Impact of COVID-19 on women in the STEM workforce | Asia–Pacific

This report presents the key findings of research into the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the science. technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the Asia-Pacific region.

It explores the impacts on STEM careers and individual wellbeing and identifies ways organisations and individuals within the STEM system can support gender equity in STEM.

Download the report (PDF, 4.5MB)


Read the Academy's media release

Executive summary

The Australian Academy of Science, with support from the Australian Government, has produced this snapshot of the dynamic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce throughout the Asia-Pacific region. This report captures the lived experiences of women and highlights that important gains in equality may be lost without action.

The main activities of this rapid research project were conducted between December 2020 and June 2021, with a focus on hearing the voices of women in the Asia-Pacific STEM workforce about their firsthand experiences. Activities included desktop research of current reports, a region-wide survey conducted in March and April 2021, a call for personal stories of people’s real-world work life during the pandemic and a regional online workshop with 40 participants.

This report is a collaborative project, with contributions from many individuals and organisations across the region. It draws on networks and partnerships available to the Academy and the Australian Government including the Australian Government’s overseas diplomatic missions, the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, the APEC Policy Partnership for Science, Technology and Innovation, and the support of partner governments across the region.

The report presents the key findings of this research on the impacts on STEM careers, individual wellbeing and the ways organisations and individuals within the STEM ecosystem could respond to rising challenges brought about by COVID-19.

This mixed-method and collaborative research project, including a survey of over 1000 people in STEM, revealed the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequity in the STEM workforce across the Asia-Pacific region.

  • This has been brought about by changes in lifestyle and the blurring of boundaries between the spheres of work and home, increased domestic and caring responsibilities which have impeded work productivity, precarious and insecure work arrangements, and reduced access to research facilities and workplaces due to lockdown arrangements.
  • These conditions have had significant impact on individual wellbeing, as women in STEM respond to social change and balance cultural and familial expectations.
  • People from different parts of the Asia-Pacific region shared different perspectives of capacity in their economy to respond to these negative impacts. Regional collaboration, together with supportive workplaces and communities, can minimise gendered impacts of the pandemic on the STEM workforce, now and in the post-pandemic recovery.

Four common themes emerged from the evidence, revealing an interwoven context that women in the STEM workforce were facing.

These themes were:

  • impacts on professionals at work
  • challenged boundaries between work and non-work spheres
  • social change and individual wellbeing
  • impacts in Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Key findings

Professionals at work

  • While different contexts exist between economies, inequity in attracting, retaining and progressing women in STEM career pathways is an ongoing characteristic in the STEM workforce throughout the region. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts are likely to deepen pre-existing gender imbalances.
  • Structural inequalities and the intersection of multiple barriers faced by women in STEM have been highlighted in the pandemic. In the workplace, inequity in the full participation of individuals in STEM are rarely issues of gender alone, but rather involve a complex set of power relations in which knowledge, social class, socioeconomic status and other elements are intertwined.
  • More women than men in the STEM workforce are at early or mid-career stages and are underrepresented at senior levels. Consequently, they are often more likely to be in precarious employment reliant on short-term grant funding and not yet in tenured or management research positions. Job insecurity was further exacerbated during the pandemic, as the stability of employment in the STEM workforce decreased.
  • Providing supportive workplaces is crucial to minimise challenges facing women in the STEM workforce during the pandemic. These include flexible working arrangements, flexible measures of work productivity and changing expectations of work value (such as raising the valuation of online teaching in academic performance when reviewing job promotion).

Challenged boundaries

  • During the pandemic, changes brought about by restrictions such as lockdowns, quarantine and travel bans, produced a new lifestyle of working from home for most people. This challenged conceptual boundaries between the spheres of work and home in the creation of a new ‘virtual lifeworld’ and presented specific challenges and opportunities for women.
  • Online teaching and learning came with a demanding workload, long working hours without switching off, and a lack of social interaction. These activities were mainly conducted by early and mid-career researchers, who are usually disproportionately women.
  • Additional domestic responsibilities, such as supervising school learning at home, caused competing priorities as domestic roles and professional roles overlapped. This resulted in negative impacts on productivity for many women, especially in terms of academic output such as journal publications.

Individual wellbeing

  • Increased activities in the ‘virtual lifeworld’ dominated the day-to-day routine. While positive impacts included keeping people safe, increased flexibility and the development of new skills, the ‘virtual lifeworld’ also caused a high level of isolation and anxiety due to the decline in face-to-face interaction.
  • Many women also grappled with changing social conditions, and balancing cultural and familial expectations and caring responsibilities with work responsibilities.

Asia-Pacific and beyond

  • People from different parts of the Asia-Pacific region shared different perspectives of capacity in their economy to respond to the identified negative impacts.
  • The project identified a collective sense and experience of social phenomena brought about by the pandemic beyond the Asia-Pacific.
  • By taking a cross-regional approach to developing a range of solutions, collaboration is key to balancing challenges and opportunities by building on existing initiatives underway through academies and other fora such as the APEC Women in STEM Principles and Actions, recommendations outlined in UN Women’s The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender: Key Advocacy Points from Asia and the Pacific and the International Science Council’s project A Global Approach to the Gender Gap in Mathematical, Computing, and Natural Sciences: How to Measure It, How to Reduce It?.
  • Efforts to address gender inequity exacerbated by the pandemic could have strong potential to improve the condition of the STEM workforce for all people within it.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science

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