Covid-19 has thrown the gendered division of work into sharp relief

WHEN's Sharing the Caring survey of HE professional services staff finds impacts on career prospects for all - but a heavier domestic burden for women in dual career couples.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, working and home lives have converged in ways that present a myriad of challenges for university staff.

During the early part of lockdown, it came to light that among academic staff, women’s research article submissions plummeted during lockdown as a result of additional caring responsibilities, while submissions from men increased.

Women working in professional services account for one third of all UK higher education employees. WHEN’s Sharing the Caring research project sought to determine whether this gender imbalance applies in professional services, surveying more than 1,000 parents to better understand the division of home and caring responsibilities, and the impact on their careers, while working from home during lockdown.

Domestic divisions

Among our survey respondents, while both women and men reported an increase in childcare and domestic duties, women in dual-career households continue to be predominantly responsible for these duties during lockdown.

This translates into a greater degree of dissatisfaction with the division of work: only 44 per cent of women were satisfied with the division of household duties compared to 58 per cent of men, and just 40 per cent of women were satisfied with the division of childcare duties compared to 57 per cent of men.

Aside from the question of whether duties are shared equitably between parents, there is evidence of a traditional gendered division of household labour. Women principally take on childcare duties which they described as involving a greater emotional and mental load – such as organising activities, schoolwork, food shopping, planning meals – while their partners frequently led on the fun activities, like playing.

In addition, women self-reported working near or across from their children in lounges and kitchens, while their partners had segregated and quieter spaces (and not necessarily because they required it for work purposes).

Some women who reported themselves to be satisfied with the division of responsibilities still said they take on the majority of childcare, which perhaps reflects perceptions of gender justice and what is considered fair. But overall, women expressed dissatisfaction where there was a perception that allocation of childcare fell disproportionately on them.

Same storm, different boats

The report sheds light on the different impacts of Covid-19 across academic and professional services job families, indicating the importance of universities being sensitive to the ways that university staff are not a homogenous group.

Our respondents, both male and female, overwhelmingly reported concerns about the impact of the circumstances created by the Covid-19 lockdown on their productivity at work, as well as feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

In the academic community, “productivity” is typically measured – though we could argue over whether it should be measured in this way – by research outputs. However, for professional services staff, measures of productivity can often be less tangible and, for many, more tightly linked to appraisal processes. These factors make the mechanisms available to universities to check and challenge the impact of Covid-19 on career progression far less clear.

Respondents expressed longer term concerns over the consequences of the pandemic, with more than 80 per cent anticipating a negative impact on their careers over the next six months to two years, particularly in relation to promotion.

While undoubtedly imperfect in how they are implemented, the promotion routes open to academic staff (with the right sort of contract) provide a career ladder that does not exist for staff in professional services. This inevitably means that mitigating the effect of Covid-19 through changes to promotion criteria – a mechanism much talked about so far for academics, and rightly so – is not an available option. And, of course, the less tangible the impact, the more difficult it is to adjust and account for it.

These comparisons are not drawn to suggest who has had the worst end of the deal during the pandemic, or who will have it worst in future. However, as universities respond to the impact of the pandemic on the careers of their staff, staying cognisant of the differences between job families, both in terms of the type of work involved and the type of people who do that work, is essential.

Going nowhere fast

58 per cent of all respondents were pessimistic about the impact of the pandemic on their careers, with most pessimism centred around promotion and pay rises.

There were reported effects of feelings of disconnectedness from teams and institutions while working from home; something which has, until now, largely been a concern raised by those working on part-time contracts.

The challenge of constant distractions and an inability to focus amplified anxieties around professional reputation and increased stress. Throw into the mix lost opportunities such as job shadowing, involvement in working groups, and inclusion in ad-hoc projects and tasks and the report highlights a widening professional development gap.

The capacity of professional services staff to respond to Covid-19 and its challenges with resilience and agility, even in the most testing of circumstances, was clear throughout the survey responses.

Individual resilience and action are not enough, though, which is why the report also contains recommendations for higher education institutions. WHEN challenges universities to shoulder their share of the burden when it comes to the actions required, such as advocating to normalise parental and caring struggles, proactively encouraging men with caring responsibilities to work flexibly, and prioritising (and demonstrating) compassion as a genuine value within our institutions.

If action is not taken now, we are in real danger of allowing the transition into the next normal – and all the implications that will have for working practices and careers – to happen to us, rather than designing the transition both to mitigate the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women and to seize this opportunity to shift the dial on how equitable our universities can be.

You can view the full findings of the WHEN Sharing the Caring report here.

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