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International Women’s Day: Four ways COVID-19 may exacerbate gender differences in higher education

  • 8 March 2021
  • By Rachel Hewitt

For women, studying in and/or working in higher education may offer opportunities which help to counteract some existing gender inequalities. For example, female graduates earn more than their non-graduate peers across all courses, unlike male graduates for whom some courses do not offer a graduate premium. Women enter higher education in greater numbers than men and go on to achieve higher degree outcomes than men. More women than men work within universities (although more academic staff are male). However, this does not mean higher education is immune to gendered differences in the experience of its students and staff. The below list, pulled together to mark International Women’s Day, sets out four ways in which the current pandemic may exacerbate existing gender differences in higher education.

1) Women working in academia

When we first entered lockdown, there were some who said the crisis put everyone on a level playing field. However, it is clear this is not the case, with some groups affected far greater than others. While schools have closed, parents have had to juggle looking after dependents while also managing their day-to-day work and it is women who have been most affected by this in academia. The imbalance of caring responsibilities has been found to have a significant impact on female academics ability to publish papers, with declines seen through each lockdown. The onward impact this could have on women’s careers in academia could go far beyond the pandemic if not addressed.

2) Graduate’s career prospects

As well as impacting women working in academia, the pandemic may have impacted young female graduates’ prospects. Our report Mind the (Graduate Gender Pay) Gap, published in late 2020, showed that before the pandemic, female graduates experienced a 7% pay gap one year after graduating, which grew to 24% after 10 years. This was not explained by working patterns, social background, race or subject of study, persisting across all groups. The report also showed women were likely to show less confidence in their approach to job-hunting than men and the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey found that men (60%) were more likely to feel prepared leaving university compared to women (52%). As the labour market becomes more challenging and opportunities become fewer, this could contribute to the existing gender pay gap growing. This makes the policy recommendations of Mind the (Graduate Gender Pay) Gap, such as developing sessions to improve the confidence of female graduates and disseminating information on the gender pay gap to all students, even more critical.

3) Mental health

Gendered differences in mental health are evident. The HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey found women are more likely to report high levels of anxiety compared to men (38% of women compared to 26% of men), although they report similar levels across the other wellbeing measures. Through our COVID-19 polling, we have also seen that women are more likely to report their mental health is a little or much worse due to the pandemic than men (67% of women compared to 46% of men). 50% of male students reported being satisfied with delivery of mental health services through COVID-19, compared to 36% of women.

However, just looking at the data on mental health can be reductive. Men are less likely to report mental health issues and far more young men taking their own lives than young women. It is clear that the mental health and wellbeing of all students has been impacted by COVID-19 and perhaps approaches to tackling this should take note of these gendered differences.

4) Views on funding

The issue of how higher education is funded became a Government priority far before COVID-19, with the Augar review launched in May 2019 by Theresa May. However, lockdown leading to a lack of access to university facilities and a move to online learning has also put a greater focus on the fees that students are charged for their university education. Interestingly, when looking at the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, female students were more likely to believe that Government should cover more of the costs of higher education than male students (70% of women compared to 61% of men). Women were also less likely to believe they’d had enough information on how their fees were spent than men – only 21% of female students said they’d had enough information on how their fees were spent, compared to 33% of men. As the debate rages on about whether students should be receiving fee refunds for this academic year and the Government considers whether to change the funding system in line with recommendations of the Augar report, the gender differences in attitudes provide an interesting insight to students’ views.

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