I acutely felt how unfairly distributed expectations [were]. I must provide distance education to my students and my child, as well as second child supervision. And I must at the same time be competitive in academic life….

This picture may make someone think about what should be changed in their approach to working mothers. I would also like attention to be paid to the fact that mothers have an extra (and extreme) unpaid load in a pandemic.”

Lastly, Zarina, a research assistant working in Kazakhstan, had children in the third and fifth grades learning online. The figure showed “[m]e and my kids are sitting together at the long table and studying/working simultaneously” (Figure 3):

“I took this picture to capture this moment when I started to experience the unique level of stress and studying for three people at the same time. As a mother in academia I experience a greater extent of responsibilities, housework, homework, and all borders between professional/academic/personal lives have been diminished due to pandemic.

“I hope the university and policy makers will understand the difficulties of motherscholars and implement some policies for improvement, provide funding for supporting mothers.”

Figure 3: Studying and working simultaneously

These examples show the potential for asynchronous online photovoice to demonstrate participant reality, which, in turn, can raise awareness for social justice issues, reducing inequities in higher education and offering individuals a chance to speak out on issues of equity and inclusion in academic organizations, thus contributing to socially-just policy change.


A huge thank you to all the motherscholars for sharing your lives and explaining your realities to move towards a more socially just future in academia.

A related gallery can be seen online.

[i] To refer to mothers working in academia, I use the term “motherscholars” (see The Motherscholar Project), first coined by Matias (2011; 2022).


Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Matias, C. E. (2011). “Cheryl Matias, PhD and mother of twins”: Counter storytelling to critically analyze how I navigated the academic application, negotiation, and relocation process. In session, Paying it forward: Mother scholars navigating the academic terrain. Paper, American Educational Research Association (AERA), AERA Division G Highlighted Panel, New Orleans, LA, USA, April 8-12, 2011.

O’Reilly, A. (2021). Matricentric feminism: Theory, activism, and practice (2nd ed.). Bradford: Demeter Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


The author

Anna CohenMiller was one of the founding cohorts of faculty at the Graduate School of Education, Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. She is an internationally renowned qualitative social justice researcher and award-winning educational leader who uses compassionate and transformational research/leadership to address issues of equity and inclusion in higher education in Central Asia and internationally.
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