How has Covid affected mums in higher education?

How has Covid affected mothers in higher education? A new survey highlights the impact amid fears about the longer-term effects on women’s career progression.

Higher education, degree


Women working in the public sector – where they dominate – have had to keep going throughout the pandemic and in many cases their workload increased. What impact has that had on mums who tended to shoulder the majority of the childcare burden and how could it affect their careers? How has Covid affected mums in higher education?

The Durham University Mothers-and-Mothers-to-be Support Network (MAMS) carried out a nationwide survey of 2,888 mums in higher education which showed three quarters said their workload increased during the pandemic and 84% were having to work early, late or at weekends to keep up. This was at a time when many were also having to homeschool or look after children at home.

Although some university staff were considered critical workers with access to nursery and school places, this was by no means all and some parents were worried about sending their children as the virus spread, wraparound and specialist care was often not available and children were being sent home to isolate if they or another member of their bubble became infected.

The survey, which was conducted in March, found that 60% of mums said they did most or all of the childcare and 81% spoke of having their work interrupted by their children [this rose to 86% for mothers of children under 12]. The result was that 67% said their physical health had suffered while 85% said their mental health and wellbeing was negatively affected and a huge 90% said they felt almost constantly exhausted. Sixty per cent said the quality of their work dropped and 74% were unable to complete their work.   

When it came to support, while 69% felt their colleagues were supportive and 67% said their managers were understanding, just 40% said the same about senior managers. Only 18% said their workload had been adjusted due to their caring responsibilities. And when it came to the possible long term impact, 54% felt their career opportunities and milestones had been affected.

So what made a difference?

The survey found compassionate leadership, active communication and understanding as well as flexible working, a wider range of leave options for carers and specific actions such as meeting free Fridays all helped. 

The MAMS Network was set up in 2014 for mothers and expectant mothers so many of its members still have fairly young children. Michelle Dixon, Senior Business Development Manager in the Research and Innovation Services, who co-chairs the network, said: “We were looking at how we could support each other and we wanted to understand what it was like across the sector. We had our own experience and network, but we wanted to get more concrete data that we could use.” 

She says that employee networks that promote mutual dialogue can help to promote a change in attitudes and support for mums. 

Dr Fire Kovarovic, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Durham and one of the network’s organisers, says management needs to put more resources into addressing the potential impact of Covid and maternal barriers generally.

She fears that Covid will set mums back at least five years – research already shows that they face an uphill battle to catch up after career breaks and she thinks Covid will have a similar effect.

“We need to see commitment to help mums get back on track. Senior leaders tend to be older. Many have older children and perhaps they have forgotten what it was like. They can’t forget,” she adds.

By commitment she would like to see more than token events – what is needed is bigger projects, she says, and more consistent action throughout the year, rather than just for International Women’s Day. Meetings that relate to women need to be scheduled at times that are convenient for them. Senior leaders need to walk the talk and role model flexible working, she says.

Fire hopes that the survey will prompt action, given academics love data, but she says that sometimes the structures in academic can hold back progress. She states: “The structures tend to be very rigid and hierarchical. People work in semi-autonomous teams. That autonomy can be useful, but it can prevent institution-wide change taking place. People’s attitudes have changed, but institutional structures haven’t.” 

The way forward

Michelle admits that there have been some positives of Covid such as making caring more visible, but she says the stress of pressure over growing workloads due to responding to ever-changing guidance, Covid cases and online teaching and school expectations to go the extra mile was immense. She would like to see more attention paid to people’s workloads and to their individual circumstances plus more support for line managers.

The network is still looking at the data and is interested in exploring, for instance, any differences in women’s experience according to their job role and, for instance, whether they have disabilities or children with disabilities. Fire talks about the imbalance between professional support staff and academics.  Academics at her institution, for instance, were told that their research could go on the back burner during Covid with no repercussions, but the same was not true for professional services staff. Moreover, professional services staff haven’t tended to work as flexibly as academic staff, particularly to work remotely.

On the other hand, professional services staff get paid maternity cover [although Fire would like to see more of a handover period when staff return], while this is not automatically the case for researchers, meaning they feel under pressure to return early. 

Both Michelle and Fire agree that there needs to be a big focus on how Covid affects women’s career progression in the long term with universities keeping a close eye and using the emerging data as a call to action.

*For more information on the survey, visit

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