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How COVID-19 is exacerbating gender inequality in scientific research

Recent years have seen an encouraging increase in the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, both in senior academic positions and leading the publication of scientific research. However, the disproportionate domestic care responsibilities of women continue to undermine the drive towards professional gender equality. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating this, with women more likely than men to have to make career sacrifices to uphold caring responsibilities. An article in InsideHigherEd.com explores the latest data quantifying the adverse impact COVID-19 is having on women in science.

Dr Philippe Vincent-Lamarre and co-authors have quantified the COVID-19-related academic sacrifices of female scientists through an analysis of article submissions to preprint databases, published in Nature Index. The data are stark. As an example, female first-author submissions to medRxiv dropped from 36% in December 2019 to 20% in April 2020. In contrast, data from June and July 2020 show some normalisation of women’s submission rates back to the year average of around 31%. The authors note that male faculty are four times more likely to have a partner engaged in full domestic care than their female colleagues.

Kate Power, a research consultant who has published on the dramatic increase in women’s caring loads during the pandemic notes:

“There is a saying working mothers have: ‘You have to work like you don’t have children and parent like you don’t have a job.’ And that was before COVID-19.”

Journal-specific analyses, such as for JAMA Surgery, have also reported declines in first, last and corresponding author submissions by women compared with a year earlier, while submissions by men have increased. Across the myriad roles supporting academic publishing, including peer reviewers and invited contributors, journals have noted an increase in declined invitations or requests for deadline extensions for reasons related to the pandemic. One journal reported that the overwhelming majority of those specifically citing childcare responsibilities were women.

The concern is that, as well as exacerbating gender inequality, an under-representation of women in medical research publications risks excluding this important sector of society from contributing their interpretation and viewpoint on the data.

In terms of solutions, the call is very much for action from employers, academic institutions and funding agencies to develop processes that support women through this difficult period. Flexible working appears to be key, along with extending grant end dates for researchers and allowing for funding carryover into the next year. In short, a commitment to diversity and equality in scientific workplaces will require creative solutions that ensure women’s contributions are fairly recognised and they are not penalised for their responsibilities at home.

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Summary by Julianna Solomons PhD, CMPP from Aspire Scientific

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With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd


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