“Immediate threat”: COVID-19 could reverse progress for women in STEM

Women in STEM

Women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields in Australia are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 job losses, and we risk reversing hard-won gains in the fight for diversity, a report has suggested.

Commissioned by Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews, and completed by the Rapid Research Information Forum, the report was compiled by academics and experts, and sets out to answer the question: What impact is the COVID-19 pandemic having on women in the STEM workforce?

It’s early days yet, and we can’t yet know the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy as a whole. The same is true for women in STEM, the report says, but the warning signs are there.

“There are early signs it will result in greater disadvantage for women than men in this sector,” the paper says.

“The pandemic appears to be compounding pre-existing gender disparity; women are under-represented across the STEM workforce, and weighted in roles that are typically less senior and less secure.

“Job loss at a greater rate than for men is now an immediate threat for many women in Australia’s STEM workforce, potentially reversing equity gains of recent years.”

Women are a minority in STEM professions already, and because domestic burdens typically fall more heavily on women than men, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the careers of women. That mens the disparity in STEM is only going to widen.

Women in heterosexual relationships have been shouldering the additional burdens of childcare and home education, and this is particularly true for those with children under 12.

For tech entrepreneurs and startup founders in the STEM field, those additional burdens are also likely to present more challenges to women striving to raise capital at this time, the report said.

Long-term implications for women in STEM

As of 2016, women made up about 29% of people in the workforce with a university STEM qualification

Similarly, as of 2017, women made up about 30% of people employed in STEM research field.

However, in the university workforce, women hold 47% of the casual roles, and are also more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts, the report states.

A shortfall of international student fees is having a flow-on effect on university research budgets, and those contract and casual roles are likely to be the first to go.

“Casual and fixed-term positions are the least secure, yet employ the most women. This precariousness of women’s relative position in the STEM labour market is likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic,” the report says.

Among the university teaching workforce, the report also suggested women led the early adoption of online study, spending more time developing materials and resources, and taking on extra hours, to make up for the loss of casual staff, as well as performing mentoring and care roles at a time of particular stress.

Of course, on top of everything else, it has also been found that women are at more risk of experiencing domestic violence in their homes, with domestic violence rates rising during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The report also notes the situation is likely even more dire for Indigenous Australians, women with disabilities, women of colour, women who identify as LGBTQIA+, and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. However, the report said there is not yet enough data on the effects on these groups to make a solid conclusion.

There is, however, evidence that having a more diverse research workforce leads to better outcomes. The report notes that women from “diverse backgrounds” already face barriers to entry. As budgets tighten, any cuts to equity programs would set back initiatives designed to close that gap.

“Long-term implications of the COVID19 pandemic for the Australian research workforce as a whole are serious,” the report says.

“Much work has been done in recent years to redress the gender imbalance in STEM, but the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program reports there is a danger this work may slow down or, according to some institutions, begin to reverse.”

There are hard-won gains at risk, the report adds.

“This risk will be even greater if STEM employers do not closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of their decisions.”

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