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Impact of Covid-19 on Gender Equality

Covid and Gender Equality

Covid and Gender Equality

Covid and Gender Equality

Covid and Gender Equality

It is widely acknowledged that Covid-19 has served to reinforce existing privileges and inequities in society and gender disparities in higher education are no exception. This paper has been informed by existing evidence which suggests that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact in terms of gender, primarily as a larger share of household labour and care responsibilities tend to fall to women, as well as feedback and consultation with internal stakeholders including the Gender Equality Group and Parents and Carers Networks. It seeks to outline:

  1.  Impacts of Covid-19 on gender equality at the University of Exeter
  2. Actions taken so far to mitigate impacts
  3. Future ideas and actions for consideration

It is important to recognise that during periods of uncertainty, high stress and reduced time such as lockdown, biased decision-making processes are often relied upon and inclusivity efforts deprioritised. It is key that the University maintains visibility of its ongoing efforts to achieve gender equality, including those incorporated within its Athena SWAN Silver action plan, and commits to ongoing review to identify and address any detrimental impacts of Covid-19 on women and other groups facing disadvantage.

This page was last updated in January 2021. We welcome all questions and comments on the information contained on this page and recognise that circumstances are constantly evolving, so please don’t hesitate to contact the EDI team if you have any feedback.

Impacts of Covid-19 on gender equality at the University

Research Opportunities

Women in higher education often have to work harder to be judged on an equal basis to their male colleagues and face bias in peer and grant review processes, therefore the loss of access to research opportunities and resources caused by Covid-19 will not impact men and women equally in terms of consequences for career progression. The decrease in research visibility means that women are less likely to be invited to participate in future research activity and by May 2020, a number of journals were already reporting that article submissions from women had fallen significantly compared to an increase in the number of submissions from men. The gap between those with and without caring responsibilities is also widening, increasing parents’ and carers’ perception that they are falling behind their peers as they are unable to manage increased requests for collaboration and project work. We are also concerned about the longer-term impact on the career pipeline for female colleagues as a result of reduced time available to spend on career development opportunities.


Institutional culture in higher education already disadvantages women by rewarding long and out-of-hours engagement, as women are more likely to work flexibly or part-time compared to men due to care responsibilities. The transition to online delivery necessitated by Covid-19 has increased demands on workload through Project Enhance, as it has required more intensive teaching preparation. Prior to Covid-19, women were also more likely to take on additional services such as mentoring, training opportunities and contributions to institutional equality agendas, such as Athena SWAN or the Race Equality Charter.

Care Responsibilities

Women, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible) and pre-existing mental health conditions are likely to be disproportionately impacted by Covid-19’s effects on mental health and wellbeing. A recent report from the IFS found that while the pandemic has put immense pressure on parents’ time, mothers are spending less time on paid work but more time on household and care responsibilities than fathers. The challenges of balancing childcare and home-schooling with working from home has left women in particular struggling with sensations of guilt, shame and depression, due to a persistent inability to devote enough time to either carry out the duties of their role to the best of their ability, or fulfil their dependents’ needs.

Pastoral Labour

Students approach female personal tutors more often than their male counterparts for academic and wellbeing support due to gender-based stereotypes that they will be more attentive and understanding. This additional labour is often unrecognised and therefore invisible, but likely to increase during this time of high stress and anxiety. Managing these expectations alongside increased teaching, time constraints and existing stress levels elevates the risk of burnout and fatigue.

The University’s Gender Pay Gap widened in 2019 and prior to lockdown, it was identified that radical action needed to be taken in order to safeguard against further growth in inequality. We have identified that gender disparities in negotiating starting salaries are a significant contributing factor to the institution’s pay gap and it is likely that the detrimental impacts on women’s career progression outlined elsewhere in this paper will also affect women’s long-term earning potential.

Actions taken so far to mitigate impacts

“No Detriment”

The “No Detriment” policy was introduced last year to mitigate disadvantages in terms of promotion, although applications for promotion at Professor and Associate Professor level have been suspended pending review this year. Applications for promotion at other levels will continue to be considered against the relevant criteria in terms of quality, with allowances made in terms of expected quantity or outputs. It is acknowledged that men are overrepresented at Professor and Associate Professor level and safeguarding women in the pipeline has therefore been a key factor in prioritising other levels for promotion.


Throughout the pandemic, the University has asked colleagues with care responsibilities to give their “best endeavours” and work flexibly, recognising that expectations for outputs to continue at 100% is unrealistic. Emergency Leave has been extended to 10 days in recognition of the increased pressures on parents and carers and a new home working policy is under development.


A number of staff were furloughed last year, including some who were unable to work due to caring responsibilities. The gender profile of staff who were furloughed (56:44 F:M) is broadly similar to the gender profile of the Professional Services and Research job families eligible for furlough (60:40 F:M).

Cost-saving measures

Measures to continue salary increments for staff in Grades E and below have been taken in order to mitigate further widening of the Gender Pay Gap, as women are overrepresented in these grades. However, women are overrepresented in Professional Services, so the impact of withdrawing financial incentives as part of the Above and Beyond scheme may have a disproportionate impact.

Following consultation with the Gender Equality Group, the University successfully applied for an extension to our institutional Athena SWAN Silver Award. The one year extension will allow us time to review our action plan through a Covid-19 lens ahead of the new renewal date in April 2023.

SWAY Guidance

The EDI team developed a series of guidance for parents and carers last year on homeworking and the reopening of schools and childcare settings. 

Network Support

The Parents and Carers Network Committee met last term to identify priorities for action during the year ahead. The EDI team has prioritised administrative coordination of the Networks at this time in recognition of the increased burden on staff time.

Future ideas and actions for consideration

“No Detriment”

While the “No Detriment” policy has been well-received in principle, feedback from the Gender Equality Group suggests that colleagues remain concerned about the long-term impacts on career progression and would welcome further information on the practical implementation of the policy. Applications for promotion could also be supported by:

  • The PDR process and guidance
  • Supporting statements from line managers
  • Greater clarity on The Exeter Academic web pages around ‘no detriment’

Parents and Carers

Despite government guidance detailing the full reopening of schools and colleges in September 2020, it is likely that children will need to be supported with learning from home for longer. Parents and carers have been able to ‘manage’ during this time by prioritising work over delivering education and care to their dependents, while juggling slightly lower term 3 and early summer workloads. The University can help staff to manage anxiety ahead of new term starts by preparing and outlining recommendations for managers to support effective and realistic workloads at college and department level. This could be reinforced through the PDR process. In addition, line managers should be encouraged to attend a new management development webinar ‘Leading and Managing Colleagues Remotely’ which emphasises potential inequalities and the steps that leaders and managers can put in place to mitigate them. 


Some staff remain furloughed at this time and further data analysis is required to ensure that there has been no gendered consequences as a result of this process.


Qualitative and quantitative data can be requested from colleges to ensure that promotions expected to take place this year still go ahead despite the impacts of Covid-19, therefore fully ensuring “no detriment”.

Voluntary reduction in hours

Monitoring uptake of the option to voluntarily reduce hours by gender and care responsibilities is required to ensure that there is no disproportionate impact on parents, carers and women in particular. Workload allocation must also reflect changes in hours and staff should not be expected to maintain their current workload for reduced pay.

The institutional response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the potential of home and flexible working. Any changes to home and flexible working policies should reflect this in line with actions included in our institutional Athena SWAN Silver action plan.

Updates to this paper will be circulated to Project Future Work working groups, which include members of the EDI Team among their membership to advise on any potential inequalities as the groups look to shape future home working policy.

Recommended communications include:

  • Information regarding the potential inequalities that may arise as a result of Covid-19 (together with possible mitigation steps) should be drawn to the attention of all senior leaders via the Senior Management Group (SMG), RIEG and Education Executive.
  • A brief guidance document raising awareness of potential inequalities and possible mitigation steps should be developed and communicated to all people managers.
  • Specific guidance on potential inequalities (i.e. this paper) should be distributed to VCEG before any promotions applications are assessed.

Further Reading

Please find a list below of the relevant research and reports which have informed this paper, in addition to further reading on the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality in higher education. If there are any further reports or papers which you would like to see listed here, please contact the EDI team to have them added.

Institute for Fiscal Studies, May 2020

University of Oxford, June 2020

PNAS, July 2020

University of Michigan, July 2020

Advance HE, September 2020