Past President, Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST)
A growing gender disparity in the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic calls for new equitable and inclusive strategies when designing the future of work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate impact on women by amplifying existing gender inequalities and putting advances made in the past at risk of being reversed. The negative impact of the pandemic is even stronger on Indigenous women, racialized women, LGBTQ2S+ women, and women of various abilities. Furthermore, it’s likely that this effect will be long-term, shaping our post-pandemic society.
Data from Statistics Canada shows that women perform an inordinate share of unpaid work. School closures, the shutdown of childcare, and household isolation are increasing the demand for unpaid labour in the form of domestic work. This labour is likely to fall more heavily on women, due in part to the existing structure of the workforce, but also to social norms. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that 80% of single-parent households are led by women.
Women leading academia and leading lives
The reality of women carrying out the majority of domestic work applies across all sectors, including STEM and academia, and it’s having profound consequences on women’s careers.
A recent article in Nature suggests that, as female academics are shouldering the majority of the unpaid labour, they’re falling behind their male peers, posting fewer preprints and starting fewer research projects.* This is further compounded by the fact that female faculty on average do more teaching, and the transition to online teaching has increased their workload. Male academics, on the other hand, are more often on non-research committees, work which is now taking up less time, freeing up their schedules.
Furthermore, while female academics are likely to have a spouse who’s also an academic, male academics are more likely to have a spouse who doesn’t work outside the home. It’s likely that there are similar effects impacting women’s STEM careers outside of academia, in particular when looking at women in senior leadership roles.
Crisis leads to opportunity
Unless employers take decisive action now, the COVID-19 pandemic will increase gender inequality in Canada, hampering women’s STEM careers and causing long-term, negative impacts on diversity in STEM.
During this volatile time of change, employers have a responsibility, and an unparalleled opportunity, to design a more equitable and inclusive future of work. To better support all employees, and in particular women, employers should provide flexible work options, clear and consistent communication, and exemplify inclusive and empathetic leadership. In their May 2020 report, Catalyst suggests five strategies that they believe will espouse a better workplace:
- Lead inclusively through crisis
- Tackle inequalities
- Connect with empathy
- Trust your team
- Work remotely and flexibly
Now is the time to focus on these priorities and start implementing changes to ensure women are not disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As was suggested by the UN, “Recovery must lead to a more equal world that is more resilient to future crises.”
- Nature 581, 365-366 (2020)