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Women ahead

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Parveen Yaqoob suggests university priorities for gender equality

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day—women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world—is fitting. We are celebrating the value of women’s contributions during the pandemic and at the same time acknowledging the gaping gender inequalities that still exist in our societies.

Women have stood on the front line of the crisis, providing healthcare and education, organising communities, delivering effective vaccines and demonstrating some of the most exemplary national leadership the world has ever seen. Yet in every part of the world, they are still facing inequalities in representation, pay, share of unpaid care and domestic work, and increased domestic violence.

In academia, many women have faced a choice of either falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that are now unrealistic or pushing themselves to maintain an unsustainable pace, risking burnout, anxiety and physical and mental stress.

Progress stalled

Stories of women juggling housework, homeschooling and caregiving with the feeling of being needed at work at all hours are becoming familiar. Couple that with employers’ lack of flexibility, sudden decisions that affect day-to-day work, being overlooked for roles with responsibility and being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities, and it’s easy to see how years of progress with respect to gender equality could easily be erased.

There is stark evidence that research output submissions by women have decreased during lockdown. We should be deeply concerned about this, because women are already subject to bias in peer review and grant review panels, are cited less than their male peers and are less likely to be invited to speak at conferences, serve as grant panellists or be asked to review articles. This is magnified for women of colour, who tend to be more scrutinised, progress less and have higher workloads, often due to additional roles that align with an institution’s diversity and inclusion goals but are not rewarded to the same degree as teaching and research.

I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks talking to people across higher education about the inequalities they have experienced during the pandemic. I’m sometimes reminded that some fathers have carried an equal share of work and have been disadvantaged too, or that those without children have suffered because they have had to carry extra workload, or that focusing on research staff is unfair because those on teaching contracts have also been disadvantaged, or that focusing on academics is unfair because those in professional services have also suffered.

There is no doubt that for most of us, the pandemic has carried a personal and professional cost, but there is a danger in setting the expectation that we are going to be able to address every disadvantage. The reality is that for most, that cost will never be paid back. I appreciate how hard that is to hear, but if we are to avoid reversing the progress we’ve made on gender equality in the past 50 years, we will have to prioritise our immediate efforts where they will have most impact.

Equality priorities

There are two priorities in my view: first, to ensure that researchers most affected by the pandemic are offered funded research leave to recover lost time; and second, to take a hard look at progression criteria and whether we set women up to lag behind because they take on roles that have lower value in terms of promotion. At Reading, we have already set aside research leave funding for this purpose, and we have gone some way towards embedding citizenship criteria in probation, promotion and professorial salary reviews, although there is scope to do more.

The slogan “Build Back Better” is becoming irritatingly overused (it was apparently first used by the UN in 2004 and became a formalised slogan in 2015), but it does encourage us to imagine that we might harness some of the positives from the past year to do better for women in the future. While the pandemic has exaggerated inequalities for many women, new ways of working and a shift in culture could have long-term benefits.

Remote working has the potential to open up opportunities for some, particularly mothers, caregivers and people with disabilities, who will be able to take on roles that would previously have required them to relocate, travel extensively or manage a commute. For some teams, an insight into each other’s personal lives has fostered a sense of solidarity and empathy, which in the long term could change the dynamic and enable individuals to bring their whole selves to work.

I have no doubt that universities across the UK are having discussions about future ways of working that have a greater degree of flexibility. It will be crucial to communicate the expectations around these clearly.

Stronger together

Finally, universities should not be tackling this challenge alone. There should be concerted action to address gender inequality by universities, academic and professional bodies, publishers and journal boards, and research funding bodies.

Last month, I spoke at a virtual conference (on the theme of Building Back Better) at which at least one delegate had a young child sitting on her lap. It reminded me that for some years I used to write “Unable to travel to any significant degree due to childcare responsibilities” in the personal circumstances box on my annual review. Occasionally, I would include a list of the invited lectures at international conferences that I’d had to turn down that year. I have no idea whether it made any difference to the outcome, but how transformational would it be if all virtual conferences were free for women with caring responsibilities and if in the future, those women could choose to participate from home if they wished to?

The International Women’s Day campaign this year has a #ChooseToChallenge slogan, which encourages us to speak out to address specific forms of gender bias and inequality. I #ChooseToChallenge the whole system around higher education to work together to prevent Covid-19 from erasing the progress made on gender equality in academia and—deep breath—to Build Back Better.

Parveen Yaqoob is chair of the Athena Swan Governance Committee and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Reading.