The cost of COVID-19? It adds up to bad news for women in STEM

ATSE CEO Kylie Walker STEM sector

ATSE chief executive officer Kylie Walker says COVID-19 is threatening diversity in STEM. Source: Women's Agenda

COVID-19 is threatening to reverse hard-fought gains for women in STEM, according to a new report commissioned by the federal government.

The report, commissioned by Industry and Science Minister Karen Andrews and produced by the Rapid Research Information Forum — a group of 35 research sector-led organisations chaired by Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel — was collaboratively led by Science & Technology Australia (STA) and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE).

According to the peer-reviewed report, Australia’s scientific and technical services industry recorded job losses of 5.6% from mid-March to mid-April 2020, with jobs down 6.3% for women compared to 4.8 % for men.

Among the potential causes for the disparity, the report points to women carrying a greater share of responsibilities when it comes to caring for children and helping with distance learning duties during isolation.

And job insecurity is emerging as an even more troubling issue for women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector.

High proportions of women are employed in short-term contract and casual jobs, which are likely to be threatened by cuts to research and teaching jobs. Women in STEM are one-and-a-half times more likely to be in insecure jobs.

The report also warns that women from diverse backgrounds face additional barriers. Anticipated COVID-related funding cuts to equity programs could set back gains in STEM workforce diversity.

“The challenges are likely to be most acute for women in STEM with children under 12,” said the report’s lead author, Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW.

“The combination of juggling working from home while supervising distance learning for children has made women’s well-documented ‘double burden’ even greater again.”

“With casual and short-term contract jobs likely to be the first to go, women are at particular risk,” added Science & Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert.

Even before the pandemic, women have long worked to conquer well-documented obstacles in STEM, including gender bias in recruitment, limited media visibility, and a leaky career pipeline at all levels on the road to seniority. Women only comprise a third of the nation’s STEM workforce —and the pandemic appears to be compounding this pre-existing gender disparity.

What’s more, pre-COVID, women were under-represented in career-accelerating research grants funded by the Australian Government. In 2019, fewer than one in four applications for Australian Research Council STEM project grants were led by women (24%), while women represented just 26% of funded lead investigators. In 2018, fewer than one in three applications for National Health and Medical Research Council grants were led by women (28%), with women comprising only one in four funded lead investigators (25%).

Early analyses in the journal Nature, published earlier this week, suggests that since COVID-19 female academics are posting fewer preprints and starting fewer research projects than their male peers.

The analysis suggests that, across disciplines, women’s publishing rate has fallen relative to men’s. And those results are consistent with the literature on the division of childcare between men and women.

Evidence suggests that male academics are more likely to have a partner who does not work outside the home; their female colleagues, especially those in the natural sciences, are more likely to have a partner who is also an academic. Even in those dual-academic households, the evidence shows that women perform more household labour than men do.

ATSE chief executive officer, Kylie Walker, said diversity in the workforce is integral to higher quality and more resilient STEM research and application and she urged those in the industry to work hard to press ahead with efforts to boost diversity.

Pre-pandemic, the government has advanced this work through the Women in STEM Decadal Plan and the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

“The diverse perspectives that women bring to the STEM sector enable and drive better outcomes for scientific and technology-based industries,” Walker said.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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