Why we can’t let women’s STEM gains fall victim to COVID-19

COVID-19’s impact on the economy has been devastating, causing record high numbers of job losses, industry closures, reductions in pay or hours, restructuring of work practices, and disruption to child care and education requiring children to remain at home.

The impact has not been felt equally across society though. One group affected disproportionately is women. A report commissioned by federal science minister Karen Andrews, and published by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and Science and Technology Australia has warned that the pandemic will reverse the gains that have been achieved in promoting women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The report is a sobering, but not surprising, read. Women have lost 6.3 per cent and men 4.8 per cent of jobs in professional, scientific and technical services industry from mid-March to mid-April 2020. Women’s average paid working hours have fallen by 4.43 hours a week, while men’s have fallen by 3.70 hours during COVID-19 so far. Women are 1.5 times more likely to be in insecure jobs in the overall university workforce, where research sector STEM jobs are at ongoing risk because of revenue losses.

Converting university teaching to online has disproportionately increased workload for women compared with men, since women academics’ teaching loads tend to be higher than men’s. Women, and particularly those with children, bear the major burden of home-schooling supervision, meal preparation and more general housework, while also managing their paid workload, even though COVID-19 work-from-home policies apply to men and women equally.

The implications are that women’s careers will be affected long term. Already international data is showing that women in academic STEM roles are failing to submit research funding applications in time and there has been a reduction in the number of scientific papers submitted to journals, while a rise in paper submissions has been noted for men. It will be difficult for women to advance their STEM careers if they are unable to deliver the expected outputs.

I asked a number of working mothers in academic STEM work why they manage the majority of child care and housework, and why did they not reach a compromise with their partners to ensure equity at home and work. Overwhelmingly, the women I spoke to said it was because their male partner earned more money and it was a financial decision for the family.

There lies a vicious cycle: If women continue to sacrifice their career for their family, their earning capacity falls, and their disadvantage is compounded over time. There is a good chance they will never reach a position where they earn the higher income in their relationship.

In Australia, women earn $242.90 less each week than full time equivalent men. This gap is higher among women who are mothers. The Diversity Council has found that raising children accounted for a 17 per cent loss in lifetime wages for women, during normal ‘non-pandemic’ times. Ironically, while women experience what is termed a “motherhood penalty”, men enjoy a “daddy bonus” receiving promotions and pay rises when they become parents. During a pandemic crisis, the Women in STEM report shows that the disparity will widen.

It is time to implement strategies to minimise the potential damage. Before COVID-19, women were under-represented in STEM jobs comprising 29 per cent of the labour force that had a university STEM qualification, and 8 per cent of the vocational education STEM qualified labour force. The government invested in the development of a Women in STEM Decadal Plan mapping out a path towards equity and diversity in STEM to 2030. It is crucial that its recommendations are taken up by STEM industry and education.

Existing initiatives in universities such as the Science in Australia Gender Equity program need to be supported and not threatened by budget considerations in universities. The long term benefits of supporting women in STEM during this crisis now will reap rewards well into the future.

In coincidental timing, the University of Newcastle has announced the inaugural recipients of its Women in STEM Early Career Researcher PhD candidate scholarships. It is a first for an Australian university.

There is a strong business case for gender equity. Diversity in workplaces drive innovation, creativity, relevance to consumers and community and better bottom lines. We’ve made significant strides in promoting women in STEM, let’s not allow it to be another victim of COVID-19.

Professor Billie Bonevski is the University of Newcastle’s Women in Science Chair and is a Research and Innovation Conjoint at Hunter New England LHD.

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