Researchers warn of COVID-19’s outsized impact on women in science

Lindsay Borthwick
July 15, 2020

As the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian women becomes clearer, women in academic research are proving to be no exception. Emerging evidence suggests a dramatic decline in research productivity among female researchers globally, especially those early in their careers who are more likely than their peers to have been juggling homeschooling and other parenting duties since the lockdowns began. Academic researchers are sounding the alarm—and calling for swift action. 

“The pandemic is erasing a decade of gender equity, at least in scholarly publications,” said Dr. Vincent Larivière (PhD), a professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Montreal, who led one of several recent studies on the impact of COVID-19 on the scientific workforce. Research institutions need to adopt progressive policies “to make sure that the post-COVID landing is as close to where we were before” and doesn’t permanently erase the gender equity gains that have been made in recent years, Larivière said in an interview with Research Money.

Dr. Ivy Bourgeault (PhD), University Research Chair in Gender, Diversity and the Professions at the University of Ottawa, is leading a loose consortium of experts who have come together in response to the “cacophony of anecdotal evidence” about COVID-19 and its impact on women, including women in science. In an interview, she said that while the impact of the current research disruption on a researcher’s career is hard to predict, there will be an echo far into the future that will require research leaders and policymakers to rethink how they evaluate excellence among applicants to graduate school and post-doctoral fellowships, and those seeking promotion and tenure.

Bourgeault also underscored what could be lost if female researchers don’t receive the support they need. “If we don't support women in science, we're also not supporting the science that women do,” she said. “There might be areas of knowledge that are just not going to advance because of this.”

Pandemic publishing

Larivière and his colleagues have been studying the gender gap in academia for several years, including the effect of modern parenting strategies on research productivity. So when academic parents, particularly those who identify as women, began speaking up on Twitter about the seemingly impossible demands on their time, the team turned to the data. In late May, they published an analysis of submissions to preprint repositories and registered reports by gender and by author position. (The analysis included more than 300,000 publications by 1.3 million authors worldwide.)

The results were striking. They found that women submitted fewer papers than men across most platforms during March and April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This was particularly true for women in the first-author position who are most likely to be junior scholars. They also found that early-career women were much less likely to do COVID-related research relative to other topics, suggesting they are struggling to contribute to pandemic science.

The research team maintains a live, interactive dashboard where scientists, policymakers and administrators can explore the data.

There are limitations to the analysis. For example, preprints haven’t been embraced equally by researchers in different disciplines. Still, writing in Nature Index, Larivière and his co-authors called on institutions and funders to find ways to support early career researchers and to consider “how our evaluation systems and resource allocation mechanisms take into account the inequities in labour distribution for women and other minorities.”

At the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a much smaller data set raised concern that COVID-19 was somehow skewing research participation, said Dr. Tammy Clifford (PhD), vice president of research programs, who oversees the agency’s equity, diversity and inclusion framework and action plan. Specifically, fewer women applied to CIHR’s initial COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding competition compared to its project grant competitions, even though it was launched a few weeks prior to lockdown. As a result, Clifford said the agency adjusted application and peer-review timelines for the subsequent COVID-19 competition and participation by researchers who identified as female significantly increased. (See Table 1.)

Cause and effect in these data are unclear, but Clifford said a relatively simple change appears to have been beneficial. “The very first thing funders can do is collect those data, look at those data as soon as a competition closes and be prepared to act,” she said in an interview with Research Money. 

Table 1: CIHR competition results for applicants who identified as female

Competition Percent of total applications submitted Percent of applications funded
Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity Results (March 2020) 29 22
COVID-19 May 2020 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity Results 39 45
Project Grant: Fall 2019 36 40

Source: Canadian Institutes for Health Research 

Taking action

The Tri-Council funding agencies have already made a string of policy changes to address the impact of COVID-19 on the research community, such as the flexibility to cover incremental costs related to the pandemic and extensions to grants, scholarships and fellowships.

Dr. Oana Birceanu (PhD), an NSERC-funded postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University, curtailed her research as a result of the temporary lab closures and the need to oversee her children’s daily online classes and homework. Now that research activities at McMaster have resumed, her lab is operating from 7 am to 10 pm weekdays and weekends. She spends afternoons and Sundays there — and is grateful for the flexibility. 

Her advice? “Offer a flexible schedule and make sure that the communication is clear." 

She is still moving her research forward, but she is concerned about her career prospects. She wonders whether the economic impact of COVID-19 might result in a hiring freeze at universities. The uncertainty surrounding school in September is also a factor. “There are a lot of contract-limited teaching positions showing up. Unfortunately, because I do not know what's going to happen in September, it's very difficult to apply and commit to them.”

According to Clifford, the Tri-Councils are looking at other mechanisms to support researchers who are juggling work and childcare or eldercare responsibilities, or whose work has been impacted in other ways by COVID-19. For example, research funders are considering whether to cover childcare costs for peer-reviewers, as well as the adoption of a COVID-19 Impact Statement. Such a document would allow researchers to detail how COVID-19 has impacted their career and would be submitted as part of an application to future grants, scholarship and award competitions.

“Every table that I am at, we are talking about this,” said Clifford. “And, importantly, CIHR is very open to hearing experiences and suggestions from its community.“

Bourgeault points to research funders as a catalyst for change, citing the positive impact of the Athena SWAN program on gender equity in STEM — a version of which has been adopted in Canada. “When the granting councils lead, the universities follow,” she said.

But she urges the research community to be imaginative. “We need to build off of the imagination that people are bringing to inequality writ large. We should capture this moment and make a huge leap forward. That’s what I’m hoping, that we really be bold in terms of these changes.”

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