COVID-19 and the Impact on STEM

As the world adapts to life and work in our era of COVID-19, it only makes sense that the virus would impact those working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Companies large and small have responded to COVID-19 by rapidly moving their employees off-site. Suddenly, workers used to a 9-to-5 office job were scrambling to set up a home office and adjust to life in quarantine.

For many, the ability to work from home was a dream come true; for others, it was quite the opposite. Recent surveys have revealed that while many workers have appreciated the flexibility to work remotely, others are struggling to make the transition financially and professionally. From how STEM workers interact with their co-workers, to the financial impact of going remote, how are STEM workers faring in our new reality?

The Main-Stream Move to Remote

There is a strong possibility that we may never return to a pre-COVID, office-centric work environment, which may be good news for STEM employers and employees. Companies are discovering that their fears about remote work were overblown and that employees are more productive without the hassle and expense of commuting, buying work wardrobes, and endless business travel. According to a recent survey, 67 percent of global office workers and 82 percent of U.S. office workers say they want to continue to work from home once the pandemic is over. Even more significant? A full 16 percent don’t want to come back to the office at all.

For companies looking to attract STEM talent, COVID-19 is providing an opportunity to leverage remote work to interest candidates that might not have been available even a few months ago. Bill Gates said it best, “The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge in this area.” Your business might have only gone remote in response to COVID-19, but that remote option makes this a great time to seek out STEM talent that would not have been interested in full-time, in-office work.

Women in STEM are Struggling

The news, however, is not all good. Researchers have been keeping a close eye on women in STEM, and early research shows that the pandemic could have more long-term negative implications for women than men. While the impact of the virus continues to unfold in real-time, the reasons for this struggle aren’t hard to surmise. Women historically bear a disproportionate amount of household duties and childcare, even in the best of times. Add the stress of school closings and remote work, and women who are already doing too much find themselves having to add school teacher and housekeeper to their already lengthy to-do lists.  

Worker classification and tenure are also having a negative effect. Research shows that women in STEM are 50 percent more likely than men to hold short-term contract positions, which are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19-related layoffs. Entry-level workers are also more likely to be laid off, and since the next generation of female leaders are still working their way up the ladder, many of the safer, senior-level positions are currently occupied by men.2

So how does this impact women in the real world? Before COVID-19, women and men were publishing similar amounts of STEM research. During the pandemic, women’s publication rates have dropped. In contrast, men’s have increased.2 Given the importance of research in advancing STEM careers, the reasons for this decline in publishing are worth noting – and keeping an eye on. Should the trend continue beyond the pandemic, it could undo years of positive forward movement to level the playing field for women in STEM.

To combat the adverse effects of COVID-19 on women in STEM, organizations will need to take a hard look at how their workforce is performing. Counteracting these imbalances will mean taking proactive steps to reengage workers whose professional development might have been knocked off course by COVID-19.

The Cost of Going Remote

Socioeconomically, the news isn’t much better. COVID-19 is highlighting the technology gap that already existed between high and low-income families, and the rush to remote work is exacerbating the divide. Most people (54 percent) didn’t have a remote work setup before government recommendations to restrict nonessential gatherings, according to a survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA TODAY and LinkedIn. Given that 74 percent of professionals age 18 to 74 have reported that they are now working from home, it is easy to see that left many workers scrambling to create a home office to continue to work.

Given the expense that goes into it, establishing a home office can be an economic hardship that has yet to be addressed. Access to the internet is costly, as are the tools you need to take advantage of the employment realities of a workplace that has rapidly shifted online. Employees are being asked to dedicate part of their private space to work, which requires purchasing office furniture, equipment, and other office equipment. Costs for a basic office set up can cost hundreds of dollars and when added to the cost of internet and other necessary services, can easily represent a significant financial burden for affected workers.4

There is no doubt that our current crisis will have an impact on how we live and work going forward. Organizations must maximize the potential positives and minimize the negatives for their workforce. This can be as simple as connecting with workers to make sure they have the tools to be successful, or as complicated as providing additional opportunities for workers to excel in new and creative ways.

Want to explore adding remote STEM workers to your workforce? Need to give your STEM career a boost in uncertain times? AllSTEM Connections can help! For more information, please visit our website at allstemconnections.com.  

1 Iometrics/Global Workplace Analytics, Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey, Dr. Anita Kamouri, Kate Lister, https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/global-work-from-home-experience-survey

2 Rapid Research Information Forum, The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce, May 17, 2020

3 Home offices are expensive: Study says most people didn’t have one before coronavirus, USA Today, Dalvin Brown, May 18, 2020

4 The Conversation, Remote work: Employers are taking over our living spaces and passing on costs,

5 Richard Shearmur, Professor, McGill School of Urban Planning, McGill University, June 18, 2020

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