Could the COVID-19 lockdown solve one of the persistent barriers to gender equity in research?

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By Dr Ursula Sansom-Daly and A/Prof Caroline Ford

The societal lock-down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered much discussion around gender equity in workplaces, with many parents now finding themselves juggling working from home with looking after young children and/or attempting to become a home-school teacher, principal and school counsellor all rolled into one. As has been noted elsewhere,[1,2] these new dynamics may serve to democratise home workloads between partners or may instead further exacerbate unequal sharing of duties.

There is little doubt that for many women in STEMM, who already encounter systems with ingrained bias against them, this additional and unasked-for burden will change the course of their careers. While COVID-19 has impacted everyone across the STEMM sector, those women (and men) with caring responsibilities will again bear the brunt[3] of this disruption through the publications not-come-to-fruition and the grant dollars-not-accrued. It will be vital to track the impact of this on those who have borne the brunt of these caring and household responsibilities in the months and years to come. However, there is one aspect to the COVID-19 lockdown that could- if managed well- become a catalyst for lasting and important change inequity, diversity and inclusion across the STEMM sector.

Conference travel.

In academia, conference attendance is considered a vital and core part of engaging in one’s discipline and with one’s colleagues, and contributing to the field. Travelling to conferences to present one’s own research, hear the latest research from around the world, and network with esteemed international colleagues is considered a routine, almost not-negotiable aspect of an academic’s working year. Conference attendance, when used well, plays arguably an essential role in the pipeline from the development of research ideas, through to the refinement of data, and eventually peer-reviewed scientific outputs such as journal publications. The networking opportunities can also be career-making. For junior and early-career researchers, opportunistically meeting a well-appointed professor at a conference lunch could be the much-needed foot-in-the-door on the path to securing a prestigious post-doc opportunity overseas.

This tradition of academic conference attendance poses significant barriers to equity and diversity in science though. Conference travel – particularly to far-flung international conferences (by far the most prestigious ones to have on a CV) ranges from “very difficult” to “absolutely impossible” for many academics with caring responsibilities, such as early-career researchers with small children, or even more senior academics supporting teenage children about to undertake their final school exams- or elderly/unwell family members.

It’s well documented that women consistently carry the heaviest load of this unpaid work,[4] and hence are the most constrained by the barriers this poses to conference attendance.

Bringing family and small children along can be one solution, more so when conferences take simple measures to become child- and family-friendly.[5] But what does one do with the kids whilst also trying to deliver stimulating keynotes and network with colleagues? Some forward-thinking conferences, such as the 2019 Public Health Palliative Care International Conference held in Australia, have built-in childcare as part of the conference registration fee. The extra airfare and hotel costs involved in bringing the family along for the academic ride can be prohibitive, however. Some schemes, like the Franklin Women’s Carer’s Travel Scholarship[6] in Australia exist to provide travel support for carers in exactly these kinds of circumstances, which will be helpful to a small number lucky enough to benefit from these.

So which voices get to be heard in this model? Who gets to hold the mic?

For what it’s worth, when conference costs (registration, airfares, hotels) for any given international meeting easily blow out into the AU$3000+ zone, we need to ask ourselves who else is missing out. Early-career researchers without cushy travel budgets are one group. Researchers in low-to-middle income countries are another. So which voices get to be heard in this model? Who gets to hold the mic? And who gets the option to even attend the networking event?

Funding bodies such as the NHMRC and ARC have in recent years taken care to build in mechanisms to account for individuals’ achievements ‘relative to opportunity’ (that is, relative to the actual time they have spent at the wheel). But while these innovations in gender equity address some of the barriers to career progression, conference attendance is a little like the corporate phenomenon of Friday-night drinks. How do you quantify the impact of not being at a particular meeting, to meet a certain professor, or to chance upon a potential new collaborator on the other side of the world?

For those of us academic researchers in this boat, the sudden transition of meetings – conferences and otherwise- to online platforms may be one unanticipated silver lining to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s curious that in this digital age the tradition of conference attendance has remained so analogue/old school. We have had the internet for decades, and decent videoconferencing capabilities for over a decade, yet it has taken a global pandemic for large organisations such as universities to rapidly swing into action and digitise meetings and conferences which were previously only possible to attend in person.

The sky does, in fact, not fall in when we stream a conference session over Zoom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has muscled its way into our lives (and our Outlook calendars) and potentially achieved something that many-a-thinkpiece has, as yet, not been able to: to realise that the sky does, in fact, not fall in when we stream a conference session over Zoom. Conferences we have attended recently, like the 2020 Victorian Cancer Survivorship Conference and the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2020, which were virtually attended by national and international researchers just as the COVID-19 lockdown was becoming very real in Australia, managed this with ease and aplomb.

Could the COVID-19 pandemic be the unlikely catalyst for lasting change in the gender-equity space?

This begs the question: could the COVID-19 pandemic be the unlikely catalyst for lasting change in the gender-equity space? If managed well, the unanticipated silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic may be that we could close the gap to career progression for women in STEMM/academia in a meaningful way.

As we grapple with the enormous impact that COVID-19 has inflicted on the world, we all yearn for times that are somewhat simpler, where face-to-face contact and human touch is no longer taboo. Where we can once again engage in actual togetherness rather than this strange, pixilated separated-togetherness we are currently forced to make do with.

We don’t question the importance – and the value – of that face-to-face human contact, and all the relationship-building that goes with it.

However, there is a great privilege in being able to travel to far-flung locations around the world, to connect with esteemed colleagues, and showcase our own work on the international stage. This privilege comes at a cost: to those who are locked out of these opportunities. In a post-COVID-19 world, the academic/scientific community stands to gain so much – and so many – if we are able to  collectively learn from the observation that removing our reliance on this privilege can elevate and amplify a greater diversity of voices.


  4. Wilkins, R., Laß, I., Butterworth, P., and Vera-Toscano, E. (2019) The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17. Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research, University of Melbourne.
  5. Calisi, R.M., and a Working Group of Mothers in Science. Opinion: How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2018, 115 (12) 2845-2849; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1803153115

About Author

Dr Ursula Sansom-Daly leads the Mental Health Research Stream within the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the University of NSW. She completed her PhD and Masters in Clinical Psychology at the University of NSW, School of Psychology.   Ursula currently holds prestigious Early Career Fellowships from both the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Cancer Institute NSW (CINSW), and has been chief investigator on grants >$10.2M in grants. In 2019 she received the International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS) Hiroomi Kawano New Investigator Award. Alongside her research role, she is also the Clinical Psychologist at Sydney Youth Cancer Service the leading clinical team for the treatment and care of adolescents and young adults (AYAs) aged 15-25 years with cancer in Sydney. A large focus of Ursula’s research to date has been tailoring evidence-based cognitive-behavioural therapy to the AYA cancer experience, which has culminated in the online, group-based “Recapture Life” program. Ursula is currently working with community organisations such as CanTeen Australia and Cancer Council NSW to implement and disseminate this program beyond hospital walls. Ursula has also recently extended the focus of her research to exploring the needs of young people who may not survive their cancer. She has developed and led several studies to improve how communication and psychosocial support is provided for this group, including the recently-funded Global AYA Accord clinician survey around end-of-life communication, which you can access here.

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