The covid-19 epidemic has changed our way of working. How is this affecting female versus male researchers?

Early analyses discussed in a recent article in Nature (10.1038/d41586-020-01294-9) suggest that female academics are posting fewer preprints and starting fewer research projects than their male peers.

COVID-19 is changing the way research is done. World-wide lockdowns mean that, overnight, many households worldwide have become an intersection of work, school, and home life. The new mechanisms of accelerated peer review, the increased quantity and speed of available data, and the distribution of funding across sectors are changing the equilibria of the academic world. We therefore need to pay attention to the effects this has on disparities. What happens when a couple is at home? Is it exacerbating gender inequality? In a commentary in Nature (doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01135-9) very early during the pandemic, Alessandra Minello suggested it is disproportionately affecting the productivity of female academics, because they often do more caregiving than men.

Megan Frederickson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto being COVID-19-quarantined herself, looked at preprint servers to investigate whether women were posting fewer studies than they were before lockdowns began (https://github.com/drfreder/pandemic-pub-bias/blob/master/README.md). Peer review takes time, it is still too soon to see COVID-19’s effects on the numbers of journal articles published by female versus male academics. 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. She looked at arXiv (physical sciences), and bioRxiv (life sciences) to determine the gender of studies posted between March 15 and April 15 in 2019 and in 2020. The number of women who authored preprints at arXiv increased by 2.7% from 2019 to 2020 — but the number of male authors grew by 6.4% over the same period. The numbers for bioRxiv were 24.2% vs. 26%. A similar trend was found in a separate study including nine popular preprint servers (https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/decline-women-scientist-research-publishing-production-coronavirus-pandemic). Thus, women’s publishing rate has fallen relative to men’s amid the pandemic.

In another study by the information scientist Cassidy Sugimoto at Indiana University Bloomington on three registered-report repositories including ClinicalTrial.gov, there was a decrease in the proportion of submissions by female principal investigators from March and April of 2019 to the same months in 2020, when lockdowns started. Hence, women are registering a smaller proportion of new research projects than before the pandemic.

What are the likely causes for this effect? Increased household labor and childcare responsibility are probably the major reasons. Also, women more often take care of ailing relatives. The sudden shift to online teaching might mean more work for women as they in average probably have more teaching commitments than men, while the shutdown of the universities might free more time for men to write papers as they more often have non-research commitments.

What can be done to mitigate this effect? Our scientific environment requires the participation of all members of the population; a crisis requires that we draw from the intellect of the full population. As the effects and the pandemic are likely to linger, we must consider how our evaluation systems and resource allocation mechanisms take into account the inequities in labor distribution for women. We need to create infrastructures to allow for all populations to participate, and to acknowledge systematic differences in their ability to do so.

Enjoy your week-end!

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