What is it about?

There is an ongoing debate about whether gender equality in education has been achieved or not. However, there is not systematic research on gender differences in higher education, and few studies refer to distance education. We observe that adult outcomes differ from young outcomes in higher education and gender equality is far from achieved. This article presents a gender analysis of educational outcomes in economics at Spain’s leading distance university, UNED, which is also the largest university in the European Union in terms of enrolment. The COVID-19 lockdowns provided a social experiment where structural conditions were changed for men and women. This helps to understands the probable causes of changes in gender gap found. Before and after, women underperformed significantly in terms of passing and scoring, especially among those between 30 and 45 years of age, who are more likely to have young children. Both the distribution of family tasks biased against women and the higher average age of distance learning university students can explain that gender gaps are greater in nonface-to-face education. During the COVID-19 hard lockdown period the gender gap narrowed, as some men and women staying at home together were able to improve task sharing capabilities. After the lockdown, however, women’s results worsened compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. They continued performing the same family duties in addition to substituting education and caring services (e.g., nurseries and day centres for the elderly) that did not resume activity immediately or continuously, while men come back to regular work out home.

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Why is it important?

The degree of sharing care and household responsibilities and tasks between men and women impact on all the activities in adult life. Thus, how men and women share care also impacts on higher education outcomes, equally as it impacts on their labour market position or the presence and conditions in fields as politics, social life or leisure. COVID19 lockdowns provided a social experiment. And data shows that if people don´t have access to educational and care services, there is a negative gender impact. When men are more present at home, they get more involved in home activities and this has a positive gender impact. Women assume most care and households which are not cover by other agents: men, public sector or organisations. This evidence provided by high education field gives relevant insights for public policies in general. Structural changes which affect how care is sharing in society has gender impacts across spheres of adults, no matter that they were unforeseen, as this case is. COVID19 hard and soft lockdowns changed structural conditions and men and women behaviours changed rapidly in one and other sense.


We found results we were not looking for. Gender equality in education is more advanced than in other fields. However, as UNED students are mainly adults, we found the same core problem: how men and women deal with care impact on the rest of their responsibilities. Until men get involved into care on a massive scale and similarly to women, there will be no equality in adult education, just as there is no equality in the labour market. We expected to find that online exams improved results, but once people could move again, the improvement in results was not maintained although exams kept online for a while. We were looking for educational causes, related to changes we made to adapt to COVID-19 conditions but we found more structural causes: the gender division of work impacts everywhere.

Cristina Castellanos Serrano
Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia

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This page is a summary of: What is behind the gender gap in economics distance education: Age, work-life balance and COVID-19, PLoS ONE, August 2022, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0272341.
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