OPINION | Linda Zuze: The gender dimension to pandemic recovery

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Women employed in STEM jobs have had the odds stacked up against them throughout the pandemic, argues the writer.
Women employed in STEM jobs have had the odds stacked up against them throughout the pandemic, argues the writer.

Gender inequalities in the science, technology, engineering and, mathematics workspace during the Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder of why we need leaders who are equity-minded to guide global recovery, writes Linda Zuze.

You don’t have to look too far to find a woman leading the way in tackling the effects of the coronavirus. Less than one-third of the science, technology, engineering and, mathematics (STEM) workforce in the United States is female, but in spite of this and other well-documented inequalities in the scientific community, women have led recovery efforts. Scientists like Biontec’s Özlem Türeci and the National Institute of Health’s Kizzmekia Corbett are at the forefront of vaccine development. And women’s contribution goes beyond public health. 

Female leaders have proven to be exceptional at building relationships, showing empathy, and prioritising the welfare of the most vulnerable during the crisis. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern impressed the world with her ability to make tough decisions, while displaying compassion. What we know so far about gender inequalities in the STEM workspace during this crisis is a reminder of why we need leaders who are equity-minded to guide global recovery. This is also something that should be top of mind as we celebrate the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February.

Odds stacked against women

Women employed in STEM jobs have had the odds stacked up against them throughout the pandemic. It has always been a balancing act for women scientists to continue with their careers when they become mothers but the pandemic has made it more difficult than ever to juggle work and home life. Lockdowns cut off support systems that many women had worked hard to put into place. As schools and businesses emptied and hospitals swelled to capacity, women have shouldered much of the caregiving responsibilities, forcing highly skilled women scientists out of the workforce

For women in academic STEM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that out-of-work responsibilities during the pandemic have had a negative effect on their careers. Female faculty members have published fewer scientific papers. They have also had less time available to conduct experiments in laboratories and have done less fieldwork during this time. Remote work and virtual learning have kept academic institutions running but they have also made it more difficult to set boundaries between work and home life. 

READ | Opinion: Why mentorship matters for young women in STEM professions

These seemingly unending office hours have made it difficult to switch off and have proven harmful to mental health of academics. Women in the medical field have soldiered on, sometimes at great costs to themselves. They have endured physical and mental exhaustion, shortages of personal protective equipment and even separation from loved ones, when the risk of exposure was deemed too high. 

The social and economic costs of the last two years threaten to roll back decades of work to increase women’s representation in STEM fields. It goes without saying that we need leaders who will continue to remove the structural barriers to women’s progress in science so that female scientists can continue to do what they do best at the helm of global recovery efforts. Plans to develop safer and more efficient health systems will be a win for women, given that 70% of the global healthcare workforce is female. We also need programmes that develop and recognise the unique contributions of youth, community health workers, and women who had to become caregivers and lost their jobs.

Impact of the pandemic 

There is immense opportunity to further support female youth in making their mark in science. For example, fourteen-year-old Anika Chebrolu was awarded the prestigious 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her discovery of a potential treatment for Covid-19. Across Africa, young women are bravely finding solutions to problems in their communities. Take Sumayah Nakalyango, who is working to improve the personal safety of Uganda’s children. And Liberia’s Kula Fofana, who is providing support and resources for pregnant women during the crisis. All too often these actions go unnoticed.

Some of the changes to the way women in science live and work have been sudden. Many are irreversible. One faint silver lining from this season of uncertainty is that it is prompting serious conversations about how leaders define, measure, and address gender inequalities in the STEM workplace and how they can create more supportive work environments going forward. In the future, this should reduce the number of women scientists who are forced to choose between their careers and their families.  

Speaking at the 2018 Women in Leaders Global Health Conference, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation Dr Soumya Swaminathan observed that when women have the opportunity to participate in decision making, the results are often better and more inclusive because they bring a unique perspective to the table. Four years and one global pandemic later, this still rings true. In fact, because the pandemic has had a bigger impact on women scientists, it’s perhaps even more important. Recovery for women in STEM fields will be better when equity is at the heart of decision making, rather than an afterthought. 

- Dr Linda Zuze is the Director of IDinsight Southern Africa and also a research associate at RESEP (Research on Socioeconomic Policy) at Stellenbosch University.

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