‘Even at this time, Especially at this time’? On Higher Education Equality Work

As the COVID-19 crisis, and responses to it, has developed over the past few months inequalities have been highlighted and exacerbated. While the crisis is impacting on everyone in someway, marginalised groups are particularly affected, including within the higher education setting. While not exhaustive, equality issues potentially impacting staff and students range from increased hate crime to potentially disproportionate impact of the cancellation of A-level exams on BAME students. Suspension of the 2014 Care Act has reduced local authority duties to support disabled adults and potentially puts those who are most vulnerable at greater risk, also impacting carers. In relation to gender, the focus of this post, concerns range from the expected rise in domestic violence to reports within work places of women disproportionately being furloughed

Consequently de-prioritising equality ‘initiatives’ (whether at a national or organisational level), for example, the suspension of gender pay gap reporting, may appear the logical option to take in the current crisis. However, experts warn of repercussions. The economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to have a greater impact on women given their predominance in precarious jobs. Indeed, as evidenced in the UK government’s Gender Equality Roadmap, women are already 50% more likely to work in low paying jobs and three times more likely to work part time. As a result of recent closure of schools and childcare providers and the consequent shift of childcare from paid to unpaid sphere, there are also concerns that women are more likely to revert to picking up the extra caring responsibilities. Do we accept that and put a ‘pause‘ on gender parity? Or do we attempt, for example, to stop the COVID-19 lockdown reinforcing sexist gender roles? And what is the employers role?

I work within equality, diversity and inclusion within a university and am also a PhD researcher. My Phd research explores parents’ decision-making in relation to shared parenting and specifically on taking leave from work to care for their child during the child’s first year of life; a key focus being shared parenting decision-making dynamics.  Consequently, in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic, working parents who under normal circumstances share parenting (whether living in the same household or not) are having discussions and deciding how to manage the sharing of the additional childcare and / or home schooling. I have been reflecting on parents’ decision-making and how this additional caring or schooling is being organised alongside the transition to homeworking, assumptions about who cares and implications for employers in terms of flexibility, messaging and effectively engaging staff.  

Research on parental choice often assume decision outcomes reflect parents’ preferences based on access to full information and resources. However, in reality there are many unknowns, decision-making more fluid and the influence of gendered parenting norms persist. For example, there is a continuing expectation for women of young children to work part time or not at all in the UK . Understanding parents’ opportunities and choices need to be explored in the context of personal circumstances as well as social norms. In other words, these decisions are being made in the context of persistent gendered parenting norms as well as what might be viewed as the more objective factors relating to, for example, finances or to factors leading to women’s jobs being considered lower priority.  Further, employer’s role as policy gatekeeper influences an individual’s ‘sense of entitlement’ such as through effective family-friendly messaging. Clearly, an organisation’s approach also impact same sex partners, single parents who are not co-parenting and employees with other caring responsibilities.

In discussions with other parents about how they are managing this shift in caring in the current circumstance, I have also been particularly conscious of these dynamics. For example, one mum explained their partner’s work was ‘more important’ and so is under stress to care for children during the day and work in evenings once the children have gone to bed. My own partner has expressed concerns about impact of homeschooling on his productivity and needing to look productive. The role of the employer is clearly important. A further example, Anna below, highlights the role of managers assumptions in everyday discussion.

Mothers say they are being kept at work in UK as fathers stay home (Guardian 27 March 2020)

Reverting to the question of whether we accept a ‘pause’ or we attempt to stop or mitigate the impact; clearly we should be aiming for the latter. ‘Pausing’ would not happen in a vacuum but impact on peoples lives more broadly. ‘Pausing’ also assumes gender essentialism rather than socially constructed roles and ignores the associated power dynamics and negative impact. On a nationwide basis, campaigning organisations are challenging the governments adoption of a gender-neutral approach to the pandemic response and have called for the needs of women to be visible in government decision-making. The government’s Women and Equalities Committee are now calling for evidence of impact.

What does this mean for higher eduation institutions approaches especially where care work is already often rendered invisible? With the rapid shift to homeworking, universities had to respond quickly to the implications of this for their staff. The examples below show both the positive and supportive and the more inflexible; the latter havng a disproportionate impact on women, both directly and indirectly.

Looking beyond the gender related example discussed here, others potentially impacted include those who experience wellbeing and mental health difficulties, those on precarious or fixed-term externally-funded research contracts, who are more likely to be female and / or BAME staff, and those taking and returning from maternity or parental leave.  Concerns have also been raised about disproportionate impact in the case of redundancies.

Research on responses to previous pandemics suggest a need for a community-centred response so as not to be ineffective or exacerbate existing inequalities. Privilege in its various forms often means we are not always able to anticipate consequences of decisions. Developing inclusive responses for these difficult times requires engaging with minority and marginalised groups to understand and avoid indirect or unintended consequences. Groups or staff networks, such as Athena Swan working groups and parent / carers networks in the case of gender equality, will be even more important in terms of peer support and engaging the community regarding concerns and possible solutions. Rather than de-prioritising, equality work needs re-prioritising where engagement with staff and students becomes even more important?

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