This March the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a consensus study report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine.” The report on five academic studies found what many had already suspected: that the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionately negative effect on women in academic STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) fields.
Three of their findings from previous research described how women’s representation, while on the rise before the pandemic, was “fragile and prone to setbacks especially in times of crisis.” The researchers talked about how women were more likely to suffer an increase in anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health conditions as a result of the confluence of last year’s social stressors such as increases in racialized violence and the global pandemic. On top of all this, women of color also face the intersectionality of racism and sexism in the workplace.
All of these established findings from before the pandemic revealed why COVID-19 had such a negative effect on women in academic STEMM. The gender and racial inequalities that existed before were only exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, researchers found that for the most part women published fewer academic articles and were unable to continue with research to the same extent as men.
This troubling finding is the result of many convergent factors. For one, the institutional response to the stressors of COVID-19 did not rise to the moment. While some faculty were given tenure track extensions, there was little effort made to support non-tenure faculty or reduce the workload of academic staff, which disproportionately affected women and especially women with caregiving responsibilities. The study found that the lack of childcare options available during the pandemic put the brunt of non employment labor on women because of historic inequities. The effect of having to act as a caretaker while working from home resulted in increased stress and a significant decrease in women’s academic productivity. The study also found that while collaboration and networking may have become easier to do, and in some cases more accessible because it was over a digital platform, many women academics had difficulty making time for these professionally necessary activities because of increased caregiving responsibilities.
The study also pointed out how many financial and leadership decisions in universities were made quickly and unilaterally, including layoffs and furloughs which disproportionately affected non-tenured STEMM faculty who are more likely to be women and people of color.
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, but the most vulnerable groups in our society have suffered disproportionately more. In academic STEMM, the convergence of financial stressors, caregiving, and lack of social support, have led to a decrease in women’s academic productivity and may be leading to a decrease in the number of women in the sciences.