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How women in academia are feeling the brunt of COVID-19

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The disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on the productivity of women could see many leave academia. Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent public health response of lockdown has brought into sharp relief the constraints faced by women across the board.

We have been keeping a keen eye on the impact it’s having on women in academia – our field of work and research. What we’re observing, and what’s being backed up by research, is that women are facing additional constraints as a result of COVID-19.

These range from the added burdens and responsibilities of working from home, through to the fact that fewer women scientists are being quoted as experts on COVID-19, all the way to far fewer women being part of the cohort producing new knowledge on the pandemic.

None of these constraints are new. Earlier research confirms that women academics carry large teaching burdens, with relatively little time for research and publication compared to their male colleagues, many of whom do not carry equivalent domestic responsibilities.

Increased pressure on women academics caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is magnifying this fractured landscape of gender parity in academia. The impact is being felt in terms of productivity. This is manifesting itself in terms of public exposure, knowledge generation and who is being called on to provide advice.

Academic output

An article in the World University Rankings points to the bias towards men experts in media coverage of COVID-19. Written by a group of women scientists, the article points out that women are advising policymakers on the outbreak, designing clinical trials, coordinating field studies and leading data collection and analysis. But, when it comes to media coverage, there is a bias towards men. While epidemiology and medicine are women dominated fields, men get quoted far more often than women about the pandemic.

Read more: Africa's research ecosystem needs a culture of mentoring

A June 2020 article in the correspondence section of a leading medical journal, The Lancet, makes the same point. It points out that women have made up just 24% of COVID-19 experts quoted in the media and 24.3% of national task forces analysed.

Women’s outputs are being affected in other ways too. A recent article in Science News shows that fewer women were first authors on articles related to COVID-19. This was especially so in the first months of the pandemic. They compared 1,893 articles published in March and April 2020 with those from 2019 in the same journals, and found that first authorship for women declined by 23%.

This they attribute to the increased demands of family life during the pandemic.

The Guardian newspaper also reported a decrease in women’s academic outputs, with the journal Comparative Politics reporting that submissions by men went up by 50% in April.

The Lancet article makes the same point.

Recent data from the US, the UK and Germany suggest women spend more time on pandemic-era childcare and home schooling than men do. This is particularly difficult for single-parent households, most of which are headed by women.

Read more: A personal journey sheds light on why there are so few black women in science

Domestic constraints

The article by women scientists in The Lancet makes it clear that none of the challenges are new.

Challenges women in academia face are well documented in non-pandemic times. These challenges include male dominated institutional cultures, lack of female mentors, competing family responsibilities due to gendered domestic labour, and implicit and subconscious biases in recruitment, research allocation, outcome of peer review, and number of citations.

But, they write, COVID-19 has led to unprecedented day care, school and workplace closures exacerbating challenges.

For decades, women in academia and professional practice have striven to achieve work-life balance, juggling professional and domestic responsibilities.

Institutional support for women in terms of maternity leave, childcare facilities, lactation rooms, flexible working hours and protected research time varies across institutions in South Africa. It is lacking in many.

And now women are working from home, where they are also expected to take care of children and elderly parents, do home schooling, clean, cook and shop.

Addressing the problem

This disproportionate effect on productivity of women has the potential to bleed women from academia. This will have a negative impact on the diversity that is critical for excellence in academia and in civil society.

None of this is factored in to promotion criteria or performance assessments, when women in academia compete directly with their male counterparts. Consequently, women are seriously underrepresented in academic leadership, perpetuating a patriarchal institutional culture in tertiary educational institutions.

Some global funding agencies, among them the European and Developing Country Clinical Trial Partnerships and the National Institutes of Health, have recently started to consider constraints facing women scientists in grant applications. This effort needs to be seriously expanded.

This could be done via revisions to existing policies and proactive development of new policies to create optimal gender balance in research. Funders also have a responsibility to explore how institutions that financially benefit enormously from research funding via indirect costs support women scientists in academia.

Read more: Women scientists lag in academic publishing, and it matters

Scientific journals are becoming sensitive to gender balance and diversity with respect to authorship. But the requirement for gender equity in terms of participants included in research studies and authorship must be tightened.

Similarly, conference panels and keynote speaker selection are in dire need of appropriate representation of women, especially those from the global South, whose voices are underrepresented in international academic meetings and scientific conferences. Anything less than these efforts will perpetuate pre-COVID-19 levels of gender inequity and lack of diversity. Sadly, academia will be the poorer for it.

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