The COVID-19 pandemic is squeezing women out of science
In the early days of working from home during the pandemic, before everyone discovered virtual backgrounds, I noticed something peculiar. My male co-workers joined meetings from bookshelf-lined offices, while my female colleagues logged in from kitchen tables and living rooms. “My husband and I are both professionals who work from home, yet somehow, he is holed up in the upstairs office, while — as you can see — I am here in the dining room,” one of my co-workers remarked during a recent video conference.
In the past two decades, we have achieved remarkable gains in equalizing the standing of women in science. The numbers of women as lead authors on research papers and recipients of major research grants, in the senior ranks of the tenured professoriate, and in academic leadership have been on the rise. I am one of these success stories, being the first female dean at my institution, one of many to come. There is still much progress to be made, but we started 2020 with great hopes for the new decade.
The pandemic abruptly caused research laboratories to shutter, and working from home became the new normal for most academics. “Great, we will finally have the time to write all the papers we always wanted,” the scientists hopefully proclaimed.
But startling posts shared on social media by journal editors suggest that the share of papers submitted by female scientists has dropped significantly during the past two months. The professional slide for women in science has started to emerge.
While many male scientists, unencumbered by their usual travel and other distractions, have hit their productivity peak, a disproportionate number of women have experienced a productivity deficit — women overwhelmingly picking up the household responsibilities associated with caring for children and aging parents under the dictate to shelter in place. Women scientists were surprised how swiftly this happened to highly educated, self-aware professionals who have long advocated for equity in science but fell into the all-consuming role of the caregiver in their own homes. To be clear, many of us acknowledge that our wonderful spouses, who have been supportive of our careers, shouldering the burdens along the way, did not exactly force us into this domestic role. It just happened that they took over the home office and shut the door.
Institutions across the nation gradually are reopening their research programs, and scientists with school-age children are scrambling to come up with child care solutions, as daycares and summer camps will not return to business as usual this summer. Running a backyard child care operation while managing a lab is not an option. Hiring a nanny on a graduate student stipend or a postdoc salary is impossible. Scientists are notoriously nomadic as they progress from grad school to postdoc and faculty positions, leaving them without a local network of reliable family and friends. It is clear that the majority of the child care burden will fall on the female heads of household, who will remain at home while their male colleagues return to their offices and labs reenergized. Summer, one of the most productive seasons for scientists, effectively is canceled for many women in science.
It truly would be revealing to see the gender breakdown of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (the primary federal funder of research) submitted for the June and July deadlines. The adverse effects on female scientists’ productivity — fewer papers, fewer grants —likely will have long-lasting and wide-ranging consequences. Papers and grants are the main currency for competitive fellowships, tenure-track appointments, promotions and awards, the lack of which will affect women scientists disproportionately.
While men return to the active practice of science in all of its glorious forms, a large fraction of women will not, perhaps permanently. Whether or not academic institutions and research funders urgently address this issue now will determine the professional futures of women in science for decades to come.
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Wayne Fairbrother leads a department at Genentech tasked with validating disease-associated targets and determining whether they could be feasible for drug development.