Published On February 25, 2022
Women in medical research careers often have a rougher climb than their male counterparts. The pandemic didn’t make that any easier. While the overall production of research jumped during the early pandemic—submissions to medical journals rose for both men and women—that increase was about twice as high for early-career men as it was for early-career women. Female scientists were also less likely to begin new research projects, according to an October 2021 study in Nature Communications.
Where does that productivity gap come from? An unfair burden of child care is likely to top the list, but it’s not the only reason. While all researchers are trying to regain their footing from COVID disruptions, the career effects on women scientists appear to be more severe and likely to last for years to come.
Demographics paint one grim part of the picture. An NIH study found most early-career scientists reporting major negative impacts on their careers over the past two years. Statistically, female researchers are more likely to be in the early stages of their careers. While women earn about half of science PhDs in the United States, they represent only about a fifth of full professors at R1 (research intensive) universities. Older generations, more heavily male, have been partially able to rely on tenure or other supports to weather the pandemic storm.
But even those more advanced in their careers have reported disillusionment. A survey of faculty at Stanford found that more than 30 percent of female faculty said they were more likely to leave than they had been prior to the pandemic. Female researchers are also frustrated because of lost job offers or lost opportunities to gather data for grant applications. Workloads have increased while work-life balance has eroded, and many women perceive a lack of institutional support.
If anything, the problem is worse at the graduate student level, where women are also more strongly represented compared to the tenured science community. Kathleen Grogan, a genomics researcher and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, worries about the students whose research has been disrupted. They are often given a set number of years of funding, and covering the gap for COVID disruptions has been left to individual advisors. Not all of them have been helpful. “Some grad students have advisors who expected them to move ahead despite the pandemic and despite labs being shut down. Those students will be leaving.”
Institutions can also be guilty of a lack of emotional and institutional support for these students. “We always burn through grad students like they’re disposable labor,” says Grogan, “and we are really treating them that way right now.”
Mental health and burnout have both been major issues for researchers during the pandemic. On this metric, women also seem to fare worse. According to an NIH survey, female researchers were more likely to report that their mental health had suffered due to societal or political events during the pandemic, and more likely to report that their physical or mental health had reduced their productivity.
Some of this strain may be due to the hugely increased childcare burden many women suddenly faced. Disruptions to schools and daycares meant that someone in the household needed to care for young children—most of the time, this task fell upon women. A survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that 90 percent of female faculty were responsible for the majority of schooling and childcare duties.
For Genevieve Wojcik, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, being a mother during work hours has been trying. Her research is computational, so in theory, she should be able to continue her research despite lab shutdowns. She simply does not have enough time, she says. With two children under five years old, Wojcik has not had a solid month of full-time childcare since before the pandemic began. “In the time you can cobble together for work, you’re in survival mode,” she says. “You work on the things that have deadlines, which tend to be more administrative tasks, service-oriented tasks, teaching tasks. It’s not really your research at that point. I go through the five stages of grief about it every few months.”
For many—especially early career researchers—finding help with childcare is compounded by the fact that scientists often must move far from home for graduate school, postdoc, and assistant professor positions. In that migration they lose the networks that might help them shoulder the burdens of childcare. “Academia demands that you basically destroy your support system every few years,” says Wojcik, “and then you get penalized for not having it when it matters.”
Caregiving roles also change the relationships to risk that female researchers must face on the job. Felicia Jefferson, an associate professor at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, co-authored a National Academies reporton women researchers during the pandemic and notes that many universities required in-person teaching without implementing vaccine or continued mask mandates. This put many faculty caregivers—the majority of whom were female—in the impossible position of choosing between their jobs or risking bringing Covid home to children or elderly parents who were in their care.
Institutions have been uneven in supporting women through the current crisis. According to an NIH survey in 2020, only 42% of female researchers reported that their institutions provided ways to help them remain productive during the pandemic. One tool many universities have put forward is to add one year to the tenure clock—the period that is closely scrutinized for research contributions. “Stopping the clock” can also be used by new parents or people who become primary caregivers for another family member.
Many question—as we enter the third year of the pandemic—whether a one-year extension is enough. Others question whether these sorts of extensions are actually beneficial for women. A 2016 study found that this pause increased tenure rates for men by about 20%, but decreased tenure rates for women by a greater amount.
Several groups have published recommendations for how universities and funding agencies can support women during the pandemic. Some recommendations include providing more administrative and financial support for mothers of younger children, providing more mentorship, and increasing flexibility of funding and research timelines.
How many of these recommendations are being followed and by which institutions are not yet clear.
The effects of the pandemic do not bode well for an equitable future in scientific research. Wojcik and many others are deeply concerned about the pandemic widening disparities in research that have only just begun to improve. “We’ve made progress over the last couple of decades on representation for women,” she says, “but now we’re backsliding. Under the rules of this pandemic, we just can’t compete.
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