Impact of COVID-19 widens gender equity gap: panel

23 October 2020
Gains made by women in STEM can’t be lost during COVID-19

Professor Rae Cooper from the Business School and Professor Renae Ryan from the School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health joined a panel for an OECD discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on women in STEM.

A recent report by Australia’s Chief Scientist concludes that while evidence is still being gathered on the effects of COVID-19 for women in STEM, early signs indicate it will result in greater disadvantage for women than men. This is because women are disproportionately impacted by disruption to working hours and job security, as well as bearing more of the caring responsibilities.

We need to share the spoils of the labour market a little more between men and women than we are at present.
Professor Rae Cooper
Professor Rae Cooper

Professor Rae Cooper

Women in hyper-masculine occupations

Professor Rae Cooper, Co-Director of the Women, Work and Leadership Research Group, discussed findings from her research with Professor Marian Baird and Dr Meraiah Foley into women’s careers in hyper-masculine occupations – including pilots, investment managers and mechanics - where women make up less than 15 percent of workers.

“There are real economic benefits for women to work in these hyper-masculine fields. The more male -dominated a sector is, the higher the pay. These jobs are also more secure. We need to share the spoils of the labour market a little more between men and women than we are at present.  This is doubly important given the high levels of women’s educational attainment, which outstrips men’s and where Australia ranks number one in the world,” Professor Cooper said.

Their research found there are two barriers women face in these occupations - lack of access to flexible working arrangements and gender harassment.

“Almost all the women we spoke to for this research said they couldn’t access the work flexibility they would like to if they were free to choose, it led to many women moving into different occupations or to different employers,” Professor Cooper said.

“Gender harassment was also reported by almost all the women interviewed for the study. Gender harassment is behaviour that belittles the contribution of women and demeans their technical capability. Women are spoken down to, spoken over or jokes are made about their abilities because of their gender.”

Leadership matters

Both Professor Cooper and Professor Ryan spoke about the critical role leadership plays in gender equity.

“Good organisational practice can act as a magnet for women. Women in these sectors know who the good employers are, almost down to the micro level of who was a good manager. They found ways to find good leaders, organisations and teams and move away from managers or employers who were not,” Professor Cooper said.

Professor Renae Ryan

Professor Renae Ryan

Academic Director of the Science in Australia Gender Equity Program, Professor Renae Ryan, a member of the OECD Women in STEM Engagement Group, spoke about the need to hold leaders to account and to ensure gender equity gains are not lost because of COVID-19.

“Organisations need to maintain gender equity and diversity programs, they need to be part of core business and funded accordingly. These programs can’t just be nice to have when things are going well,” Professor Ryan said.

Professor Ryan noted that many have acknowledged that “Women walked into this pandemic behind men, and we need to make sure we don’t lose decades of progress and push to make sure men and women walk out of this pandemic walking side by side.”

What can be done

Professor Ryan spoke about the Joint Sector Position Statement on “Preserving Gender Equity as a Higher Education Priority During and After COVID-19" that has been signed by 18 higher education institutions in Australia, including the University of Sydney.

The statement aims to refocus priorities amidst COVID-19 and hold signatories accountable to their gender equity and diversity commitments.

All participating institutions acknowledge that gender inequity is occurring during this pandemic, and they’ve made a public commitment to address this in several key areas.
Professor Renae Ryan

"The public commitment is important, it means the universities are taking this seriously and they can be held to account,” Professor Ryan said.

The commitment focuses on seeking equal representation of women in COVID-19 decision-making, formally monitoring and reporting on gender equity impacts and KPIs, and to maintain gender diversity and representation in senior levels and women in leadership positions.

Professor Cooper said organisations and governments need to ensure there is a focus on women during the COVID-19 recovery.

“In order to ‘build back better’ we must apply a gender lens to recovery, otherwise we will set back the progress made to date and disadvantage women,” Professor Cooper said.

“We must move beyond simply looking at getting women ‘into the pipeline’ and also attend to the quality of women’s working lives in these male dominated contexts in order to nurture and retain talented women.”

Listen to the panel discussion and add your views on the topic through the OECD website.

The University of Sydney is a knowledge partner of the OECD Forum. University experts contribute to the forum engagement working groups on the Future of Work and Women in Stem engaging with stakeholders from all sectors in society, ranging from government to business, trade unions, civil society and academia.

Sitou Sally

Higher degree research student

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