Shutdowns and social-distancing measures aimed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionately harmed the careers and well-being of US female academic researchers, finds a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
The survey drew more than 700 respondents, including students, postdocs and faculty members, and the results were released this month. It found that the pandemic had negatively affected female scientists’ work–life balance, productivity and mental health. During lockdowns last year, the report says, women tended to bear the brunt of family responsibilities, such as caring for children whose schools had closed and for older relatives who could no longer safely live in care homes.
“The bottom line is, if anything happens that has a negative impact on academia, it’s going to have an outsized impact on women,” says Sherry Marts, a career coach and consultant in Washington DC. “The one possible silver lining is that the pandemic is bringing these issues into focus.”
The study built on a landmark 2020 NASEM report, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which suggested measures to increase equality and advance women in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM). This report found that female academic scientists could benefit if universities instituted measures such as extending grants and increasing the amount of time allotted for earning tenure — strategies that allow women more time for family responsibilities without sacrificing their careers.
But that report’s findings didn’t account for the vastly increased childcare responsibilities that arose as schools shut down during the pandemic — at the time of writing, many US schools remain closed or only partially open. Nor did it account for difficulties such as conducting research from home or collaborating on papers remotely. In October, the NASEM team, led by Eve Higginbotham at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, sent out surveys to women working in academic STEM, asking about their challenges, care responsibilities and coping strategies during the previous six months.
The March report found that women were negatively affected by complications as a result of the pandemic. Of those who responded, 28% reported an increased workload, and 25% reported decreased productivity. Two-thirds reported negative impacts on their personal well-being, including their mental and physical health.
A study of academic publishing in Earth sciences presented at the American Geophysical Union 2020 meeting in December had suggested that female researchers’ productivity in Earth and space sciences had not declined over the past year, and that virtual conferences allowed more women to attend them. But the March NASEM study found that women reported difficulty contributing to virtual conferences because of distractions in the home, and because of poor behaviour from male attendees, such as interrupting female speakers. And 10% of women reported having less time for work. NASEM cited publications that found similar trends, including one reporting that the proportion of female first authors of COVID-19 papers was lower than would be expected1. Furthermore, the March report finds that, over the past year, institutions eliminated a number of non-tenured faculty and staff-member positions, which are more likely than other positions to be occupied by women and people of colour.
NASEM reported that the pandemic’s effects varied across disciplines: lab-based scientists were unable to continue research, whereas scientists in fields such as computational biology and computer science were better able to work remotely. But across the board, female researchers found it challenging to care for and oversee children at home and deal with other family responsibilities while working. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents reported increased childcare demands, and nearly half felt challenged by the accessibility and affordability of childcare.
NASEM committee member Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that even institutions that had been making considerable efforts to increase women’s representation struggled in the face of the pandemic. “The whole world turned upside down pretty much overnight, so those challenges made us revert to a style of decision-making that may not embrace best practices of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion,” she says.
Mary Blair-Loy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, says that the report corroborates anecdotal evidence that even in households in which working parents share childcare responsibilities, parents who identify as female are more likely to face expectations to take over when difficulties arise.
Marts adds that the report emphasizes how difficult it can be for women to set boundaries between work and home responsibilities. She says that academia tends to value the ‘ideal worker’ who is available at all times — an idea that works against women. Virtual meetings also make it difficult for women to conceal how much work they do at home, particularly if they’re being interrupted by children. “We’ve got to accept that people have lives and dirty laundry and kids and pets,” Marts says.
Compensation for time lost
Blair-Loy hopes that universities and research institutions will step up to compensate researchers, particularly women, for the research time lost during pandemic shutdowns. For instance, many academics — especially women with children at home — have had to divert time away from research and grant-writing to rework classes for online presentation. “They’re pushing off the thing they need the most to continue moving forward in their careers,” Blair-Loy says. Releasing academics from some teaching responsibilities and extending sabbaticals, she says, could help to get them back on track. “Our nation is dependent on women’s scientific minds, and we need to support and pay back some of this time they’ve spent helping our families,” she says.
Marts says that although many employers have realized that giving people the flexibility to work remotely increases productivity, academia tends to be particularly rigid. “I’m hopeful this will prod people to make deep changes to the culture,” she says.
Right now, Jagsi says, the NASEM committee doesn’t have enough evidence to make any specific policy recommendations to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on female academics. She was especially disappointed that there was so little information available on the experiences of women of colour.
But the report did suggest that institutions begin to evaluate possible solutions in light of COVID-19. “Absolutely we shouldn’t be sitting on our hands, but there are a number of things that might work but might also have unexpected consequences,” Jagsi says. For instance, the NASEM’s 2020 report found that extending the amount of time allotted for earning tenure helped men more than it did women. “We need to take time with a careful eye to evaluate the impact on all areas,” she says.