In Vox’s ‘explained’ Netflix series, an episode dissecting the gender pay gap highlights a disturbing phenomenon: much of the differences in pay between genders are attributable to our widely held stereotypes and beliefs. Hilary Clinton makes a striking example: if you are a man, you should decorate your workspace with pictures of your children, so that you are seen as a committed father. But if you are a woman, you should not do this, as the perception will be that you can’t keep your mind on the work at hand.
The COVID19 pandemic has unearthed a number of damaging societal phenomena that we thought were either dealt with or were in the process of being extinguished: it has had varying impacts on individuals of different socio-economic statuses and races, with Bill Gates opining that the pandemic will end in 2021 for the rich world. Parallel to this, a separate phenomenon has emerged: women are still seen as primary care givers, or work lower paid jobs, and thus suffered the greatest job loss as a result of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns. According to Independent Online, of the 3 million South Africans that had lost jobs as of 15 July, 2 million of those were women. Highlighting the critical role intersectionality has played in this phenomenon, the Independent Online states:
Among those groups of people that were already disadvantaged in the labour market and already faced a disproportionate share of job losses from the pandemic (the less educated, the poor, black Africans and informal workers) women in these groups faced an even further job losses, putting them at a ‘double disadvantage’.
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Lauren Weber notes that as economies reopen (while some schools or grades do not) mothers are often forced to quit their jobs or decrease their hours to make time for childcare: a move which could be a generational wipeout of mother’s careers. Furthermore, as men tend to earn more than their female counterparts in heterosexual couples, women feel forced to sacrifice their own career goals: if X and Y are married, and X earns more than Y, and so much more that X’s income can support their family, then Y would feel compelled to quit their job and take care of the domestic responsibilities.
One may speculate that women in academia could be immune to these fallouts: they are needed for urgent COVID19 research, or are needed to teach college level classes, and they occupy roles which may symbolise the pinnacle of various fields, and should thus have some sort of job resiliency. But this has not been the case. A June 2020 article in the correspondence section of The Lancet points out that women have made up just 24% of COVID19 experts quoted in the media. In addition, an article in Science News shows that fewer women were first authors on articles relating to COVID19. When comparing 1893 articles published in March and April 2020 with those from 2019 in the same journals, they found that first authorship for women declined by 23%. An article by women scientists in The Lancet makes the case that these challenges are not unique to the pandemic era:
Challenges women in academia face are well documented in non-pandemic times. These challenges included male dominated institutional cultures, lack of female mentors, competing family responsibilities due to gendered domestic labour, and implicit and subconscious biases in recruitment, research allocation, outcome of peer review, and number of citations.
There is the possibility that outdated norms of professionalism may be feeding into the problems faced by this subset of women. Writing for Forbes, Nina Shapiro draws on a familiar anecdote: when you were young, you were startled to see your primary school teacher at the grocery shop, or were startled to learn that they had a first name. This is because you did not understand that they had an existence (a life) outside of their relevance to you. Despite the versatility women exhibit time and time again, we still foster environments that enable us to treat them like static renditions of primary school teachers. We create environments that, when put to the test, give them 2 options: you’re either the caretaker or the professor, but not really both.
In the August 2020 issue of The Journal of Vascular Surgery, a (now retracted) article titled ‘Prevalence of Unprofessional Social Media Content Among Young Vascular Surgeons’ sort to identify content posted on the social media pages of up-and-coming vascular surgeons that could potentially compromise the patient-physician relationship. In short, they sort to identify and gauge the prevalence of unprofessional content posted by these future surgeons.
Aside from the questionable research methodology (they stalked their research subjects using fake accounts) the things they classified as unprofessional spoke to the antiquated norms of professionalism for women: pictures in provocative halloween costumes and bikinis were considered unprofessional. An emerging phenomenon associated with the rise of social media is the fact that one can get fired for what they post, and if the academic medical world can still hold antiquated and misogynistic notions such as these which may cost a woman her job, then we still have a ways to go in seeing women as the multi-dimensional human beings they are.
To wrap it up
The Wall Street Journal notes that previous financial meltdowns actually saw men lose more jobs than women, because they occupied jobs in sectors that were vulnerable to economic instability (e.g. construction). It seems the economic meltdown associated with COVID19 is different, not only in the way it has affected women, but in the way it has highlighted that society still clings gendered social roles. Publications aiming to identify unprofessional behaviour have actually ended up furthering misogynistic ideals, attesting to the scope of the problem, and highlighting the incongruence society has created between being a multi-dimensional woman and being a woman in the workforce. In an environment where women in academia are being pushed to the sidelines, a journal article furthering misogynistic ideals further testifies to the gendered nature of academic and other workspaces. Acknowledging these issues is one of the ways forward, but an ideological shift is needed to support the many strong, bold and talented working women.