Women’s ability to produce urgent research compromised by pandemic, data suggest

COVID-19 crisis highlights the need for institutional support for women disproportionately burdened by extraordinary circumstances.

  • Matthew Ryan et al.

Credit: Sigrid Gombert/Getty Images

Women’s ability to produce urgent research compromised by pandemic, data suggest

COVID-19 crisis highlights the need for institutional support for women disproportionately burdened by extraordinary circumstances.

9 November 2021

By Matthew Ryan, Jonathan Tuke, Mark R. Hutchinson, Sarah J. Spencer

Sigrid Gombert/Getty Images

Despite being disproportionately affected by pandemic-related disruptions, women have kept pace with their male colleagues in biomedical research publishing. However, our analysis shows that female researchers have fallen behind when it comes to urgent, quick-turnaround studies.

Inspired by early evidence that women may be adversely impacted by COVID-19-related lockdowns and other restrictions, we conducted a large-scale data analysis to test if the research productivity of female biomedical researchers was affected.

Australia, recognized as a significant biomedical research force, provides a perfect testing ground for this, because it is made up of eight states and territories, which weathered the pandemic under very different conditions.

aSarah J. Spencer Sarah J. Spencer

Victoria, one of the largest states, has experienced the longest lockdown in the world, completing more than 260 days in lockdown by the end of 2021. Other large states, such as Western and South Australia, have experienced minimal lockdowns.

A comparison between these states provides insight into how lockdowns have disrupted scientific productivity in the form of publishing, and how this disruption may have had a more significant impact on women.

Women are a resilient workforce

To assess how the gender balance has changed in biomedical publishing as a result of the lockdowns, we analysed PubMed data from more than 120,000 published articles that were submitted in 2019 or 2020 by Australian authors.

Mid-2020 saw a dramatic increase in the number of papers submitted and published globally, relative to 2019. Across Australia, this was a 17.4% increase. Around 5.7% of this additional work was from COVID-19-related articles.

Surveys have suggested that part of this increase was the result of global lockdowns in early 2020, which led to a shift towards finalizing and submitting manuscripts.

Matthew Ryan Matthew Ryan

But, with women disproportionally represented in academic service roles, such as committee posts and teaching, which needed transitioning to online, and playing the predominant role in childcare and home-schooling, did the pandemic publishing effect manifest differently in women?

Our data suggest that Australian women have been extremely resilient to the challenges imposed by the lockdowns. In general, the publishing increase was equally due to women authors as men.

Women from the severely locked-down state of Victoria were equally as productive as men during this time. Across Victoria, women represented 45.2% of the authorship in 2019 and 45.7% in 2020. Although notably lower than men across both years, this percentage is consistent with the proportion of women in senior research positions in Australia and other developed countries.

As encouraging as this statistic is for women facing the COVID-19 ‘new normal’, our data on specifically COVID-19-related publications suggests a profound ongoing impact.

Papers related to COVID-19 (or SARS-Cov2) in 2020 represented about 5% of the full publication output, and these were significantly (15%) less likely to be authored by women than men.

alt Women were significantly less likely than men to publish COVID-19-related articles in 2020; a proportionally greater difference than for than non-COVID articles.

A similar finding was reported last month in a study based on Elsevier journal data for 2018-20, showing that women submitted proportionally fewer COVID-19-related manuscripts in 2020 in health and medical journals.

It is not known whether these figures reflect the balance of women to men in virology. It seems likely, though, that they reflect the immediacy of the work.

Most fundamental science studies take many years to produce. It may be that due to their specific types of work and domestic responsibilities, women have been less able to turn novel, urgent research around in the pandemic, and to produce new experimental data in this time.

Jonathan Tuke Jonathan Tuke

This conclusion is supported by the results of two surveys of principal investigators in the United States and Europe conducted between April 2020 and January 2021, which showed a decline in the number of new projects initiated during this time. This decline disproportionately affected female scientists and those with young children.

Our data suggest that there is a pandemic-specific impact on an otherwise very resilient workforce, and raise the concern that women will be detrimentally affected in the long term. Given the time needed to produce a scientific work, the full magnitude of this effect may not be seen for many years.

Investing in a resilient workforce

What can we do to protect and expand the equity gains that women have made in biomedical science?

The first step lies in understanding the impact, a step we are endeavoring to take here by ensuring that we have the necessary data to interpret the problems and the future impact of any solutions.

Institutions need to have high-level discussions about how all staff can incorporate the additional lockdown burdens, recognizing that many staff have joint appointments with other institutions that need to be taken into account. Strategies may also include suspending or delaying non-essential business, such as course restructures or staff development, for everyone while the crisis resolves.

Mark R. Hutchinson Mark R. Hutchinson

Publications are clearly only one index of productivity. Assessments of clinical-trial registrations, grant and promotion submissions and success, and other outputs, are essential. We must also find new and broader ways of recognizing impact in research. The conversation on how to measure outputs needs to be held with women in mind.

Women’s achievements in having been able to maintain productivity in the short term, despite additional workplace and family challenges, should receive due recognition in career advancement and remuneration.

The Athena Swan initiatives to improve gender equity in higher education and research, for example, by applying ratings to institutions based on their record in equality and diversity, should be adopted and expanded upon by every institution.

Associated frameworks, such as Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), a national pilot programme that requires participating organizations to collect, analyse, and present data on gender-equity policies and practices, while designing programmes to address them, should also be adopted and expanded upon.

To ensure that women are able to contribute equally to urgent, fast-paced research when future pandemics occur, institutions need to be proactive now about having strategies in place.

Matthew Ryan is a PhD candidate in the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Jonathan Tuke is a senior lecturer in statistics in the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Mark R. Hutchinson is a professor of neuroimmunopharmacology and director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics in the Adelaide Medical School at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Sarah J. Spencer is a professor of neuroscience in the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University, Australia.

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