Summary of the OECD Closed Roundtable on the impact of COVID-19 on women: Spotlight on women in STEM

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

Our Closed Roundtable on the impact of COVID-19 on women took place on 12 October 2020. You can read the summary of the session below and continue the conversation in the comments!


As we face the challenges of overcoming the global pandemic there is growing concern that years of progress in promoting gender equality at home and at work is coming undone. With the pandemic further accelerating the digitalisation of our economies and societies, facilitating access for women to STEM studies and careers is particularly important.

Willem Adema, Senior OECD Economist on Family, Gender, Housing Policy and Social Expenditure, highlighted the burdens that women have been facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Women make up two thirds of the healthcare workforce worldwide and 90% of long-term care workers across OECD countries. The crisis has increased women’s unpaid work at home due to childcare facility and school closures, as well as their economic vulnerability. They are over-represented in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, including retail and travel. Available data shows that the crisis is hitting women’s employment at least as hard as men’s, but these figures do not yet take into account the many short-term work schemes implemented across OECD countries, which is masking the true extent of job losses.

Read the OECD Policy Response on our COVID-19 Hub: Response, recovery and prevention in the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in developing countries: Women and girls on the frontlines

Anna Rafferty, Director of Strategy at the Johnson & Johnson Campus in Ireland, served as moderator during the roundtable.  She explained that girls often struggle to see themselves represented in STEM careers and that gender stereotyping contributes to discouraging women from entering and continuing to work in STEM fields.  

In response to one of the polls conducted during the session, most participants indicated that the biggest challenge women are currently facing is a lack of access to high-quality flexibility in the workplace, leading to unrealistic expectations and juggling of too many responsibilities. Belle Derks, Professor, Psychological Perspectives on Organisational Behaviour within Institutions at the University of Utrecht explained that while the work family imbalance created by the pandemic has left women feeling less comfortable at home and less included at work, fathers have had more access to flexible work arrangements. The pandemic has shown that flexibility works for all workers, key in removing the previous widely held preconception of flexible work as a benefit that allowed women to play a greater role as caregivers.

Want to take part in this Closed Roundtable's expert poll yourself? Join the Forum Network for free and leave your answers to the questions at the end in the comments section!   

The ideal worker norm, i.e. that work begins in young adulthood and lasts for 40 years, full time, without any breaks, is much more favourable to men. The pandemic has worked as a vehicle for us to question some of our more strongly held norms. Belle highlighted that flexibility should be offered to both men and women. Why? Because flexibility and non-linear career paths should not be seen as only solutions for women.

While hyper-masculine occupations can provide increased job security for women they also face gender harassment– such as belittling behaviour toward their technical capabilities, and speaking down or over them in meetings.

By offering this flexibility to men – it communicates to women that they are not the only ones that are in charge of the family. In the case of Johnson & Johnson, Anna mentioned that the introduction of 8 weeks paternity leave shifted the conversation around paternity/maternity leave. Teams began to prepare for both of these types of leave. But, providing this flexibility does not always produce the desired results. Mariagrazia Squicciarini, Senior Economist at the OECD, argued that high quality flexibility should be built into jobs by design. In the case of Norway, when shared paternity and maternity leave was introduced, women were taking most of the leave time and few men were using their paternity leave. By making it mandatory by law to divide this leave time, more men began to take paternity leave.

The lived experience of women working in STEM careers was also highlighted during the discussion. Rae Cooper, Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney Business School drew on the findings of a study on women’s careers in hyper-masculine occupations - occupational areas where women make up less than 15% of workers. She found that the more male-dominated a sector is, the closer the gender pay gap, demonstrating that there are real economic benefits for women to work in these fields. While hyper-masculine occupations can provide increased job security for women they also face gender harassment– such as belittling behaviour toward their technical capabilities, and speaking down or over them in meetings.

Read more by Rae Cooper and Sarah Mosseri, University of Sydney, on The Forum Network: Underutilised, Underpaid, Undervalued: Australian women and COVID-19 in and after the crisis

Belle Derks, added that women often do not recognise themselves in the image of success in certain fields and companies, so they tend to feel that they do not belong in the company where they work. These challenges can result in reduced work engagement, and a higher likelihood of women leaving STEM occupations.

Successful initiatives and managers known to promote good practices act like a magnet.  Leisha Daly, Senior Director Government Affairs, Supply Chain EMEA & Johnson& Johnson Ireland outlined J&J’s diversity and inclusion programmes, targeted at youth, undergraduate students, professionals and women who want to re-enter the workforce after having left to take care of children or other family members. The importance of female role models to spark interest in STEM careers is a key pillar of the youth programme. The programme targeted at undergraduate students dedicates a mentor to each student for first-hand transfer of experience, and focuses on identifying and overcoming obstacles for female STEM undergraduate students in entering STEM careers.

The importance of male participation in supporting females in STEM is an indispensable condition to a successful programme. Kathryn Friend, Founder of Stem Equity Network posed a question on how to integrate more men into the discussion. Renae Ryan, Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology and Academic Director of the Science in Australia Gender Equity Program at the University of Sydney spoke about the 40-40-20 rule of thumb. The 40-40-20 rule recognises that there are roughly 40% of people who are already supportive of gender and inclusion policies, another 40% who are undecided and would benefit from more information and data. The remaining 20% of the population have already formulated unwavering opinions and should not be the target of intervention.

Renae Ryan shared the example of a Joint Sector Position Statement on “Preserving Gender Equity as a Higher Education Priority During and After COVID-19" that, to date, has been signed by 18 higher education institutions in Australia, including the University of Sydney. The joint statement aims to refocus priorities amidst COVID-19 and hold signatories accountable to their gender commitments. The commitment largely focuses on seeking equity representation of women in COVID-19 decision making, formally monitoring and reporting on gender equity impacts and KPIs, and finally, to maintain gender representation in senior levels and women in leadership positions throughout their careers.

The OECD Forum in partnership with the Forum Engagement Group members is launching a public discussion on how to maintain diversity and inclusion programmes in organisations in this particularly difficult time. We know that if we disinvest now, the impacts will be seen far into the future and that we will lose all of the progress that has been made.

The main points that came from the roundtable included:

  • In order to ‘build back better’ we must apply a gender lens to recovery, otherwise we will set back the progress made to date and disadvantage women,
  • We must provide role models and mentors so young girls and women can visualise a career in STEM,
  • We must move beyond simply looking at getting women ‘into the pipeline’ and also attend to the quality of women’s working lives in these male dominated contexts in order to nurture and retain talented women,
  • Leadership matters and ‘good practice acts like a magnet for talent,
  • We must measure and monitor progress to demonstrate the value of diversity in business,
  • We must act to ensure that diversity and inclusion is not seen as a luxury in times of crisis.

So, how do we continue to prioritise women in STEM by supporting Diversity & Inclusion programmes and protecting these budgets, across organisations?

Be a part of the conversationsign in to your Forum Network account and join the experts in answering these questions in the comments:

  1. What would you say are the biggest challenges for women at work right now due to or amplified by COVID?
  2. Do you think the current pandemic will encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM as these skills are so vital to address health and other key societal challenges? 
  3. In difficult times such as those we are facing now, should organisations spend resources on diversity and inclusion initiatives?
  4. How has your organisation  committed to maintaining your diversity & inclusion programmes?

We would also like to invite you to submit a 600-800 word blog that we will upload on the OECD Forum Network to keep the discussion going, and to encourage the OECD and all other stakeholders to mainstream gender and inclusion in the plans being made to “build back better” as our societies and economies consider how to be more resilient for the future. Please email your contributions to community.manager@oecd-forum.org.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Work Gender Equality Future of Education & Skills

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Willemien Bax

Head, OECD Forum, OECD

Willemien Bax is currently Head of the OECD Forum, the Organisation's largest annual public event. Ms Bax, a Dutch national, has over 20 years of experience in public affairs, working with governments, as well as non-governmental organisations and the private sector. Prior to joining the OECD, from 2001 to beginning 2010, Ms Bax worked with the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) as Deputy Director-General where she oversaw BEUC’s public affairs and media relations strategies in a number of public policy areas ranging from transparency and governance to food, environment, health, economic and legal affairs. In 2004, she initiated a training programme financed by the European Commission, for all consumer organisations in the EU, as well as potential EU-candidate countries. The training focused on giving consumer organisations the tools to develop effective public affairs and communication strategies. In 2009, in her capacity as European Chair of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, she contributed to debates on major international public policy issues such as financial regulation, innovation and energy efficiency.

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