Women in STEM in the Time of the Pandemic – Facing Challenges, Finding Resilience

To recognise and celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, Professor Elizabeth Croft, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University, gave a speech at a special event hosted by The United Nations Institute for Training and Research, the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies and the Global Engineering Deans Council.

Professor Croft was one of 29 speakers – and the only Australian representative – to deliver an address at this global event.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women is a key component of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, progress has been slow in many sectors, including in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to UN Women, only 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, and only 35 percent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are women.

Today, the pandemic is affecting women worldwide, presenting a multitude of challenges in their everyday lives. Women in STEM face additional challenges such as precarious working conditions and maintaining work-life balance. But as we know, women are also change-makers.

This is an excerpt from a speech Professor Elizabeth Croft delivered at this special event to celebrate International Women’s Day 2021

The challenges of last year have impacted women, particularly parents, disproportionately.

During Melbourne’s lockdowns, schools and early childhood centres were only available to parents who had a permit from their employer, identifying them as a ‘key worker’.

As academics, we were still teaching, we were still researching - in fact, our staff were working on innovations directly applicable to the COVID-19 response, including 20 minute blood tests to detect COVID-19 and personal protective equipment (PPE) that could be manufactured out of domestic supplies.

Along with the pivot to online teaching, our staff found their workload doubled, even tripled, as the urgency of their research was accelerated.

But our working parents, our mums and dads, could not do this demanding work while changing nappies and meeting the needs of toddlers and young learners.

So, one of our first priorities was to ensure that parents doing this critical work had access to appropriate childcare. This is not a new discovery, but it was proven many times over last year: Access to childcare is fundamental to the success of working parents.

The concept of ‘achievement relative to opportunity’ has been around for a while now, but the global pandemic really put it into perspective for a much broader swathe of our workforce.

We have run workshops to help our staff identify what ‘relative to opportunity’ means after last year, what it means going forward - how to recognise and articulate the challenges they have faced, so those challenges do not form a permanent sticking point for their future progression.

I am hopeful that this broadening will have a lasting positive impact on equity in Engineering. 2020 catapulted ‘relative to opportunity’ from being a quasi ”women's issue” to making it mainstream.  People who may have previously struggled to “get it” now “get it” - they have lived experience of how family can disrupt academic advancement and endeavors. Sure, it would have been great to get to this point without a global pandemic, but I am still glad we got here!

As Dean of Engineering, I am responsible for over 8000 students and 500 staff across campuses in three countries.  With the majority of our workforce working from home, and with our colleagues in Malaysia still working from home, we had to completely overhaul our communications. We implemented regular emails and online meetings to help us come together while we were physically apart.

The major focus at these events was to recognise and celebrate our successes.  COVID-19 did not magically eradicate all the other problems that we had been working so hard to solve. It was important to come together, to see each other, to share news - important for our mental health, and important to remember our lives, ambitions and success outside of COVID-19.

I do not want to pretend to you that last year was a walk in the park. I cannot forget the faces of my staff who were in meetings with babies crawling over them, or young children racing in the background.

For me, one of the biggest challenges right now is the closed borders. Monash Engineering is one of the top 100 Engineering Faculties in the world, we are used to recruiting top minds from all over the world, and that is hard to do without current travel restrictions.  We do look forward to those changing this year.

Living in Melbourne is a privilege. Right now, I have little risk of getting COVID-19. I can share a meal in a restaurant, go to a movie, and attend a graduation.

The challenges we have faced have largely been limited to restrictions to prevent disease spread, and less so on dealing with the impact of the disease itself. This has given us the opportunity to refocus on other important challenges including systemic disadvantage and gender equality.

As we look forward, through 2021 to 2022 and beyond, we need to be vigilant to ensure that the gender equity gains we have realised are strengthened and advanced.