Throughout February 2021, Advance HE will be focussing on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality in higher education (HE). It falls at a time when many countries around the world are in lockdown or have other measures in place to reduce social mixing. There is now increasing evidence that the closure of businesses and schools, while key in preventing the spread of COVID-19, is likely to have a negative impact on gender equality. Not only are women more likely to take on the majority of caring responsibilities and domestic work but they are also more likely to lose their jobs and be more at risk of domestic violence. In the UK, it has been found that many of these issues have been compounded for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, progress was being made towards gender equality in higher education. There was wide recognition of the need to address inequalities faced by women and to identify and address barriers to their career progression, whether they be due to employment practices or cultural and societal norms. The numbers of women professors and heads of institution in the UK were increasing and our Athena SWAN charter was growing globally.
There is no reason this should not continue but the pandemic has brutally exposed the inequalities that have persisted in our societies. Higher education institution budgets are likely to be strained and staff within HEIs maybe traumatised by their experiences of the pandemic and disheartened at the inequalities revealed in our societies. Higher education is a microcosm of our society and we are conscious that women have said that they have had less time to devote to their research than their male peers. Research has also found that women in HE are more worried about their contracts ending or not being renewed and that women working in areas related to the pandemic, did not receive the same level of media coverage as their male peers and were rarely portrayed as authoritative experts.
While the pandemic has exposed inequalities in our society and in turn, our higher education institutions, the pandemic has resulted in many people reflecting on what they would like their future to be like whether that be where they live, who they live with, how much they travel, how they engage with their colleagues or how they use their time. Employers alike are reflecting on how they operate and on the nature and size of the space in which they operate. All of these considerations have implications for the future HE workforce and as well as the steps that HEIs take to improve gender equality.
We currently have the opportunity to reflect and plan for the future so that we can ensure that what previously worked to improve gender equality continues and the impact that COVID-19 has on gender equality does not impact on gender equality in the longer term. The radical shift to how we work may bring new opportunities for women’s equality and we are already seeing funders of research realising the need to mitigate for the impact of COVID-19.