Pandemic Casualties: Careers of Women in Academic STEMM

illustration of women leaving place of work with their personal belongings
Illustration: iStockphoto

By: Tekla S. Perry

It was a ‘she’ recession, as women were laid off more than men. And in academia, women bore brunt of disruption from Covid.

That’s how U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President Marcia McNutt, kicked off a three hour discussion on the impact of the pandemic on women working in academic STEMM fields, held via zoom last week. (STEMM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine.) Still on the agenda—how to make sure the short-term impacts don’t turn into long-term career damage.

The NAS, along with the National Academies of Engineering and Medicine, has released a 200-plus page report on impact of the novel coronavirus on STEMM women, based on five commissioned papers, including a survey of some 900 women in academia conducted in October 2020.

“The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic STEMM, A Consensus Study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” looked at career trajectories, work-life integration, collaboration and networking, leadership and decision-making, and mental health and well-being. The group also issues that cut across all those areas, including the impact of the pandemic on women of color. (A free download of the full report is available here.)

Its conclusions? The pandemic hurt productivity, boundary control, networking, and mental well-being for women in STEMM. And because women are underrepresented in the STEMM fields, they found themselves facing academic isolation on top of the universal social isolation caused by working at home and other means of social distancing. This academic isolation, along with the fact that women in general take on more caregiving and other factors—has led to women publishing fewer papers and receiving fewer citations for their work between March and December 2020 than comparable time periods, the report indicated. This kind of deficit could have a long-term impact on their careers. Also of concern—layoffs and furloughs hit women harder than men, who are more often tenured.

The pandemic didn’t affect all women in the same way. Some of the strongest distinctions stemmed from stage of career and from race, Marie Bernard, acting NIH Chief officer for scientific workforce diversity pointed out.

Chart: Top negative effects of pandemic on women in academic STEMM

“We were struck by the fact that Asian researchers—both male and female—were more concerned than other groups,” she said. “We didn’t understand that at the time, but given what’s happened as of late, one could postulate that that was related to social and political events. The data didn’t show this, more that it was about not having access to lab, but it was interesting.”

chart
Image: Scientific Workforce Diversity at NIH

chart
Image: Scientific Workforce Diversity at NIH

The study raised as many questions as it answered, and the report laid out a research agenda that targets models for leadership, work-life management, and a host of other topics.

One issue that emerged time after time in the discussion was that of how academic productivity should be defined. Urged Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of California, Los Angeles: “I want us to challenge ourselves as leaders, as what does productivity mean? For women of color, for international groups, what are we striving to? What is this productivity we want to produce? There has to be fundamental shift by what we mean by productivity.”

Eve Higginbotham, vice dean of inclusion and diversity at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that some good could come out of all of this.

“The epidemic could catalyze positive changes,” she said. She noted, for example, that professional society conferences adapted quickly to virtual platforms, increasing access by removing travel-related barriers that can affect women more than men.

“This pandemic, said Reshma Jagsi, deputy chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan, “has handed us a boatload of lemons, which we can squeeze to make lemonade. It is a disruptive opportunity, let’s seize this.

“We have done some planning; we have reviewed the evidence that exists. Next is to disseminate the findings. And then we need to do something, each institution needs to make a commitment to trying something, do something that is hypothesis driven, and measure the results.”

“And in a year’s time we’ll have all that lemonade we made.”

An abridged video of the event is available here.

Correction made 9 April 2021

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 08 April 2021.