2020/21 A huge leap backwards for gender equality in STEM

I saw a tweet recently from a grant scheme that was announcing the latest winners. All were men. Someone asked the question, “Where are the women?” and they got a response. Turns out, only 10% of grant applicants this past year were women. Normally the number is ~40%. The reason for this is clear. With the pandemic and everyone working from home, women have been left with the majority of childcare responsibilities leaving men to apply for jobs, grants, promotions and awards. What a disaster for equality in STEM and what a stark reminder for how far society as a whole is from gender equality.

“Women make up nearly half of non-professorial academic staff yet less than 20% of professors are women. The gap does not get clearer than that”

The magnitude of the problem within universities becomes apparent when you break down the proportions of men and women at different levels of promotion. The gender balances for research fellows, junior lecturers, senior lecturers and professors. The higher up you go the more male dominated these positions become. One study into UK universities found that women make up nearly half of non-professorial academic staff yet less than 20% of professors are women. The gap does not get clearer than that.

Available data suggests that women are as or more successful than men in the application process for professor positions, but 4 times more men apply. Unfortunately, with the pandemic we are now seeing these levels of inequalities in grant applications and award schemes. In the UK and US the sudden lack of childcare/school closers and intermittent/unreliable changes to rules meant that many parents were left with having to juggle working from home with childcare/home-schooling. An impossible task at times, especially depending on number of children and their ages. It is clear that women have disproportionately picked up this burden. 

Obviously even before the pandemic Academia had a long way to go to bridge the gender-gap, not to mention all the other inequalities. However, there is a pressing issue caused by the pandemic. Clearly, we need a rapid response from universities and award schemes to address this issue. What needs to change now to undo this damage done to gender equality within universities? 




  • Dr Craig Davison has a PhD in Medicine from Queens University Belfast (QUB). Craig has published research investigating novel treatment strategies targeting nucleotide metabolism. Craig is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow and is passionate about science communication.

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