Skip to main content

Building back better for gender equality in higher education

27 Oct 2020 | Ellen Pugh Ellen Pugh, Senior Adviser at Advance HE, writes of a revolution in where we work as a result of Covid-19.

While architects are busy drawing up plans for offices of the future, estates teams are likely to be reassessing how much space is actually required when entire teams across their institution have demonstrated that remote working does actually work. I say remote rather than home as many people choose not to work from home but from cafes and bars that support remote working. While this was not possible during lockdown, with looser restrictions now in place many people have taken the opportunity to live with their friends and family and some are working from abroad.

There are clearly benefits for some and disadvantages for others depending on the nature of our work, the space we have and our access to technology including broadband but all in all what was thought impossible and in some workplaces was highly stigmatised, can work for many staff in HE. Indeed, in future, I expect to hear far fewer stories about flexible working requests to work remotely being declined. Our response to Covid-19 has set a new precedent!

However, we are working against a backdrop of continued measures to control the spread of Covid-19. Remote working can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing, as it reduces the amount we socialise and has led to many staff, particularly younger members of staff, feeling isolated. In addition, remote working and caring responsibilities have become conflated.

While nurseries and schools and some day care centres have reopened, you cannot rely on being able to access them. Indeed, the BBC highlighted that pupils have been sent home in half of England’s secondary schools.

A national study conducted by Fawcett Society, the Women’s Budget Group, QMUL and LSE has highlighted the devastating impact that lockdown measures have had on women’s, particularly BAME women’s, ability to progress their careers as they have taken on the brunt of domestic and caring responsibilities. Equality research into professional and services staff in HE had similar findings, for example, Vitae’s research into the impact of lockdown on researchers in the UK highlighted that 4 in 10 had reduced capacity due to their caring responsibilities, and 70% anticipated less capacity due to these responsibilities if more than six months of social distancing was required.

The 2020 Women in the Work Place Study conducted in the US focusses on the impact of Covid-19 and, similar to studies in the UK, has found that the crisis had a more significant impact on BAME women. The study not only highlights that burn out is a real issue, as many employees feel like that are “always on” due to the blur in boundaries between their work and home life, but that companies are also at risk of losing women in leadership roles.

Moving forward, there is a danger that we focus on the undoubtedly negative impact that Covid-19 has had on women’s equality and conflate remote working with lockdown measures as well as poor mental health and wellbeing. Remote working is a key tool for women’s equality and pre- Covid-19 it helped many women stay in employment. It removes the daily commute, so gave us more time in the day, and for some, reduced or removed costs for wrap around care. You can also be more on hand and involved in care provision or your children’s education.

The technology that has become the norm for many working in HE during Covid-19 has now enabled us to actively participate and even run conferences and meetings as well as participate in networking and career development activities remotely. Participation in such activities is key to career progression and many women with caring responsibilities would often struggle to participate.

We now have an opportunity to review how remote working in HE works. As Boris would say, we can build back better (I was recently informed that the phrase building back better was not coined by Boris Johnson but by the UN in its disaster risk reduction work). It is for this reason that during February 2021 Advance HE will be focussing on how the sector can progress gender equality in light of Covid-19.

Our survey on remote working to better understand the experiences of all staff is now live. What are the barriers you face, how do you like to engage with colleagues and what measures might be effective in addressing them? Remote working will certainly remain in a post Covid-19 era but for women’s equality to progress we need to ensure that the remote working environment supports their day-to-day work and career progression.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter