COVID-19 challenges in research and academia: Lessons and further improvements

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In the past months, Europe experienced new ways of living due to the effects of COVID-19. We all learnt what it means to self-quarantine, work from home, home-school children, lose a job or even a loved one. Each person’s situation was different, but for sure, the coronavirus revealed a different reality for women and men.

COVID-19 challenges in research and academia: Lessons and further improvements

We were all impressed by and supportive to healthcare workers and first aid responders who were working around the clock and putting themselves at risk to care of patients.

According to statistics, most of the nurses and healthcare workers in the EU are women and yet their profession is one of the most undervalued, and underpaid jobs in the EU.

Besides the national health care systems which have been particularly challenged and worked under pressure in the past months, higher education faced also hard times to adjust to these new norms.

We at SPEAR asked our consortium partners who are involved in the implementations of GEPs to share their experience as professors, researchers and gender equality experts and provide suggestions on how to learn from this period and move forward.

At first, our partners responded to two fundamental questions:

  • How are we experiencing our ability to continue working with gender equality plans in a European university context where a shared new reality is now present for all partners: a lockdown?

  • Can we spot opportunities to better improve the focus on gender equality post-virus? Can we see challenges to this?


The challenges during the COVID-19 time

With the regards of the first question, all partners have recognised that living in this new reality is different with an unclear vision of the future. Particularly, our Lithuanian partner Vytautas Magnus University mentioned that universities face challenges in drawing the community’s attention to the GEPs and gender equality issues, when all university functions during the lockdown have been reduced to key areas of “survival” (organization of studies, necessary administrative functions) and the work with GEPs is implicitly classified as “a non-priority”.

Despite the overall pause of academic activities in many research institutions across Europe, NOVA University and the University of Uppsala, used this period to think of new courses. NOVA University seized the opportunity to brainstorm and prepare the upcoming steps. Precisely, they organised a meeting with the Professor responsible for the NOVA Doctoral School, a department in charge of providing different courses to PhD students and researchers. During the meeting, they analysed the possibility to use the existing infrastructure to give online training courses.

On the other hand, the University of Uppsala expects new courses or parts of courses in gender issues to be created as a consequence. However, our partner also mentioned that meeting new people and engaging them for a new cause, such as gender equality, is challenging as a face to face meeting is preferable than virtual. Indeed, another immediate consequence of the lockdown was the limitation in scheduling face to face meetings and workshops. The new reality encouraged the usage of new meeting formats and mediums.

Interestingly, Syddansk University highlights that managing and navigating online meetings and working from home may prove to be more inclusionary in terms of gender equality, as it is more difficult, on some IT platforms at least, to interrupt and “speak over each other” (if the meeting is facilitated properly). A negative effect is a general lack of “feeling each other” to the extent it is possible face-to-face.

All partners adapted their tasks and started to work remotely with the help of modern technology and online communication tools. The University of Plovdiv "Paisii HilendarskI" continued to communicate their gender equality work online, through website articles, social media profiles, blogs, and YouTube videos. Our Lithuanian partner, Vilnius University, also shared a similar opinion.

Another food for thought coming from our partner’s input is that the constant presence at home led also to unclear distinctions between public and private space. “Changes in working environments and home settings, multiplication of work and housekeeping duties made us slower at some points”, Vilnius University reports. The distinction between the personal and public spheres has been dismantled - by force, not by choice. The fluid work “environment” is less of an environment and more of a number of ‘satellites’ trying to connect. The ‘ethics of care’ and their gendered aspects are critical to explore. For people living alone, “without distractions,” this new work environment can add pressure to work more.  

Additionally, it was quite common that during the quarantine, women took up most of the educational and caring duties. “The lockdown responses to the crisis have very easily pushed back educational and caring duties into the family where it was mostly taken up by women again. It has re-invoked gender stereotypes and traditional patterns of a gendered division of labour. Although some people have thought that gender equality is already achieved, and women have the same rights and opportunities as men, this backlash shows clearly that this is hardly true and that gender stereotypes still prevail.” Also, University of Uppsala points out that teaching, research, and home life will never be the same again. It is important that we keep an eye on how the ‘reconstruction’ work after the crisis will be conducted: when things are created, new chances for gender equality may appear.

This period was crucial to signal the unbalanced impact that the COVID-19 crisis had on men and women, and communicate it to the community – to raise awareness about difficulties in combining academic and administrative work, studies at home with family responsibilities, taking care of children, performing household chores; and then the staff and students’ feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, the vulnerable situation of staff with precarious contracts, other psychological and social problems associated with COVID-19 and the lockdown, etc. All those complexities and other disparities need to be reflected within a clear strategy in the future.

“GE plans and strategies during this period became even more urgent and precious as the crisis showed women in front lines of care and nurture, and above all in organising confined private and out-of-sight spheres. The red thin line between the understanding of social-distancing and social-distance became urgent, especially now and especially in Academia.” – says University of Rijeka.  


How can we move forward? Lessons and Improvements

The post COVID-19 time offers an excellent opportunity to look up to different approaches when it comes to GEPs and the continuation of our gender equality work. Based on their experience, our partners mentioned some of them.

The disruptions of today can work as a call to action for the gender equality policy improvements of academic communities. For instance, the University of Plovdiv "Paisii HilendarskI" suggests that the current flexible work arrangements could be extended and provide a new model of shared responsibilities within households. Another good point from our Bulgarian partner is to legalize the present opportunities for online work and home office with specific provisions easing the burden that is on women.

New forms of communication and remote management practices were also tested and will be used after this crisis as well. “Because the post-virus period is indefinite and social distancing measures can last for months, universities working with a GEP and gender equality must look for new creative ways and experiment new forms of community life and technologies. These could be new forms that connect the academic community with other external communities acting online – citizen organizations and NGOs, journalists, politicians, etc. These could include activities and collaboration on social media, through online activism, online awareness raising campaigns” - Vytautas Magnus University said.

There are challenges to human rights that may increase if working from home and the intensified use of online meetings remain a common practice even after COVID-19.  While we experience amplified visibility of one’s private space (one’s home, children, partner, pet, living quarters) which is difficult enough to navigate, media also report on the increased ‘invisibility’ that hides a multitude of sins, such as the rise in physical abuse (mainly) against women; sexual abuse of children online; and landlords sexually harassing tenants who are now unemployed, at home and vulnerable (a news story from the United States).

Furthermore, other gender disparities should be taken into consideration. The work, the care and the soft organisation of the household, which in normal circumstances are invisible, during the lockdown made many of us functional. 90% cashiers are women. 87.7% of nurses are women. 90% of caregivers are women. 70.5% of the cleaning staff are women. All these professions have been among the most mobilized since the beginning of the epidemic and without interruption during the lockdown. Alongside teachers and professionals in early childhood, mostly women, mobilized to keep the children of caregivers. Also, another important experience is highlighted by NOVA University. In Portugal, many employees were sent to home receiving a reduced salary and the ones who are suffering the most with are probably women in professional precarious conditions.

The post-virus focus should be on representing their invisibility. Moreover, the COVID-19 situation provided and unprecedent situation that can have a positive ripple effect: this is the first outbreak where gender and sex differences are recorded and taken into account by researchers and policy makers.


In summary

The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the existing anomalies and disparities in gender equality but also offered new perspectives and opportunities. Following our partners’ responses, during this crisis, women’s employment opportunities have been affected more strongly than those of men. Policies should change to respond to current and future needs. For women who are able to continue working, employers such as universities should explicitly account of the need for increased flexibility to perform childcare in tenure and promotion systems.

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