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COVID-19, gender, and science

4 June 2021

The pandemic has increased stress and decreased productivity in the sciences. Those impacts have fallen disproportionately on women.

Woman sitting in a home office
Photo courtesy of Laura McCullough

If you can’t get to the lab, what are you going to do? You might as well finish that paper. Since March 2020, more papers have been submitted to journals than in previous years, but the increase is higher for men than for women. An informal analysis of arXiv showed that men submitted 6.4% more papers from 15 March to 15 April 2020 than they did in the same period in 2019, whereas women submitted only 2.7% more. Likewise, a study investigating Elsevier journals found that “the first wave of the pandemic has created potentially cumulative advantages for men.” Fewer publications can impact tenure, promotion, and performance evaluations, especially if women are compared with predominantly male colleagues.

Lab closures, travel bans, and safety restrictions related to COVID-19 have meant serious losses in the time and ability to do science. The largest losses have been in the biological sciences, and the smallest losses in math and computer science. Physics is among the least disrupted disciplines, with around a 12% reduction in research time, although that number surely varies according to location, institution, and subfield. Being female adds 5% to the average loss, and having a child under 5 years old cuts an additional 17%. Previous research has pointed out the disparate career impact children have on men and women in STEM. Now add the impact of parenting during COVID.

As a physics professor who studies gender and science, I wanted to investigate how COVID-19 is uniquely affecting the careers of female scientists. From articles, reports, and my own experience, I find that women in science are likely to see their productivity drop more than men’s.

According to an NSF report, before the pandemic women earned about 20% of US physics degrees of all levels, and underrepresented people of color earned less than 7% of US physics PhDs. In 2013, just 118 of that year’s 6760 bachelor’s degrees in physics, or 1.7%, went to women who are Black, Hispanic, or Native American. Physics is among the least diverse of the sciences, surpassed only by engineering and computer science. What will things look like after the pandemic?

Stress and childcare

Much research has examined the pandemic’s effect in general, but little has focused specifically on STEM. A report published in March 2021 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is one of the few studies that examine the myriad ways the pandemic has disrupted the careers of women in academic science, engineering, and medicine, such as isolation from their network and collaborators.

Results of an October 2020 survey of female science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) faculty members about the effects of COVID-19 on their work. Credit: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, National Academies Press (2021)

Examining personal experiences can indicate how COVID has disrupted women in STEM professions. For me and many other people, the biggest effect of COVID-19 is probably stress (see Physics Today, March 2021, page 20). But individuals experience different levels of stress. Being female, single, younger, or living with multiple children are all predictors of higher pandemic stress. Moreover, women already tended to be more stressed at work than men.

One of the of biggest causes of stress is children. Childcare is one of the major disruptors of work and life during the pandemic. I have lost track of how many times I have heard someone observe, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have young kids right now.” Women typically assume primary childcare duties when school is canceled, and a recent paper reports that 42% of women with children have reduced their work hours compared with 30% of men with children. For scientists, loss of work hours often means loss of lab time.

Another source of stress is the blurred line between work and home. At the end of a normal workday, I walk home and hop in the hot tub to soak away the stress. Leaving campus and coming home separates my job from family life. But now that home and work are in the same place, separation is nearly impossible. Women are having a harder time than men balancing work and home duties during the pandemic. One study reported that at the end of a telecommuting day, dads feel less stressed than after a day at the workplace, whereas moms are more stressed, in large part because of the differences in housekeeping and caregiving duties.

Switching to working from home is a different experience for each person. For me the transition was comparatively gentle. I was on sabbatical leave when COVID-19 hit, and I had been working at home for 9 months already. My husband is an author and always works from home. For many others, the shift was huge. For us it was just Thursday.

Because of my sabbatical, I did not have the stress of instantly pivoting to online teaching in the spring of 2020. Online and hybrid teaching has been hard on teachers and on students. Students may be delaying courses, which delays graduation, and their grades may be lower. Typical summer research positions also may be unavailable. A report from the American Institute of Physics (publisher of Physics Today) notes that a lack of internships “is likely to have a disproportionate effect on demographic groups not well represented in physics.” Without internships and with fewer hands-on lab experiences or undergraduate research opportunities, women and students from other underrepresented groups are at a distinct disadvantage.

But not all the news is bad. Female undergraduates got at least one benefit from the pandemic: The Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics went virtual and thus became accessible to more people. CUWiPs are normally regional, but this year they expanded not just nationally but internationally with students registered from 17 countries. In my sessions I had young women from Mexico and Turkey. That international representation made for broader and more varied discussions.

Virtual conferences can benefit many women. I was able to present at a European conference that I never would have been able to afford had it been in person. Parents with childcare duties often have trouble attending conferences because the extra costs and uncertain childcare make it difficult. Given that women are more likely to handle the majority of childcare duties, those considerations affect women more. So the prevalence of virtual conferences should be a boon for women.

Moving forward

What are the possible gendered effects of COVID-19 on scientists? Collectively, the data suggest that the pandemic will likely have a serious impact on women’s productivity, which could in turn affect the employment options of early-career researchers, tenure and promotion for academics, performance evaluations and raises for lab scientists, and awards and recognition for everyone. Mothers of young and school-age children will experience those effects more.

Another worrisome factor is the period of extended stress due to COVID-19 and the racial reckoning in the US. During times of intense stress, decision making is compromised, and people have been shown to revert to shortcuts, which accentuate bias. Implicit or unconscious bias in hiring and evaluating can create additional barriers for members of underrepresented groups. However, it is during stressful times that thoughtful decisions are most needed. Departments, managers, and administrators can make equitable and fair tenure and promotion decisions by waiving teaching evaluations during the pandemic, recognizing each person’s specific work and family situation, and crafting a data-driven plan that combats the differential impact of the pandemic.

Decades of research have shown that women and men are treated differently in science. I have spent 25 years studying the topic. I am occasionally asked, “Don’t you get depressed that this is still such an issue?” My answer is always no. I look back and see how far we have come, and I look forward and know we will keep changing and improving how welcoming science is for those who aren’t men, or white, or straight, or cis, or . . . Institutions and individuals should use the pandemic to develop solutions to the problems in the STEM community, and those solutions will help make physics more inclusive and stronger in the future.

Laura McCullough is professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Stout.

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