Women in academia and the impact of COVID-19

How women in universities are being affected by COVID-19

As a career coach who works with women in higher education, I am increasingly aware of the negative impact the corona virus is having on the professional and personal lives of women in academia. The mounting evidence shows how COVID-19 has magnified the gender inequalities that previously existed across all sectors but is being felt acutely in universities, especially in STEM subjects.

In May, a Guardian column on women’s research reported that some journal editors are noticing a dramatic fall in submissions from women, especially solo authored articles, whilst there are significant rises in submissions for men – in some cases by 50%. Added to which, editor deadlines are not being extended. Evidence is also emerging that women’s presence in competing for research funding is reduced.

How is this happening? Some female academics are juggling childcare, home-schooling and work. As their children and their students are the priority, any research is seen as a luxury. This is particularly difficult for single mothers and of course, the situation affects women in other workplaces too.

Another recent Guardian article cites current economic research (jointly run by Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich Universities) which shows that employed and unemployed mothers are providing, on average, 6 hours of childcare and home-schooling every working day compared to 4 hours by fathers. Interestingly, the gender divide is larger in higher income households. And the impact is not only on those women with caring responsibilities.

“Whatever situation you have, on average it’s the woman doing more and it’s not because she’s working less” says Dr Christopher Rauh, a University of Cambridge economist.

This is endorsed by Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society who says, “this shows that the default assumptions about who does the caring for children fundamentally haven’t shifted. It defaults to women. There’s still the expectation that women will make their jobs fit around the caring, whereas a man’s job will come first

This doesn’t even begin to address the emotional labour women are bearing. In short, domesticity and its impact on women’s careers is now more visible because of COVID-19.

Shining a spotlight on STEM, the gender divide widening through the pandemic is further highlighted in the THES (15 May) by 35 female university scientists who claim

“The scientific response to COVID 19 has been characterised by an extraordinary level of sexism and racism

Women are less often quoted in the media despite the wealth of female academics leading key research. Women virologists, epidemiologists and clinicians for example, are advising policymakers but this isn’t discernible from media coverage. This invisibility impacts on careers – from recruitment to promotions and as role models for younger women. Consider women scientists of colour in all this and it’s a deeper illustration of disenfranchisement. These same scientists fear the collateral damage this crisis may have on women’s careers both now and in the longer term.

Does that mean there will be a post-pandemic fall-out of women from academia? Let’s hope not.

As Megan Frederickson of the University of Toronto says

“…part of me will always wonder what discoveries women scientists might have made were it not for this pandemic and the setback it is causing to the hard-won progress of women in STEM.”

Does this resonate with you in your field of work? If yes, it would be good to know your thoughts. Do get in touch. E: karen@llewellyncoaching.co.uk