PHOTO EDITED BY WE REP STEM.
People who are balancing a career, a home, and family responsibilities had a lot to handle, even before the pandemic. Before COVID-19 brought the modern world to a screeching halt, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics found women aged 15 and up spent about 5.7 hours a day doing housework and looking after children and elders, while men in the same age group typically dedicated about 3.6 hours a day to similar activities.
With schools out for the summer and many daycares closed or operating in a reduced capacity, legions of people with care-giver responsibilities are working from home and trying to balance childcare at the same time, with zero learning curve and little-to-no support.
It will be some time before we can accurately depict how COVID-19 is affecting our mental health, harming minority groups, or impacting finances and career prospects, but there are suggestions the new arrangements are disproportionately affecting the careers of people with caregiver responsibilities.
The latest study to support this claim comes from the University of Michigan, led by Reshma Jagsi, M.D., D.Phil. It found that fewer women were first authors on COVID-19-related research papers published in the first half of this year.
“The coronavirus pandemic may be creating even greater challenges than before for women in academic medicine,” Dr. Jagsi said in a statement.
“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.”
Dr. Jagsi’s team looked at 1,893 COVID-19-related papers published between January and June with U.S. authors and compared that to 85,373 papers published in the same journals in 2019.
When compared to papers published in 2019, women first authors on COVID-19-related research dropped by 14 per cent.
The divide was most prominent in March and April, where the share of women authors was 23 per cent lower than in 2019.
“Our study suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic might have amplified [the] gender gap in the medical literature,” reads an excerpt from the paper.
“Specifically, we find that women constitute a lower share of first authors of articles on COVID-19, as compared to the proportion of women among first authors of all articles published in the same journals the previous year. However, our analysis also indicates that the first-author gender gap in COVID-19 research might have decreased during the past month [June] of the pandemic.
Our findings are consistent with the idea that restricted access to child-care and increased work-related service demands might have taken the greatest toll on early-career women, particularly early on when the disruptions were most unexpected, although our observational data cannot conclusively support causal claims. As more robust evidence becomes available, mechanisms which disadvantage specific ethnic, age, and gender groups should be monitored and inform policies that promote equity.”
SIMILAR PUBLISHING GAPS IN OTHER DISCIPLINES
The findings echo the sentiment of an analysis published by Nature in May. It cites several researchers, including Megan Frederickson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto who looked at preprint servers to determine if women have been publishing less since the lockdown began — and the early data suggests they are, across all disciplines.
The names were then compared to those in the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby-name database, which registers the names and genders of children born in the United States.
When examining the number of studies posted between March 15 and April 15 in 2019 and 2020, Frederickson found the number of women who authored preprints grew by 2.7 per cent between 2019 and 2020 — but the number of male authors increased by 6.4 per cent during the same period.
Even before the lockdown, female scientists published fewer papers than men. Over the past 60 years, only about 27 per cent of all STEM-related research papers have been authored by women, according to Northeastern University — but that number has been rising steadily.
In 1955, women authored about 13 per cent of all papers. By 2005, that number had climbed to 35 per cent.
But the pandemic could be erasing these gains, and time will only tell how deep — and long-lasting — the impact will be.
It will be some time before we know if the publication shortage is a blip as we try to adapt to our new normal or indicative of a long-term trend, a caveat Frederickson acknowledges in her paper.
“Peer review takes time, so it is still too soon to see COVID-19’s effects on the numbers of journal articles published by female versus male academics,” Frederickson writes.
“However, a growing number of academics make their submitted or in-progress manuscripts available on preprint servers, meaning it might be possible to measure the pandemic’s effect on preprint submissions in real-time.”
Little by little, data is emerging that is helping to paint a picture of how the pandemic is affecting different segments of the population. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, an increasing number of large and small-scale surveys — as well as peer-reviewed research — will come to light, allowing for increasingly accurate analysis.
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