Woman in lab

[Image: Getty Images]

The early lockdowns and continued restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many academic and research scientists to work from home, at the same time that schools and child-care facilities have closed or scaled back hours to stem the spread of the coronavirus. That has loaded a raft of new daily care and education responsibilities on many scientists already struggling remain productive away from the lab.

Since fairly early in the pandemic period, anecdotal evidence has suggested that the harmful career impacts of this sudden chaos haven’t been equally distributed—with the practical career damage falling disproportionately on women and on households with very young children. Now, a study based on a preliminary survey of U.S. faculty in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) has put some academic flesh on those bones (J. Women’s Health, doi: 10.1089/jwh.2020.8710).

The study’s findings reveal in particular that one key determinant of career success—academic productivity, as measured in activities like journal article or grant submissions and peer review—significantly declined for women relative to the same measures for men in the first few months of pandemic stay-at-home orders. The authors argue that, if further research confirms their early findings, academic institutions, tenure committees and funding agencies must take these divergent effects of the pandemic into account in their future decisions.

Highlighting academic productivity

The survey—conducted by scientists at three medical colleges in the United States—involved a sample of 284 individual STEMM faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities. Two thirds of the respondents were women. More than 86% of the respondents reported that they were married or lived with a partner, and 57% of the respondents had children younger than 18 years of age living at home.

In the survey, the respondents were asked a range of questions touching on how their work and academic productivity had changed in the first two months of pandemic stay-at-home orders (mid-March to mid-May), versus the two months previous to the orders. The inquiries touched on the number of hours worked, as well as how many times the respondents had served as a journal article peer reviewer or on a funding panel, submitted a new paper as a first, corresponding or senior author or as a coauthor, or submitted a research grant application. And, for households with children, the survey attempted to get information on how the lockdown-induced shifts in child-care responsibilities were being handled—and by whom.

Lockdowns worsened existing gender inequities

The researchers observe that, even before the pandemic, other research had found that married women, even “among high-achieving STEMM faculty,” took on a disproportionate share of household work and child care relative to their male spouses or partners, and that gender inequities “have already long been observed in STEMM fields.” The preliminary survey results suggest that the pandemic has aggravated those patterns.

While the study found “no significant difference” in the weekly hours that respondents reported they were working between men (45.8 hours) and women (43.1 hours), several measures of women’s academic productivity significantly deteriorated in the early pandemic months. Women’s submission of academic manuscripts as first/corresponding author or coauthor, for example, decreased notably during the period—even as the showing of men in these productivity metrics held steady or even slightly increased during the same period. (Interestingly, for both men and women, the data showed a slight increase in research grant applications during the early pandemic months, though the increases weren’t statistically significant.)

The child-care factor

The study also found that, for the 162 respondents with children living at home, women reported spending 77.6% of their time on child care, versus 61.3% of time spent on child care by male respondents. And, irrespective of gender, the pandemic particularly hammered productivity of individuals with very young children (five years old or younger). Perhaps not surprisingly, parents of such children reported working some 15 fewer hours per week than other cohorts in the study, with severe consequent declines in article submissions, peer review activity, funding-panel participation and grant submissions.

Putting the survey findings together, the study authors write that the data “indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic may be exacerbating preexisting gender inequities in STEMM fields.” And the researchers suggest that the broad patterns in the survey suggest that careers of women with young children in the house could be particularly vulnerable, given that the pandemic seems to have only heightened already apparent gender inequities in how child care is divvied up in such households.

Supporting the pipeline

That’s important, the study’s authors argue, because the prime human reproductive years tend to overlap with the key early-career stage for STEMM professionals—and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women with young children could make them more vulnerable to dropping out of the academic pipeline. This hazard, the authors suggest, “highlights the need for special consideration of parents with very young children, particularly women, in job applications, grant funding, and consideration in tenure and promotion.”

The research was conducted by Rebecca A. Krukowski, University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Reshma Jagsi, University of Michigan Medical School; and Michelle I. Cardel, University of Florida College of Medicine.