Perspectives: Is COVID-19 widening the gender gap in academia?

15th July 2021

Women are especially vulnerable to the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. However, it is still too early to know the long-term effects, as well as the success of mitigation measures.

Dr Mariann Hardey at the University of Durham examines these issues in the context of women in academia. Drawing from existing research and her own experiences, she suggests key actions that individuals can take to address gender equality issues post-pandemic.

Mariann photo

Early data on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on scientific-publishing output suggest that female researchers, particularly those at early-career stages, are the hardest hit. 

Over the past couple of decades, academia has made significant progress on gender equality but, with many challenges still to overcome, has the pandemic sent women several steps back? What are the challenges women will face post-pandemic? And how can these be mitigated?

Despite recent reductions in gender disparities in pay and career advancement, the pandemic has highlighted the gap between men and women's experiences of work at home. Not since sociologist Ann Oakley's seminal housework study has the correlation between femaleness and the ideology of gender roles within the home been so clear. The pandemic had an immediate impact on women's employment, according to the Lean In and McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace 2020 report. It reveals that one in every four women, compared to one in every five men, is considering leaving the workforce or changing careers due to the impact of COVID-19. 

Three groups most affected by the pandemic

While all women have been impacted, three major groups have been hit the hardest: Black women, working mothers, and women in senior management positions. The conditions under which women’s work is often phrased is in terms of “responsibility”. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've been interviewing dual-career couples with children. While a greater proportion of household work and home-schooling was shared, the majority of housework and childcare was managed by women in heterosexual relationships, and not their partners. This inequality was especially noticeable among parents with children under the age of 10. Thanks to Ann Oakley’s seminar work of housework, while we now recognise that women work both inside and outside the home, the responsibility of running a household when both parents work from home remains primarily the domain of women. 

The responsibility of running a household when both parents work from home remains primarily the domain of women.

Despite companies’ efforts to support employees during the crisis, women are more exhausted, burned out, and under pressure than men, states the Women in the Workplace 2020 report. In terms of career advancement, it is more constructive to find ways to support women to stay in professional roles (not leave) and consider ways that organisations can better adjust the norms and expectations of work that lead to negative feelings. What is clear is that a large proportion of employees do not want to return to the office five days a week. Greater flexibility that incorporates opportunities for growth and advancement through working from home has become a priority – particularly among working parents.

Greater flexibility that incorporates opportunities for growth and advancement through working from home has become a priority – particularly among working parents.

Weighing up flexible working

The above signals the high priority for looking at women’s attitudes to work, particularly greater flexibility to work from home and integration of childcare. In thinking about how such challenges might be mitigated, a first aim would be to very closely monitor the working from home situation and attitudes to work within the home. If you are part of a large organisation, you’ve very likely been asked questions about your preferences for a return to the office and opportunities of home working. A second aim is to examine patterns of inclusion and exclusion with home working in relation to a number of variables including career progression, division of labour within the home, technical equipment, patterns of social interaction and so on. A third aim is to suggest the continued and active review of working conditions and ways we can continue to monitor and explain differences in attitudes to home working and the household responsibility situation. 

The global pandemic has compelled many households to reconsider who does what and when, as well as identify the critical roles and tasks within the home. In terms of advice for women in research positions on how to prioritise their career advancement, careful consideration should be given to the response of senior management teams. Some universities, for example, have promised that working parents will not be penalised for failing to conduct new research during the pandemic, and that this will not be used against individuals during promotion rounds. It remains to be seen whether these promises will be fulfilled. 

I would strongly advise women researchers to join community support groups (such as working parent groups, working mother’s groups, and others) to begin identifying what types of support may be helpful and how to explain to senior management teams personal circumstances that have resulted from COVID-19. 

Could working from home level the playing field?

One challenge I'm having is sharing my personal experience of home-schooling my now five-year-old daughter with colleagues who have had the opportunity to publish extensively during the pandemic. It is a privilege to be a part of their research successes, but I am concerned about how my lack of outputs will be perceived, especially by the promotion committee. 

I am certain to ask my institution that we do not return to ‘normal’ and the generally conservative attitude toward flexible working and working from home. The potential for positive change as a result of work-from-home opportunities appears to move us forward in gender equality by allowing parents to prioritise work and home life in a more egalitarian manner with the support of their employer. This was not previously possible.

Along with such changes in attitude, one hopes for the demystification of responsibility within the home, where prior social mechanisms that have long concealed such work are no longer hidden. What should be prioritised is providing opportunities for women who have left professional roles.

Coming soon

The next article in the Perspectives series will look at whether the gaps of disparities in conducting research around the world have been widened by COVID-19.

Introducing 'Perspectives'

Social sciences research can play a huge role in tackling the global socio-economic disparities that have widened because of COVID-19. But to have maximum impact, the research environment must overcome disparities of its own.

In this series, experts discuss the issues around research disparities and how the sector can evolve to enable global, diverse and underrepresented voices to be heard. Join the conversation by sharing your experiences and opinions on how we can create change.

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