Pandemic ‘risks reversing’ Australia’s research gender equity gains

Women’s careers suffer as they pick up the pieces at work and home

May 21, 2020

Women are bearing the brunt of coronavirus-induced disruption to Australian research careers, and the effects could persist long after the crisis eases, according to a new report.

The report warns that inequities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce will intensify during the crisis, potentially reversing the progress of recent years.

“The pandemic appears to be compounding pre-existing gender disparity,” says the report by the Rapid Research Information Forum, which is chaired by Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, and led by the Australian Academy of Science. “Hard-won gains by women in STEM are especially at risk.”

The report, commissioned by federal science minister Karen Andrews, was compiled by 22 academics, research administrators and women’s advocates. Lead author Emma Johnston, UNSW Sydney’s science dean, said the findings demonstrated a need for employers to monitor and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on jobs and careers.

“The hard work over many years to recruit and retain more women…could be undone,” Professor Johnston said. “The challenges are likely to be most acute for women with children [aged] under 12.”

The report says female university staff are 50 per cent more likely than men to be in insecure employment, with these jobs “likely to be the first to go”. Those fortunate enough to remain in work will be left to pick up the slack, taking on extra teaching to cover the loss of casual staff.

They will also inherit a greater proportion of academic service roles, such as pastoral care and mentoring duties, “which could be expected to increase in times of stress”.

The report says female academics in Australia and New Zealand have shouldered a disproportionate share of the work transferring teaching programmes online, exacerbating “pre-existing gender disparities” in research and teaching. They have also assumed the lion’s share of domestic work such as home-schooling children.

While the average Australian worker now has four fewer paid hours each week than in the early stages of the pandemic, women have lost 20 per cent more hours than men. US research suggests that lockdown measures “have led to an increase in the hours of unpaid care work done by mothers compared to fathers, even where both parents work full-time”.

The report also cites popular and scholarly media reports that women are lodging fewer journal submissions than at the start of the pandemic, while men’s submission rates have increased – “reflecting similar trends when men take paid parental leave”, and potentially harming women’s job and funding prospects for years to come.

“Early evidence from New Zealand suggests mothers…have missed funding application deadlines and postponed manuscripts, sabbaticals and fellowships during Covid-19,” the report adds.

Science and Technology Australia, which helped oversee the report, said women had been underrepresented in STEM before the pandemic’s advent, holding about 29 per cent of research jobs and 12 per cent of professorships.

“Our plea to STEM employers is to keep a very close eye on the gender impact of decisions that they will need to make in the coming months, as this continues,” said CEO Misha Schubert.

She said a “vast effort” had yielded “hard-won gains towards greater representation for women in STEM. We just can’t afford to go backwards.”

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