The Women in Science Conference is a satellite meeting of the International Conference on Genomics (ICG). Initiated by Laurie Goodman, Editor-in-Chief of the international journal GigaScience, the Women in Science Conferences have been held for 5 consecutive years during the ICG. Following the tradition of the last 5 years, this year’s conference was held on October 25th, 2020, the first day of the ICG-15 in Wuhan City, China, under the broad theme of “OMICS and Global Health”.
Female scientists from the world joined the Women in Science Conference either in-person or online and shared their achievements and delights in the various fields of “Omics and Global Health”.
The following is Dr. Sara Platto’s live keynote speech at the conference shared with readers. Dr. Platto is associate professor of Animal Behavior and Welfare at the College of Life Sciences, Jianghan University, and Secretary-General of Biological and Scientific Ethics Committee (BASE) of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF).
IMPACT OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON WOMEN IN SCIENCE
In general, women, and female scientists in particular, are by definition resilient, overcoming different forms of barriers throughout their lives including biases in favor of men in many aspects of the professional life such as hiring, promotion, publishing, pay, and grant allocation. This situation seems to have been magnified by the current COVID-19 pandemic (Monroe et al, 2008; Valilan, 2005).
During the last ten months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused over 40 million infected people, and over one million death worldwide (CRC, 2020), altering our daily life to the ground. Beyond the catastrophic health consequences, the pandemic has brought to its knees many national economies with soaring unemployment in different work fields. The closure of schools and day-cares around the world to control the virus transmission had a huge impact on women, who provide most of the care within the families, with the consequence of limiting their work and economic opportunities (Wenham et al, 2020). A quote from Nature Index magazine well defines this current condition: we are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat (Vincent-Lamarre et al, 2020), addressing how the current pandemic has widened the gap of gender dis-equality in the workplace. In general, equity is successfully carried out when all groups are given the needed number and types of resources so that they can achieve equal results in comparison with other groups. On the other hand, equality represents “a one-size-fits-all” solution that promotes equal distribution of resources. In all workplaces, women face both inequality and inequity (Monroe et al, 2008; Valilan, 2005).
The closure of most of the schools around the world has kept 90% of all students at home, and among them, more than 800 million girls. In the world least developed countries, this might lead the parents, who already give less value to girl education, to keep their daughters out of school (Unicef, 2020). In addition, a recent study showed that girls have a high risk of dropping out of school when their parents or caregivers are missing due to COVID-19-related work, illness, or death (Huisman and Smith, 2009). This situation might lead to a decrease in opportunities for women in developing countries to gain access to higher education, and therefore leading work position.
School closure has dramatically affected also the work of women in developed countries. Precisely, the gender employment gap during the pandemic (from March through May) was significantly larger than that prior to the pandemic (in February) (Qianand and Fuller, 2020). In fact, an analysis that compared mothers’ and fathers’ work hours showed a reduction in time spent working between February and April, which was significantly larger for mothers than fathers among parents with children aged 1-5, and children aged 6-12. Consequently, the gender gap in hours worked grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, mothers of children aged 6-12 were predicted to work about 4.7 hours less than fathers of children of the same age. By April, this gap grew by one third to 6.3 hours. Similarly, among parents with young children aged 1-5, the gender gap in hours worked grew from 4.9 hours in February to 6.2 hours in April. This constitutes an increase of over 25 % in the gender gap in hours worked. To put this in context, the gender gap in work hours declined by nearly 45 minutes during the 2007-2009 recession (Landivar, 2012), whereas between the short period of February to April 2020, this gap increased by one hour and 18 minutes for parents with children aged 1-5 and one hours and 36 minutes for parents with children aged 6-12. These trends indicate that mothers appear to be taking on a larger burden of childcare and homeschooling at expense of paid work time, as evidenced by their larger reduction in work hours compared with fathers (Collins et al, 2020), who had very little changes in weekly work hours. Only among those with older children aged 13-17, fathers’ work hours showed a significant reduction, declining by about 1.2 hours (Collins et al, 2020). Another study showed that among parents whose youngest child was aged 6–12, there was even stronger and more consistent growth in the gender employment gap. Specifically, women’s disadvantage in the probability of employment was 0.8% points in February, 4.4 percentage points in March, 5.5 percentage points in April, and 7.3 percentage points in May (Qianand and Fuller, 2020).
What all of this mean for women in science?
The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the gap between women and men in academia in terms of paper publication, research opportunities, and access to promotions (Flaherty, 2020). In general, women must be 2,5 times as productive to be judged as equally competent in work assessments and grant productions. Prior to this pandemic, early-career women investigators faced significant barriers to academic success (Cardel et al, 2020). Given that prime reproductive years generally overlapping with the early stage of scientific careers, 4 out of 5 scientists have children during this time (Jolly et al, 2014). As such, family planning milestones (i.e., marriage and childbirth) occurring during this time period account for the largest loss of women in the academic pipeline, a finding that is not observed in men (Goulden et al, 2009; Goulden et al, 2011) This loss is highlighted by a 2019 study among STEM faculty that reported 43% of women left full-time employment after having their first child (as compared to 23% of men), loss rates that are significantly higher than faculty without children (Cech and Blair-Loy, 2019). Only 22% of full professors in American medical schools (AAC, 2015) and 23% in Europe (EC, 2015) are women, while only 0·5% of full professors in American medical schools are black women (AAC, 2015). It is well known that women in academia shoulder more of the burden of domestic labor within their households than men do. In fact, a study showed that women spent 8.5 hr more per week on parenting and domestic tasks than their men peers, with single parents doubling this time (Jolly et al, 2014).
COVID-19 has led to unprecedented daycare, school, and workplace closures exacerbating these challenges. Recent data from the USA, the UK, and Germany suggested women spent more time on pandemic-era childcare and homeschooling than men did (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020). This is particularly difficult for single-parent households, the majority of which are female-headed. This greatly affected the time allocated by women in academia to their work with detrimental effects on papers’ publishing. For example, the comparison of papers’ authorship from the same journals in 2019, and in COVID-19 papers showed that women’s shares of overall, first, and the last authorship were 30%, 28%. and 22% respectively in 2019, whereas in COVID-19 papers this trend decreased by 16%, 23%, and 16% respectively (Andersen et al, 2020). In addition, an analysis of arXiv and bioRxiv submissions showed that, although preprint submissions are increasing overall, the number of male authors is growing faster than the number of female authors (Frederickson, 2020). On the other hand, women without children during “stay-at-home” orders reported significantly increased measures of productivity. These results indicate that most women in academia are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence (Cardel et al, 2020). If women scale back their work hours but men do not in the pandemic’s aftermath, future merit-based opportunities and pay raises may disproportionately benefit men whose work commitments remained high during the pandemic. For this reason, it is critical for leaders in academia to recognize the gendered implications of the pandemic to avoid a consequential mistake: the loss of women scientists (Collins et al, 2020).
What are the possible solutions to reduce the gap?
The academic community should support women during this pandemic (and beyond).
-First, recognize that women are probably taking on more responsibilities than men are, and provide options for academics caring for family members, by considering the lockdown period as care leave so decreases in productivity do not hinder later career advancement (Cardel et al, 2020);
-Second, recognize how gender bias influences the selection and evaluation of scientific experts and leaders during times of crisis. Women make up just 24% of COVID-19 experts quoted in the media and 24·3% of national task forces are analyzed (Rajan et al, 2020). However, countries with female leaders, such as New Zealand, have some of the best COVID-19 outcomes (Hassan and O’Grady, 2020). Therefore, it is critical to amplifying the voices of women with established records in infectious disease, pandemic response, global health, and health security;
-Third, collect and report institutional data on gender representation, including academic output and senior positions (Plank-Bazinet et al, 2016);
-Fourth, identify and address structural implicit and unconscious biases in research institutions (eg, hiring) and publication processes (eg, peer review outcome, number of citations). Consider offering training in bias or double-blinded peer review for scientific journals. Editors should consider and prioritize gender and racial/ethnic equity when considering scientific manuscripts for publication in their journals. Editors can place a greater focus on women-authored papers by conducting special issues written by women-led teams. (Anteco et al, 2016);
-Fifth, recognize that women from ethnic minority groups face additional challenges in academia, and take structural action to provide support and address these challenges. Scientific expertise and knowledge from all genders are essential to build diverse, inclusive research organizations and improve the rigor of medical research (Hoppe et al, 2019);
-Sixth, to allow more flexible leave provisions during complete closure of schools and day-cares. Leave provisions must be managed carefully to avoid an exacerbation of gender inequity in labor markets if they are used more by mothers than fathers. Therefore, an expansion to leave policies should promote men’s participation in child care (Qianand and Fuller, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a magnifying glass to many disparities within our society, including inequities for caregivers who are predominantly women. Importantly, we recognize that nearly everyone in the world has encountered substantial barriers and difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic (Cardel et al, 2020). It is critical that academic institutions work to proactively retain their early career researchers who may leave academia if the necessary support is not provided. Structural changes such as those we suggest will be crucial to prevent a secondary epidemic of lost early-career scientists. If there is one thing this pandemic has reminded us of, yet again, it is that equity and justice require concrete and widespread commitment, and implementation and evaluation of policies to address inequalities (Cardel et al, 2020.)