Pandemic threatens gender equality among universities

Maud Webster reports on the increasing gender inequalities in universities, augmented by COVID-19

Maud Webster
5th November 2020

COVID-19 has caused a huge amount of uncertainty and shaken up the workplaces of every sector. But, the pandemic seems to have affected some demographics more than others.

Disparities in pay and working conditions in university departments are not new. Whilst organisations and awards such as Athena Swan have been established to tackle these gaping gender biases within campus settings, these are still prevalent.

However, academics from universities globally have been expressing their concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic will inflict a huge setback for gender equality within academic institutions and exacerbate these preexisting issues. 

According to Jane den Hollander, former vice-chancellor of Deakin University, the academic sector could lose “most of the equity gains of the past decade” if institutions neglect to address issues of gender inequality in the workplace.

The disproportionate representation between genders is visible in the difference in working conditions. For example, women in junior roles have a higher risk of being made redundant. In much the same way, female academics are more likely to be on a short-term or casual contract.

The academic sector could lose “most of the equity gains of the past decade”

UK universities including Newcastle are not exempt from this trend; Professor Kate Chedgzoy, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within the HaSS Faculty comments:

“The evidence is clear that the pandemic has had a disproportionately damaging effect on women’s lives at home and at work. Existing inequalities worsened dramatically when schools and nurseries closed and women had to take on an even larger share of domestic responsibilities.”

“In professional services, where the vast majority of staff (particularly at lower pay grades) are women, colleagues are talking about the toll seven months of ‘unrelenting pressure’ is taking on their wellbeing.”

“We know too that people from BAME communities have suffered disproportionately. So it is essential to look at the issues through an intersectional feminist lens as we take stock of the damage and plan to support women at Newcastle University.”

"The pandemic has had a disproportionately damaging effect on women’s lives at home and at work"

The effects of the pandemic are also visible on female academics' research. Numerous journals are reporting that paper submission rates from women have diminished since the start of the pandemic.

Academics in Denmark have been conducting a study on how to work towards gender equality within university settings. Their findings show that it’s important to be transparent, and universities such as publishing statistics on how grants and other funding are distributed by gender, as well as offering financial support for childcare and offering remote working where it is convenient for the staff member.

Arguably, a lot of progress can be made by evaluating and working on ensuring female university staff are as financially secure as their male counterparts, and also are afforded the time to complete their work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably caused a setback for gender equality in the employment of university academics and other staff members.

Featured Image: Kate Chedgzoy

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
(She / Her) Second-year Architecture & Planning student at Newcastle University, and arts sub-editor for the 20/21 academic year.

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