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What impact is the COVID-19 pandemic having on women in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce?

Tehmina Khan

June 2, 2020

This is the question recently posed by Hon Karen Andrews MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. The rapid response report prepared by Johnston et al. (2020) for the Rapid Research Information Forum, chaired by Dr Alan Finkel, highlights some critical issues. Key issues stressed include: careers of women who are already in minority in STEM professions are expected to be further negatively impacted due to the greater burden of domestic responsibilities imposed under the current COVID-19 created circumstances. More females are employed in casual and part time positions; as a result, female academics are more susceptible to job insecurity under the current circumstances. Diversity and progress in the workforce are at risk, especially if monitoring and active control measures are not implemented.

My research together with Pavithra Siriwardhane on academic career progression indicates that female academics in STEM and Business disciplines are much more susceptible to discriminatory bias with lack of networking opportunities, mentorship (and its associated benefits) and when it comes to resources allocation.  It is critical to be allowed the basic opportunity to first have a job, a role, to create this fundamental avenue for undertaking research, innovation and impact. The barriers identified prior to the current situation relate to the fundamental assumption that a female academic is in some type of academic role to start with. Whether this academic role is a junior level, lecturer position or a research fellow position, the barriers to career progression such as lack of opportunities, have been recognised as important considerations to address. Some of the factors identified include glass ceilings and sticky floors, overloading of administrative tasks for female academics, high teaching loads, and discriminatory and biased behaviours against women. Recently, I wrote about the serious issue of sexual harassment against females in the medical profession. Such acts by senior staff, typically male senior staff, have the potential to break spirits. The female medical professionals are in some instances so traumatised by such occurrences that they decide to give up. They decide to leave their professions, or the system does that for them. Victim blaming punishes the females drastically and brings their careers to an end in more instances than not.

These are every day barriers which female academics face (not in all cases and not all factors are faced, but they do remain still as critical barriers) without the presence of COVID-19. Covid-19 has added an extra layer of complexity. In place of the basic reaction to cut jobs, institutions need to think of and implement new business models, based on new principles and innovative approaches, which focus on novel ways of thinking and which depart from the negative behaviours towards people (who are critical human capital) including female academics. The key proposed recommendation to address the risk factors due to COVID-19 identified in Johnston et al. (2020) is an organisational quality which is required more so now than ever: empathy. Empathy creates benefits for organisations from increased productivity, innovation, better engagement, collaborations, positive impression and impact and enhanced market value. This seems like a very organisation- focused perspective, but such a perspective is required to promote the business case for organisational empathy. In accounting terms, organisational empathy generates high ROIs.

Please contact me on to discuss and implement organisational empathy for a more equitable today and tomorrow.

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