Research conducted by the Society of Women Engineers as well as other organizations provides glimpses into the ways in which women in STEM have been affected by this unprecedented global disruption.
By Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE Associate Director of Research
On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science held this past February, Volkan Bozkir, president of the United Nations General Assembly, stated: “We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to derail our plans for equality — particularly when it comes to women and girls in science.”
Bozkir’s concern is a global concern, one that many women in STEM are experiencing firsthand. While it is still too early to know how severely the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our progress toward achieving gender equity in the STEM workforce, research over the past year is providing some early insights.
The Society of Women Engineers added to this body of knowledge with surveys of its membership in 2020. Member responses shed light on the challenges that women are experiencing in engineering and technology, both in university and career, in the U.S. and in India.
Methods of Data Collection
This article highlights the major findings from the surveys we conducted in 2020. Results from the analysis of university student responses are separate from those of professionals, but the three surveys are intermingled throughout to note the similarities and differences over time and geographic location.
Survey in June 2020
SWE’s first COVID-19 survey of members was conducted in June 2020, with a report (Society of Women Engineers 2020a) released in July. There were nearly 1,800 responses, and with only 2% from men engineers, the focus of the report was on the responses from women and gender nonbinary participants.
Survey in September 2020
SWE conducted a second survey (Society of Women Engineers 2020b) focused on engineers in India. More than 300 responses were received, and with more than 20% of responses from men engineers, gender comparisons were possible. A report was released in October highlighting the results of the analysis of responses.
Survey in November 2020
In November, SWE conducted its annual member surveys to understand how SWE’s members view the Society’s programs and offerings. Given the impact of the pandemic on SWE’s ability to conduct in-person activities, questions modeled on the prior two COVID-19 survey questions were added to the survey. This allowed for a loose contrast with responses from the June survey. While a report was not released, SWE wrote a blog post to share the findings with members.
In the summer of 2020, university students were experiencing a great deal of uncertainty as the new school year approached. When we asked students whether they planned to return to campus to take face-to-face classes, 76% indicated that they planned to do so. As the summer progressed, it became clear that most schools would not be able to offer in-person classes. The fall survey responses showed that only one in four students were able to return to on-campus classes (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Returning to On-Campus Classes
“Moving away from my school, [it has been] difficult to find an internship related to my major in my area. Finding a good paying job in general has been hard.”
– Undergraduate Student
One constant that remained from summer into fall was the concern about the pandemic’s impact on graduation plans. Almost half of university students who responded to our surveys indicated that they were worried that the pandemic would delay their graduation dates. This aligns with what others are seeing, and there are particular concerns about the impact on vulnerable student populations. A survey by Strada Education Network last year found that half of Latino respondents and 42% of Black respondents had canceled or changed education plans compared with 26% of white respondents (Fain 2020). In line with these results, SWE’s summer survey found that students of color expressed more concern about the impact of the pandemic on their graduation plans (Fig. 2).
Figure 2: Concerns about Delayed Graduation
Figure 3: Hours per Week Spent on Household Chores
With most students faced with taking courses online, many spent the fall semester away from campus. As a result, students reported that, on average, the amount of time they spent on household chores had increased significantly from prior to the pandemic — and students of color reported spending more time doing household chores than their white peers (Fig. 3). This increased burden coupled with financial concerns related to employment and internship losses may help explain why so many students of color modified their education plans.
In India, students expressed even greater concern about delayed graduation, with 75% indicating they were worried that the pandemic would push their graduation dates back. Among those respondents who had recently graduated and obtained employment, every single respondent reported that they were concerned about the possibility of losing their job within the next six months. These concerns are not unfounded: In the U.S. survey earlier in the year, one in four students who had graduated in spring 2020 had had their job offers rescinded or postponed. Employers are making hard decisions in tough economic times, and recent graduates with little work experience are among a high-risk group when organizations decide to cut staff.
A year ago, women in the U.S. held more jobs than men (Kurtz 2021). But over the course of 2020, the pandemic led to higher job losses for women than for men — and much of this loss was experienced by Black and Latina women (Boesch and Phadke 2021). Industries with high numbers of women were significantly impacted by the pandemic, including education, retail, and hospitality, but women in all industry sectors have been hit hard by COVID-19. While engineers and other STEM professionals are generally considered less vulnerable because they are highly educated and more likely to be able to pivot to a remote work setting, this is not true for all. Engineers have also seen job losses during the pandemic, and for some engineers, working remotely is not an option. In the SWE summer survey, 58% of respondents indicated that they are considered essential workers and 44% reported that they have been required to physically go to their places of work during the pandemic.
Among U.S. respondents to the SWE survey, 37% of women and queer/nonbinary engineers were concerned about the possibility of losing their jobs, and 70% were concerned about their ability to find another job if they were to be laid off. A slightly higher percentage of women engineers of color reported concerns than white women engineers, reflecting other researchers’ findings of the pressures that women of color are experiencing in the workplace during this time of uncertainty. In India, these concerns were even greater, with 65% of women engineers expressing concern about losing their jobs and 85% concerned about being able to find another job if they were let go (Fig. 4).
Figure 4: Concerns about Losing and Finding a Job
“I don’t know any working engineer mom who does not feel she is working harder at work AND harder at home right now. We are burning out, fast…”
– Aerospace Engineer
Though many jobs were lost due to budget cuts and closures, the National Women’s Law Center found that four times as many women than men were intentionally dropping out of the labor force, many to handle caregiving needs (Ewing-Nelson 2020). While 68% of women and queer/nonbinary engineers in the U.S. workforce and 66% of women engineers in India reported that they were satisfied with their work/life balance, they were shouldering a heavier care burden than their partners — particularly the educational support for children (Fig. 5).
Figure 5: Women’s Share of Family Responsibilities, U.S. and India
“We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to derail our plans for equality — particularly when it comes to women and girls in science.” — Volkan Bozkir, president of the United Nations General Assembly
For women in higher education, half of respondents to the SWE survey reported being dissatisfied with work/family balance during COVID-19. Faculty with children — particularly school-age children — are finding it challenging to balance care responsibilities with teaching and research. One recent study found that faculty with children, both men and women, were losing more research time due to COVID-19 than their childless counterparts, with women losing an average of 1.5 hours of research time per day compared with men’s hour per day (Deryugina, Shurchkov, and Stearns 2021). This compares to approximately 30 minutes of lost research time per day for childless faculty.
The growing household and care burden for both students and professionals has led a number of researchers to focus on the impact this is having on mental health. One global study found that 27% of women reported an increase in challenges associated with mental illness compared with 10% of men, primarily due to the increase in unpaid labor in their households (Janoch et al. 2020). Another study found that parents with children struggling with distance learning were experiencing higher levels of mental distress, including anxiety and depression (Davis et al. 2021). Parents have become “proxy teachers,” but for working parents, this additional burden can make it extremely difficult to manage work, home, and school responsibilities. Among graduate students, many of whom have teaching responsibilities, a 2020 survey found that two-thirds reported low well-being, with about one-third suffering from moderate-to-high levels of anxiety and depression (Ogilvie et al. 2020).
There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted everyone around the world in some form or fashion, but early indications are that this pandemic may have long-term impacts on our progress toward gender and racial equity and inclusion in STEM education and the workforce. Researchers have been surveying people from all walks of life to try to understand the ways in which this lengthy disruption to everyday life is being managed, but we will not fully understand the impact until the pandemic has run its course. SWE will continue to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our members, using our findings to add to the knowledge bank and educate university administrators, employers, and policymakers of the risk of losing our momentum toward achieving gender equity in STEM.
Boesch, D. and Phadke, S. (2021). When Women Lose All the Jobs: Essential Actions for a Gender-Equitable Recovery. Center for American Progress, Feb. 21.
Davis, C.R., Grooms, J., Ortega, A., Rubalcaba, J.A., and Vargas, E. (2021). Distance Learning and Parental Mental Health During COVID-19. Educational Researcher 50(1): 61–64.
Deryugina, T., Shurchkov, O., and Stearns, J.E. (2021). COVID-19 Disruptions Disproportionately Affect Female Academics. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 28360, January.
Ewing-Nelson, C. (2020). Four Times More Women Than Men Dropped out of the Labor Force in September. National Women’s Law Center, Fact Sheet, October.
Fain, P. (2020). Higher Education and Work amid Crisis. Inside Higher Ed., June 17.
Janoch, E. et al. (2020). She Told Us So: Rapid Gender Analysis: Closing the Data Gaps to Build Back Equal. CARE International, Sept. 22.
Kurtz, A. (2021). The US Economy Lost 140,000 Jobs in December. All of Them Were Held by Women. CNN Business, Jan. 8, 2021.
Ogilvie, C. et al. (2020). NSF RAPID: Graduate Student Experiences of Support and Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Society of Women Engineers (2020a) Impact of COVID-19 on Women in Engineering and Technology: Survey Report, July. https://bit.ly/30SWfCx
Society of Women Engineers (2020b) Impact of COVID-19 on Women in Engineering and Technology in India: Survey Report, October. https://bit.ly/2Q8aFML
SWE Members’ COVID-19 Fall Experiences (2020). Society of Women Engineers, blog post, Dec. 14, 2020. https://bit.ly/3sd8xlj