05.11.2022 change 05.11.2022

Damning pandemic study reveals inequalities experienced by women

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A damning new report has revealed the number of inequalities experienced by women university workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Entitled 'Women at universities and the COVID-19 pandemic: Comparative research on women's work’, the report found that women were more likely to experience an increase in the amount of unpaid work at home and care work, and a lack of understanding from superiors and employers regarding the increase.

Prepared by employees of the University of Warsaw (the Centre for Women's and Gender Research) in partnership with the University of Milan, the report’s authors said: “We talked about the work of women not only with academics, including doctoral candidates, but also with administration and technical staff, IT specialists and librarians. 

“A total of 631 people took part in our project. We were interested in experiences related to work, both professional one and the so -called unpaid women's work, that is work performed at home, family and care duties in the conditions of the pandemic. 

“It was also important for us to identify whether and how women cared for themselves and tried to maintain work-life balance We were also interested in the challenges of post-pandemic reality.”

Among the positive experiences of the pandemic, the respondents mentioned: work from home that meant travel time savings, gaining or developing digital competence, confirmation of their own agency in difficult and uncertain conditions, experience integrating the family, appreciating life as a value in itself in the face of the pandemic, and the experience of learning about oneself, self-reflection and insight.

On the other hand, they pointed to the increase in the amount of unpaid work at home and care work, the appearance of new tasks related to children's education, lack of understanding from superiors and employers with regard to the increased amount of unpaid work performed by the surveyed women, loneliness, a sense of threat to health and life and a sense of overwhelming chaos, anxiety and uncertainty.

When asked about the activities of the university authorities, they emphasized insufficient and chaotic university management in a crisis situation. 

This was related to the lack of preparation of superiors for managing the team in a situation of remote work and constant uncertainty, lack of system-wide solutions and regulations during the crisis. In addition, they assessed that the university's support was often mismatched to the needs and hours of administrative work or of low value in the area of training and remote work.

The next area of the study were the COVID-19 pandemic coping strategies. University employees mentioned, among other things, rituals that facilitated separation of private and professional life like maintaining the rhythm of the day, changing clothes for work, makeup, cooking, preparing and eating meals together with household members. 

Another strategy was separating physical space at home, as a way to demarcate the professional and private sphere, for example by setting up and hiding work equipment every day, in order to maintain the appearance of 'normality'.

The data shows that the pandemic had numerous consequences in the area of women's work. The most important one concerns remote work, its organization and the need to maintain work-life balance. According to the report, women see the advantages and benefits of remote work, but need the right equipment and access to tools to perform it effectively. 

Most of them said that they would like to work remotely or in a hybrid system, because this work model would allow them to balance professional life and family and care responsibilities. Studies have shown that currently the urgent area is the regulation of labour law provisions that should not only be adapted to the general situation and the prevailing conditions, but also take into account the needs and capabilities of employees.

The authors of the report emphasise that in addition to performing professional work, women were full-time carers, cooks, cleaners, household managers, took care of the care and education of children and often supported the elderly, who were often 'trapped at home' due to the fear of the pandemic.

The study results indicate insufficient level of knowledge, awareness and equality attitudes at universities.

According to the report, sensitivity to gender issues, especially among superiors, both men and women, virtually does not exist. Universities remain institutions with a high degree of bureaucracy and resistance to progressive changes. 

The report said: “The pandemic that accelerated or even forced the introduction of certain necessary solutions (such as remote work) turned out to be a positive experience in this respect. At the same time, it revealed previously unresolved and accumulating problems. 

“However, instead of trying to face them, these problems are still rationalized, for example by existing status inequalities or participation of both sexes in the authority.”

According to the study, the work-life balance behaviour was a difficulty that required additional activities and efforts, and was associated with the need to reorganize the entire system of work and home activities, as well as flexible responses to the changing environment.

The study was conducted from September 2021 to the end of July 2022 at the University of Warsaw in partnership with the University of Milan, as part of the project 'Women at universities and the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparative research on women's work'. 

The project financed by the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) as part of the NAWA Urgency Grants programme. (PAP)

Author: Aleksandra Kiełczykowska

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