The Cascading Impact of COVID-19 on Women in International Education

Posted: Tuesday, May 5, 2021
By: Subgroup of 2020-2021 Career Advancement & Belonging Task Force

McKenna Hughes (she/her/hers) - Global Education Advisor, Chapman University
Randeep Kullar (she/her/hers) - Career Services Manager, UC Berkeley
Anna Hayes (she/her/hers) - Associate Director of Global Programs, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Daniella Lubey (she/her/hers) - Study Abroad Advisor, University of San Francisco

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, women working in international education, especially those pursuing leadership roles, faced challenges in the workforce different from their male colleagues. Biases, glass ceilings, and lack of mentorship or support networks were, and still are, barriers for women working in not just international education but in higher education and beyond. According to a 2017 report by the American Council on Education, only 30% of college presidents were women, and only 55% of Senior International Officers (SIOs) at colleges are women (AIEA, 2020), compared to 78% of women in international education overall.  

In an Occasional Paper written for AIEA, Gaudette et al. (2018) conducted a survey of 449 women in leadership positions in international education from across the world. Participants felt there were advantages to being a woman in international education, such as being considered more approachable, which allowed them to “more easily break cultural barriers or establish contacts with students, staff, other colleagues” (Gaudette et al., 2018, 12). However, Gaudette et al. also noted that women in international education often feel dominated by men in their roles (2018). Participants expressed they were often the only woman in the room and easily dismissed or perceived as incapable (Gaudette et al., 2018). Friedman’s (2020) study echoed these findings. Through qualitative interviews, women indicated they all experienced challenges in the workforce - from systemic barriers with mostly men holding and most likely to be promoted into top positions to microaggressions (Friedman, 2020). To combat these challenges, women use strategies such as utilizing a friendly but bold approach, aligning themselves with other women, as well as mentoring other women, displaying empathy, and developing negotiating skills to be influential leaders in international education (Friedman, 2020; Gaudette et al., 2018). 

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated/shed light on the challenges that women face in becoming successful in the workforce. This article will discuss the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in international education and how the field can move forward in supporting women to gain leadership roles and continue promoting inclusion and belonging in the workplace.

Impact of COVID-19 on Women

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the entire world, but its impact has not necessarily been experienced equally - this is especially true for women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the “total number of women who have left the labor force since February 2020 [in the U.S. is currently]...more than 2.3 million [which]...puts women’s labor force [participation] rate at 57%, the lowest it’s been since 1988...By comparison, 1.8 million men have left the labor force during this same time period” (Connley, 2021). This is predominantly because the most heavily impacted areas are those in which women are more concentrated, such as hospitality and healthcare. Women are also taking on the brunt of childcare and education needs brought on due to schools and daycares’ mandatory closures (Karageorge, 2020). This increase in responsibilities creates higher levels of burnout so that across all industries, senior-level women “are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19” (Coury et al, 2020). In addition to having to deal with existing systemic oppressions, “Black women, Latinas, Asian women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are facing distinct challenges'' as they tend to be overrepresented in the areas that were hit particularly hard (McKinsey & Company, 2020). This, of course, is on top of a general increase in mental health-related concerns, difficulty with physical health, and an increase in domestic violence that has occurred across the U.S. (Taub, 2020).

What does this mean in the context of higher education which, as of February 2021, has lost at least 65,000, or 1 in 8, workers (Bauman, 2021)? Like most other professions, as The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “The Staff Are Not Ok” (Bessette, 2021). These are the professionals who have had to do more with less while taking on the implementation of transition plans to remote learning and providing support for faculty and students. This is, of course, not taking into consideration personal commitments and trials that they have and are continuing to endure. Now, add the context of being a woman on top of this and consider the statistics discussed earlier. Like in other fields, women in higher education are also disproportionately pulling the double shift of their 9-5 along with supporting their families. 

Taking a deeper look into the international education sector of higher education, which took a severe hit by the pandemic and is predominantly composed of women, all of this paints a picture of what our field, in particular, is facing. Take the team writing this article as an example.Take the team writing this article as an example. All are women who have had to pivot in some way due to Covid, with some even moving out of international education completely. One colleague made the tough decision to give up the opportunity to participate in this Task Force so she could focus on balancing her familial and professional commitments. These are real stories, not just statistics. How are international education, higher education, and fields across the globe going to combat this decline of women in the workforce that has the potential to reverse progress made for equality not just for women but for individuals that come from a variety of intersecting backgrounds and abilities?

Women in Leadership

Women in leadership positions have a lasting impact on intersectional diversity, inclusion, and belonging in their organizations, which is desperately needed as we see women and people of color hit disproportionately hard by the effects of the pandemic. They are also at greater risk of disappearing from leadership roles in the field. For now, international education continues to face limitations and losses in the workforce that impact women harder than their male counterparts. Institutions and organizations in the field need to plan forward to ensure that they focus on the ground already lost by women in the field and make changes to recover those losses. 

If international education doesn’t prioritize diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace during this crisis, “the impact will be felt not just on the bottom line but in people’s lives” (Dixon-Fyle, Dolan, Hunt, & Prince, 2021). Losing women in leadership roles may also impact the advocacy efforts for inclusive and employee-friendly policies and practices in their organizations. When looking at who promotes broad diversity efforts in the workforce, “more than 50 percent of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with about 40 percent of senior-level men” (Coury et al., 2020). The Diversity Abroad 2020 Survey of Diversity and Inclusion Among International Educators found that respondents across race/ethnic identity generally felt a sense of belonging and ability to bring their whole selves to work (Diversity Abroad, 2020). However, if more women, and especially women with other underrepresented, intersecting identities, are pushed out of the field and out of leadership roles, this sense of belonging for those that remain may be at risk. 

The crisis at hand makes it more critical than ever for women to continue pushing for leadership positions in the field to make up for the losses suffered in the last year. Women in leadership who remain in international education need to continue to mentor and push for inclusive policies and practices in their organizations. Women leaders are more likely to lift other women and other underrepresented groups into leadership roles through mentorship and sponsorship than men, as we see with the statistic that “38 percent of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared with only 23 percent of senior-level men” (Coury et al., 2020). Those in power must continue to fight for inclusive policies and programs to support those most impacted by the pandemic which in turn will open organizations and offices up to greater innovation and adaptability to overcome the current challenges and position them better for the future.

Moving Forward

The pandemic has brought greater access to work by increasing work flexibility, remote capabilities and technology, and mental health services that can provide much-needed support for women in the field. Companies should expect to maintain these new work norms beyond the pandemic to continue supporting women and others who may often find themselves unable to access their necessary resources to work. By making “significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace...[companies] can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.” (Coury et al., 2020). Despite some positives, remote work may also erode inclusion in a workplace when disparities in internet access, privacy, and child- and family-care duties increase confusion and frustration (Dolan, Hunt, Prince, & Sancier-Sultan, 2020).

Access is not the only issue, however. Women are more likely to feel burnout and exhaustion, partly due to the additional hours spent doing housework and childcare and partly because “women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure” (Coury et al., 2020). To go beyond simple access, organizations need to also look at their performance evaluation structures, strengthen communication, continue bias training, and unequivocally support inclusive practices and policies.

Despite the heavy toll the pandemic has brought, there is still an opportunity for the international education field to support and grow women leaders. Building inclusive and empathetic policies will help bolster a diverse workforce and will both retain women leaders now and foster an adaptable, innovative company in the long-term. It is critical that the field does not lose ground on the percentage of leadership roles filled with women because “if women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions” (Coury et al., 2020).


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