It’s time to change the narrative: Women in COVID-19, science, and academia

Written by Joannie Marlene Bewa, M.D., MPH, CPH and Roopa Dhatt, M.D., MPA on February 11, 2021

This year, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science will focus on female scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.

Barriers and challenges for women in science existed long before the pandemic but are now in the spotlight due to increasing social and professional inequities — especially in academia, vaccine research and development, and COVID-19 response decision-making.

Women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with even lower representation in its leadership, while less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Over the years, these numbers have refused to change, and women remain underrepresented despite the increasing number of female graduates in these fields.

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Numerous studies have revealed that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research, and do not progress as far as men in their careers, with the gap only worsening since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 heightens challenges for women in science

Lockdowns implemented around the world left female academics and scientists with increased responsibilities in caring for children, older relatives, and ailing family members. Many women also faced increased domestic responsibilities as “work” and “home” became inseparable spaces.

Stemming from social inequities and expectations — and the fact that men in academia are four times more likely to have a partner engaged in full-time domestic care than their female colleagues — this led to women falling further behind than their male counterparts at work, and it lowered their ability to be productive.

Research in Nature suggests that although women have authored about 20% of working papers since 2015, they make up only 12% of the authors of COVID-19-related research.

Also, the proportion of papers with women as first authors was 19% less in 2020 than it was in 2019.

Women’s increased care responsibilities have not only led to a reduction in scholarly production but also prevented them from leadership positions and institutional decision-making, thereby expanding inequity gaps in science and academia.

These challenges are then compounded for women of color, women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), women with disabilities, and women belonging to other marginalized groups, who all face additional unique challenges to equality in science and academia.

For example, only 0.5% of full professors in medical schools in the United States are Black women, while women overall make up 22%.

Women-led research is critical as it contributes to revealing significant gaps or differences in policy and program implications through a gender-conscious lens. For example, the predominantly women-led research on speech analysis of heads of states and COVID-19 unveiled significant differences in the way men and women talk about the pandemic.

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