COVID-19 risks reversing the gender equity gains made by Women in STEM

How COVID-19 risks reversing the gender equity gains made by Women in STEM


“We are all in this together,” will provide sentiment in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, but many women in STEM have experienced inequities more severely than others.

The pandemic has compounded pre-existing gender inequity for women in STEM, and caused significant career disruption to female researchers particularly, the effects of which will potentially persist long after the crisis eases.  

So what next for women in STEM? These are some of the factors to consider.

Women already poorly represented in STEM

Women are already poorly represented in the STEM workforce and continue to be excluded from fully participating in science, with less than 30% of researchers worldwide being women.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the  amplification of male voices in the media and our research institutions conserved the invisibility of women in STEM. Numerous qualified female epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists and clinicians were on the frontline of the COVID-19 response yet media outlets biased reporting towards male scientists, further compounding the inequities we have always had to manage of failing to promote our leadership and provide role models to younger women.

Women in STEM tend to be more junior, with no change in the ‘scissor graph’ demographic for decades. This is because research requires that you stay current without interruption. Many women then suffer the ‘baby penalty’ and, during maternity leave, find their research field has progressed without them. These disparities come alongside a lack of senior female career mentorship, being given increased responsibility for tasks with low promotability, and being presented with fewer career and networking opportunities.

But the real deal breaker for women in STEM is the inequity we face in household duties and carer responsibilities.

COVID-19’s resulted in more household inequities

Prior to COVID-19, women provided most of the informal care. One study of scientists found that men were four times as likely as women to have spouses who work part-time or at all. Conforming with this existing gendered pattern, women have spent more time on active childcare and homeschooling than men due to the introduction of social distancing measures to control COVID-19 transmission.  As a result, female academics are competing with many men with a lower domestic workload, further compounded by the current pandemic.

In medical research 60 per cent of senior positions are held by men. This means that during the COVID-19 response, female early career (junior) researcher productivity has been disproportionately affected, with reduced productivity in the form of fewer submissions of competitive funding applications and research publications – key indicators of a researcher’s success for promotion and career progression, participation in meetings, access to informal professional networks, important communications and decision making.

Women overrepresented in vulnerable jobs

Job insecurity is emerging as an additional stressor for women in research. In academia women are overrepresented in less secure positions and are more likely to be part of an increasingly casualised academic workforce. A recent report identified that female University staff are 50% more likely than men to be in insecure employment. To cover revenue drops of $3-4 billion in 2020 at Universities, Sydney University alone reported a budget shortfall of $470 million, these positions are the most vulnerable and most likely to have been cut.

The impact is even more significant in this sector as university workers were not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy. Casual employees make up approximately 23% of the university academic workforce, thus the response by the government has critically put women in STEM and the next generation of academics – researchers and educators – at risk.

Women have taken on a higher mental load during COVID-19

The continued underrepresentation of women in STEM impacts mental health. Managing daily gender biases is mentally taxing and presents constant social stresses and anxiety. Women in STEM are more likely to report higher levels of stress and anxiety and higher incidences of depression.

Women generally carry a greater mental load, encompassing planning, scheduling, strategizing, risk identification and mitigation at work and home, than men. At work this mental load can be called project management, but there is no adequate word to sum it up at home. The COVID-19 pandemic blurred the division of these mental loads, which became compounded by school closures and homeschooling, social-distancing, not visiting elderly family, financial and health concerns. The impact of COVID-19 resulting in loss of productivity and job security with an accumulation of domestic and professional tasks has multiplied the mental burden of women in STEM and we are suffering as a collective in silent exhaustion.

So what now? Mitigating the gendered impact of COVID-19 will provide opportunities to advance equity in STEM

STEM employers must act now and take responsibility to disrupt the social norms that have been engendered during the COVID-19 crisis.

Flexible and remote working arrangements have allowed for a greater balance of work and care responsibilities for both genders. Continuing these workplace policies into the future will help erode social norms for the division of labour in households. This will promote other policies including equal parental and carers leave, flexible and part-time positions for both genders and drive efforts to ensure pay equity.

Momentum in gender equality and diversity was building rapidly in recent years with many drivers identified to implement change. Through mitigating the gendered impact of COVID-19, STEM employers have the opportunity to advance equity within research and the opportunity to disrupt social norms around gender, caring roles and flexible working.

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