The disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on women must be addressed

But auditing such efforts will be difficult, while unintended consequences are always a risk, warns Athene Donald

June 25, 2020

Wherever one looks, one sees evidence for differences in life outcomes for men and women, and for the white population compared with BAME counterparts.

Look at the recent data on salaries of recent graduates by gender. Or consider the gender pay gap in just about every organisation (UK Research and Innovation, for instance, has just announced a slight increase in its own gender pay gap). And for white and BAME people there are starkly different death rates in the current pandemic. Our society appears still to exhibit significant advantages to the white male, despite attempts over the years to move towards equity. More radical and wide-ranging societal action is still needed if these differences are to be eradicated. Change is desperately slow.  

The pandemic should offer us an opportunity for reflection and a moment to introduce radical change as our lives necessarily change. One area of academia where the differences are manifest under the current conditions – as many anecdotes show – is in the impact on carers’ productivity. And, of course, “carers” frequently, but certainly not exclusively, means women. Editors (see this Nature editorial) have been remarking for some weeks that submissions from female authors have decreased and additional anecdote is building up on blogs and social media from around the world.

Digital Science’s gathering of data confirms this sad fact. Over the past five years, the proportion of submissions from women has been creeping up, from just below one-third of total submissions, to just over. However, in May of this year, not only has the total number of submissions plummeted, but so has the proportion from women: it’s now down to little over one-quarter. We can expect this submission gap to be sustained, if not get worse, as the consequences of global lockdown persist in the months, possibly the years, ahead. Time lost now to productivity won’t readily be recovered.

Does this matter? Of course it does. We all know that, at every stage of a career, publications are weighed in the balance for appointments, promotions and, even if a little more indirectly, for funding, too. How will any of the panels judging and comparing individuals factor in the pandemic experiences – good or bad for productivity – in their decision-making? After all, for those folk who just happen to have been carefree – literally with no caring responsibilities – during these extraordinary weeks, productivity may have soared (assuming their mental states have permitted). Attempting to introduce gender-neutral policies as we go forward needs careful thought. However, we need to be careful to avoid any unintended consequences.

To give one specific example that backfired, consider the evidence with regard to US economists granted an extra year for their tenure track due to the birth of a child. The authors of a study that examined the effects of the provision state that “after the implementation of a gender-neutral clock stopping policy, the probability that a female assistant professor gets tenure at that university decreases by 22 percentage points while male tenure rates rise by 19 percentage points” – possibly because “men are more likely to be productive while their tenure clock is stopped and women are much less able to do so”.

Caution is therefore needed in how institutions (and funders) address the problems faced by individuals as a result of this pandemic, but it is vital that some account is taken. Asking each applicant to explain, say in 100 words or fewer, what their home conditions were, might be a good place to begin, but might be impossible to audit. Alternatively, introducing a requirement to complete a checklist of possible detriments, covering factors such as: the number and age of children you actually had to home-school (as opposed to someone else in the household doing the labour) and for how many days a week on average; the number of vulnerable family members you were caring for; and any weeks of ill health (including mental health issues) for you and other family members. This would allow weighting factors about publications produced over the next year(s) to be renormalised, albeit again with auditing problems. Should a score of zero in that checklist lead to a negative weighting?

Responsibilities beyond the family home should also be considered and are equally challenging to turn into any sort of metric. Given that women typically have been laden with more of the pastoral care in a department, it is hard to imagine that their duties will have diminished during the pandemic. Understandably, anxious students will have been filling up inboxes with questions about assessments and asking for support. I’m not convinced the requirements of producing online lectures with little notice will have been gender-neutral in their impact either.

On all these gender-related issues, as universities return to something akin to previous normality, senior leaders need to ponder the consequences and how to handle them fairly in coming years: the impact will not be short-lived. The independent review of the Athena Swan process (of which I was a steering group member) has recommended that much more thought be given to institutional culture in applications. Important parts of this include how promotions are considered and workloads evaluated. The report, which appeared just before lockdown, obviously could not factor in the consequences of the pandemic, but it is essential that, if the Athena Swan aims are to be met, the points I raise are taken into account. Future applications should include clear evidence of how this has been done. I sincerely hope that AdvanceHE, which runs the awards, will fully adopt our recommendations.

On many fronts it is becoming recognised how the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities already present in our society. These include the worryingly poorer health outcomes for BAME people I alluded to above. The differential in educational (and even nutritional) progress between advantaged and disadvantaged children is also likely to echo down the years to society’s – as well as the individual’s – collective detriment. Dealing with gender differentials on academic publications may seem relatively small fry by comparison, but, equally, it should be possible to deal with it more easily. Senior sectoral leaders, I hope you are taking note.

Dame Athene Donald is master of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (1)

Unless I have misread the data, women have had BETTER outcomes from coronavirus than men, who appear to be more susceptable. This article appears to twist fact to suit a feminist agenda, complete with reliance on the flawed metric of the 'gender pay gap' (and the use of the bucket term BAME, not popular amongst the people to whom it is applied but apparently more comfortable to some than using the term 'Non-White' which reveals the underlying racist manner in which BAME is used). I appreciate that this is an opinion piece, but even this should have some relationship to fact!

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