COVID-19 may be widening the gender gap among scientists, study shows

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The COVID-19 pandemic is having many negative effects on society, beyond just health. Although scientists are front and center in the search for a vaccine, a new study says women in academic medicine are losing their voice during the pandemic. Researchers find the challenges of living in quarantine is causing female scientists to write fewer publications.

The study, led by Reshma Jagsi from the University of Michigan, suggests female academics are likely trying to juggle family responsibilities and their research while in isolation. Jagsi suspects this is why the number of first-author publications from women is dropping this year. The impact is greatest in the first two months of the pandemic, at the start of work-from-home policies and schools closures.

“The coronavirus pandemic may be creating even greater challenges than before for women in academic medicine,” says Jagsi in a media release. Jagsi is director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan. “We suspect school closures, limited child care and work-related service demands might have taken the greatest toll on early career women, especially during the height of the disruptions.”

Losing representation

Researchers examined 1,893 articles related to COVID-19 between January and June of this year. The study only examines articles by researchers in the United States. They then compared the articles from 2020 to the 85,373 articles published in the same scientific journals last year.

The study authors say the number of first-author publications from women is 14 percent lower this year. This reduction is particularly noticeable in March and April. When researchers look at just those two months, female first-author publications drop by 23 percent versus the amount from 2019.

Where are the female scientists?

Although the study doesn’t examine why women are authoring fewer publications, Jagsi suggests they are taking on more child care duties. Women may also be performing other domestic tasks while simultaneously trying to keep up with their academic and medical responsibilities.

“We know that diverse teams are important for solving complex problems like those related to COVID-19,” Jagsi explains. “It’s critical in this time of crisis that we have policies that support the full inclusion of diverse scholars, including transforming attitudes about domestic expectations for women and resources to support all those balancing great demands both at home and at work.”

The study is published in the journal eLife.

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