Social distancing and working from home during COVID-19 seems like it should mean that scientists are churning out grants and papers with unprecedented speed, right? Wrong. Or at least a false perception for a particular group of scientists: women. Studies have shown that female scientists are publishing less and starting fewer new research projects during the pandemic than their male counterparts. 

An analysis of published preprints on bioRxiv and arXiv by Megan Frederickson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, found that the number of male authors has grown more than that of female authors when compared to this same period last year. In March and April this year, women’s submission rate was lower than the previous two months and those same months in 2019. While Frederickson’s analysis is limited by the possibility of misgendering and excluding non-binary people, she believes that the data from this large sample size still reveals the overall gender disparities that are present in academia and being highlighted by COVID-19. An analysis of registered-report repositories by Cassidy Sugimoto, an information scientist at Indiana University Bloomington, also found that a smaller portion of research projects are being registered by women faculty than before the pandemic. The disparities in submission rates are likely due to the increased childcare and teaching responsibilities that female faculty have faced during the pandemic. Women often have higher teaching loads than their male counterparts  and are more likely to be approached by students seeking counseling or mentoring. With students experiencing high stress levels and with the transition to online teaching, these responsibilities have become even more time consuming. Additionally, women of color are often expected to take part in diversity and inclusion efforts through service and mentorship. Although these service duties are expected, they are not valued as highly as research when considering tenure and promotion. In families struggling with childcare, homeschooling, or distance learning during the pandemic, the bulk of this responsibility has continued to fall on women.

Some have theorized that having both parents working from home may lead to strides in cultural expectations and equality in parenting, but the data collected thus far has suggested that the pandemic is only enforcing typical gender roles in opposite-sex couples. 

Even before the pandemic, gender disparities in childcare and household duties were prevalent. Men in academia makeup 86% of faculty with a stay-at-home partner, while women are more likely to have a partner who is also an academic. In dual-academic households, the brunt of childcare and household labor falls on women. Although men have increased their role in domestic duties in recent years, men and women often have very different perceptions of how evenly the work is being split, and this has only been enhanced by the pandemic. A survey conducted on 2,200 Americans in April revealed that almost half of men believe they do most of the homeschooling, while only three percent of the women surveyed agreed. Some have theorized that having both parents working from home may lead to strides in cultural expectations and equality in parenting, but the data collected thus far has suggested that the pandemic is only enforcing typical gender roles in opposite-sex couples. 

You probably know by now that this global pandemic is highlighting inequalities in healthcare and the workforce, and for the scientific community in particular it is serving to bring gender and racial inequalities to the foreground. This disparity in domestic, teaching, and mentoring responsibilities enhanced by COVID-19 has led to concern about the long-term implications for women’s scientific careers and diversity in academia, particularly when women must be 2.5 times as productive to be considered equally competent as men in grant applications. The potential risk to science diversity comes at a time when these issues are being highlighted and many researchers and institutions are pledging to address racism and sexism that has continued to prevail

The potential risk to science diversity comes at a time when these issues are being highlighted and many researchers and institutions are pledging to address racism and sexism that has continued to prevail.

Beyond the scientific community, this disparity has implications in research and decision-making surrounding the pandemic. An analysis of authors of papers in 13 medical journals found that the proportion of women authors on COVID papers is lower than that for all 2019 medical studies that were published. Studies have shown that data is more likely to be broken down by gender and sex when women are involved in medical research. The relationship among gender and gender roles, sex, and disease is something that we have yet to fully understand, and with men 50% more likely to die from COVID-19, excluding this data from public reports could affect how we understand the virus. The exclusion of science diversity from the decision-making process could have consequences for public health as well. A blog post in Times Higher Education was written by female scientists from coronavirus research and policy concerned about the public health consultation with men who are non-experts in the field for decision-making regarding this health emergency.

Gender and racial inequalities have always been prevalent in the scientific community, but the pandemic has made these differences more pronounced, particularly evident in the productivity divide and the exclusion of women from public health discussions. An opinion article in PNAS urged higher education to research the inequalities that COVID-19 has presented in the research productivity of faculty and develop strategic action plans to address this, while also being more proactive about gender and racial bias in the future. While this is certainly a start to the immediate problems that the pandemic has exacerbated, academia and the scientific community at large will have to address the underlying inequalities that were already present. Perhaps the most poignant sentiment comes from female scientists working on COVID-19 who have encountered patriarchal barriers throughout their careers and are now only seeing those barriers grow: “We wish that we could now focus on fighting COVID-19.”

Peer edited by Chiung-Wei Huang

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