Early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic penalised women in academia


Multitasking: the drop in productivity for women at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to stem from the increased caring responsibilities that women took on (courtesy: iStock/damircudic)

Female academics submitted fewer papers than their male counterparts during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is the main conclusion of a study by researchers in Europe, which found that while overall submissions increased by around a third in those early months of the pandemic, the productivity of female scientists was lower than expected. The authors warn that this could deepen gender inequalities in academia.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many researchers were forced to work at home, leading to a big increase in submissions of journal papers. However, home-working also created clashes between work and parental and other family responsibilities.

Men with many publications during the pandemic will have more citations and funding and with it increased reputation and prestige in the future

Flaminio Squazzoni

To see if lockdown disproportionately impacted female researchers, sociologist Flaminio Squazzoni of the University of Milan, Italy, and colleagues analysed article submissions to Elsevier’s 2329 journals from February to May in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The study covered more than five million authors, examining the number of academic papers each individual scientist submitted to journals during those time periods.

The researchers discovered that overall submissions to Elsevier journals between February and May 2020 were 30% higher than in the same period in 2019. However, women were found to have submitted fewer manuscripts than men across all academic fields. While women submitted more papers in early 2020 compared with previous years, the increase was much greater for male academics.

When the data were examined in more detail, this gender gap was found to be more pronounced for female academics early in their careers.

Squazzoni told Physics World that the most likely explanation for these differences is that women are more prone to be “on the front line of home schooling and parental care during the pandemic”. This is especially so for early-career scientists who are more likely to have children at home.

Uneven playing field

To see if the productivity differences were linked to lockdowns, the researchers compared researchers living under similar COVID restrictions. “We used Google mobility data to try to compare men and women submitting manuscripts in the same fields, living in the same countries, so exposed to the same lockdown measures,” says Squazzoni. The results indicate that as academics spent more time at home due to coronavirus restrictions there was a fall in manuscript submissions for women.

According to the authors, the results suggest that the early stages of the pandemic created cumulative advantages for men. Squazzoni says that not acknowledging and addressing this disparity will create inequalities that will persist and harm the progress of female academics.

“Men with many publications during the pandemic will have more citations and funding and with it increased reputation and prestige in the future,” Squazzoni says. “This is only because during the pandemic they were more likely to be able to work.”

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