/ 13 April 2020

Covid-19 lockdown: How are women in higher education coping with work at home?

Graphic Edu Virus2 Twitter
The fact that women, even under normal circumstances, multitask as teachers, cooks, cleaners and more has been rendered even more vivid by the lockdown. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


Women bear the brunt of any crisis, so it is important to understand how women in higher education are balancing work and their personal life during lockdown aimed at decreasing the spread of Covid-19. 

The Higher Education Resource Service – South Africa is aware that universities had to find ways to deal with the uncharted territory created by Covid-19. This meant rethinking organisational plans and processes, including graduations, ways of working from home, online learning and assessment as well as supervision of postgraduate students.

Even before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the 21-day lockdown on March 23, many universities were already exploring ways of working and learning from home as an intervention to minimise the spread of the virus.

Under normal circumstances, working from home can be a dream come true, but it is a nightmare when support systems such as childcare, schooling, domestic help and take-away food are not available because of the lockdown. When these responsibilities are not taken care of by the usual support systems, someone must assume responsibility. For the most part, it is women who are left with the responsibility of caregiving, not just for children, but also for adults. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that women around the world spend two to 10 times more time on unpaid care work than men, something that perpetuates gender inequality. What then, are the unintended effects of Covid-19 on women working in higher education?

Employees, worldwide, are anxious and not sure what the future holds. The effects of this turmoil on them include financial, psychological, physical and relational challenges. For women in general, there is the added reality of gender-based violence at the hands of partners and strangers. We have seen in the news the reports on gender-based violence during the Covid-19 lockdown.

 In times of crisis leaders are under pressure to make courageous and, at times, unpopular decisions, sometimes with limited information. The additional pressure for women leaders is the unrelenting societal expectation that they be nurturers. The hard decisions that women leaders make during crises are thus likely to be subjected to much sharper scrutiny than those made by men. Where colleagues are ill, other colleagues are expected to do their work, and women are more likely to find it difficult to say no. An additional consideration here, especially for women, is the likelihood of workplace bullying and other forms of harassment.

The inequalities regarding access to technology, data and even space needs to be taken into consideration. It is commendable that some universities are exploring, if not already using reverse charging of data, instead of the cost being incurred by employees. The attitude of most leaders is an expectation of 9 to 5 work delivery. We also need to consider staff members with disabilities. Thus far, few have access to unlimited Wi-Fi at home. It is important that leaders be mindful of the privilege of access.

 What can be done?

During times of crisis there is a lot of fear and anxiety and employees are at their most vulnerable. Rather over-communicate than under-communicate. Make sure that the team knows what is expected from them. Set the rules on the best media to use for communication. This includes emails, WhatsApp and other platforms. Discourage “sending to all or copying people” if the information is not relevant to everyone. WhatsApp messages can be saved to email as evidence of communication. Discourage chain messages. Encourage your employees by reminding them that this, too, shall pass. Find ways to allow them to give feedback on what is working and not working.

Research has found that the use of technology for work contributes to job-overload, hence it is important for leaders to revisit their employees’ work activities. Some work may need more priority; it only makes sense to focus energy on urgent matters. Identify priority areas and provide guidelines on other work responsibilities. This is important especially if performance management is a determining factor for ones’ salary increase and promotion. It might be needed that certain rules are relaxed because the uncharted territory we find ourselves in requires different forms of evaluation.

 Being at home does not mean being available from 9 to 5. It might do good to have a one-on-one conversation with the employees on their realities and establish new norms of working. This could mean agreeing on check-in and check-out times. During uncertain times employees want information to calm their fears, which means they constantly check emails, WhatsApp, websites and social media. These are “time stealers”. Allow each staff member to decide on a day when they are not going to be contacted, but allowed to do what needs to be done at home. Get groceries and other amenities — but, importantly, to restore and reconnect with self. When employees are at ease and they become more productive.

It is commendable that most universities have created wellness hotlines and it is important for leaders to encourage staff members to use these services. It is important that as leaders assign work they take seriously the unique challenges faced by women during the current crisis. Employees are loyal to bosses that take care of them, especially during times of crisis. It cannot be university as usual.

 Brightness Mangolothi is the director of the Higher Education Resource Service – South Africa