COVID's Surprising Toll on Careers of Women Scientists

 COVID-19 is claiming an unexpected career toll among scientific researchers, and particularly on women, new research shows.

If you are female, have young children, or work in a lab, you are more likely to feel the career-crunching effects dealt by the pandemic, according to a new study from Harvard Business School professors Kyle R. Myers, Karim R. Lakhani, and eight colleagues from institutions including Yale and Northwestern, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in July.

There’s already a “well-documented, persistent gender gap in science,” the researchers write in their paper, Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. That gap is becoming increasingly apparent across professions worldwide, for all kinds of working women as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the United States and around the world.


Myers, Lakhani, and their co-researchers queried nearly half a million scientists across some 20 categories for their work in mid-April, roughly one month into widespread shutdowns tied to the pandemic in the United States. They drew more than 5,700 responses from faculty, principal investigators, post-doctoral researchers, and others, or about 1.6 percent of the original inquiry mailing. They concentrated on scientists in Europe and the United States.

The pandemic is particularly disruptive for younger scientists who have seen experiments disrupted at key points in their careers, the researchers say.

Careers interrupted

For scientists who typically work longer than the standard 40-hour workweek, valuable research time is being interrupted at potentially key points in careers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in fields that require physical labs and timed experiments—like biological and chemical fields—research time slid 30 to 40 percent.

Overall, 55 percent of the respondents reported a decline in total work hours, 27 percent indicated no change, and 18 percent said they were spending more time devoted to work.

Scientists working in different disciplines were affected unevenly, according to the research. “Scientists working in fields that tend to rely on physical laboratories and time-sensitive experiments—bench sciences such as biochemistry, biological sciences, chemistry, and chemical engineering—reported the largest declines in research time, in the range of 30–40 percent below pre-pandemic levels.” Fields that are less equipment-intensive—such as mathematics, statistics, computer science, and economics—reported the lowest declines in research time. The difference between fields can be as large as fourfold, according to the study.

The survey “provides quantitative evidence that highlights disparities in how the pandemic has affected the scientific workforce,” the researchers write.

Like having a lab shut down

One impact stood out across all of the sciences: Women scientists reported a 5 percent larger decline in time spent on research than their male counterparts. Add mothers to the mix, and the disadvantage becomes even wider: Scientists with at least one child under five worked 17 percent less on research when variations between professions equalized, the authors found. Those with more than one child reported losing an additional 3 percent of the time spent on research.

“It really is revealing, the extent of the infrastructure needed to support women with children,” Lakhani says. Without sufficient child care, “it's the same as having your lab shut down.”

The disparity for women with young children could be because inadequate systems don’t allow female scientists to do their jobs at the same intensity as their male counterparts, the researchers wrote.

“Whether or not your university is or is not allowing you to come onto campus does not seem to make a difference in what the scientists are reporting,” Myers says. “It’s not really about a policy of whether you can go into campus per se. It's whether your postdocs are willing to come into the chemistry lab and work alongside you or do you have to stay home and care for your young child? Those things seem to be the bottleneck.”

Just 5 percent of the total scientists responding to the emailed query reported working fewer than 42 hours weekly before the pandemic struck. Yet more than half—55 percent—said the pandemic has meant fewer hours working on research. Another 27 percent reported no change and 18 percent said they were working more.

The hidden effects of childcare

So “‘shelter at home’ is not the same as ‘work from home,’” the researchers write. They note the impact of caring for children can be hard to observe and isn’t often considered when institutions craft broad work policy meant to cover as many employees as possible. The issue may linger as institutions plan to reopen amid the pandemic.

Without adequate childcare services, “Researchers with young children may continue to be affected regardless of the reopening plans of institutions,” they write.

Leadership could consider childcare infrastructure at each university or institution when crafting reopening plans, both as the pandemic drags on and well into the recovery period, Myers and Lakhani suggest.

Generally, when faculty are hired, “there's always this question whether childcare is available or not. And it's always a scramble to provide childcare,” Lakhani says. The pandemic gives university leaders a chance to examine whether the differences between male and female researchers should play a bigger role.

One way to do that may be to specifically tailor policies by discipline, rather than typical “generic policies for all genders, and for all situations,” Lakhani notes. “Our paper would argue that you need to be much more targeted in how you think about support for faculty.”

Are their national differences to study?

Researchers are continuing their analysis, both by collecting more responses from the initial survey as the pandemic drags on. They are also asking follow-up questions and enlisting additional teams from more universities to broaden the analysis. One area of inquiry could be the differences between child care policies in Europe versus the United States, for instance.

The research was done in conjunction with the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard, and supported by the Department of Research & Faculty Development at HBS and the Sloan Foundation.

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