April 22, 2021

COVID-19 Impedes Career Progress for Women in STEMM

By Dezimey Kum, SWHR Communications and Policy Intern

The COVID-19 pandemic has imperiled the careers of many women in the biomedical workforce as they face disproportionately greater caregiving responsibilities at home and related productivity losses at work. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently released a consensus report outlining how the pandemic has had negative consequences for women in academic science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM), jeopardizing their hard-earned progress.

Unpacking the Findings

The NASEM report includes survey responses from women in STEMM revealing insight into their concerns such as decreased publishing frequency, challenges with work-life boundaries, and mental health. About 27% of participants reported increased workload or work hours, 25% reported decreased productivity, 20% reported difficulty interacting with peers and students, and 18% reported adverse effects on teaching and research. Mothers, who are often tasked with the majority of caregiving duties at home, reported the most work-boundary issues.

“As a professional engineer working in academia, and a single mother of three girls, the pandemic has radically changed everything. … I simply do not have the mental bandwidth to be a full-time homeschooling mom, housekeeper, instructor, researcher, and family member,” one anonymous professor said.

In the report, women said most institutions responded to the pandemic by offering remote work, stopping tenure clocks, and allowing them to choose their method of teaching. However, for some respondents, employers did not have clear plans and policies in place even months into the pandemic.

Non-tenure-track professors were particularly concerned about the pandemic’s negative effects on work productivity due to the burden of heavy course revision to a virtual format. Many non-tenure-track professors reported technology barriers, being asked to offer multiple classroom formats to students — i.e., virtual and in-person classes — and a lack of clear direction from supervisors.

Intersectional Implications 

Understanding the pandemic’s impact on women in STEMM must incorporate the concept of intersectionality. Underrepresented faculty, such as women of color, are more likely to report work exclusion, in which they feel that their personal and professional needs and values are not being met.

According to the report, “the work-life issues of single Black women have been largely ignored by academic institutions that have often considered and prioritized work-life issues in terms of gender and overlooked race issues that intersect with gender.” Systemically disadvantaged people are more likely to face increased pressure and uncertainty during stressful times like the pandemic than those who have privilege and power.

Minimizing Long-Term Impacts

The report authors urged institutions to take positive, equity-minded action in response to the NASEM findings during a virtual conference in March. They suggested that although the representation of women in STEMM increased in the years preceding COVID-19, the significant challenges posed by the pandemic may inadvertently cause representation to decline well into the future.

“This is an issue we have to be intentional about, as we are at risk of losing a significant portion of valued members of our community,” said Eve Higginbotham, MD, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and inaugural vice dean for inclusion, diversity, and equity at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Further research is required to fully comprehend the pandemic’s consequences and long-term implications for women in STEMM. In order to find solutions, Higginbotham encouraged institutions to fund studies. “It’s a matter of actually getting institutions to think about their role and shifting focus from individual personal agency,” she said. “We’ve all heard the talks about resiliency. … The onus now is more on institutions to come up with infrastructure changes to help support women in STEMM.”

The NASEM committee recommended that future research focus on the short- and long-term effects of the COVID 19 pandemic on career paths, job stability, and leadership roles for women, and particularly women of color, in order to inform how institutions develop and implement support and advancement. Gendered societal pressure, workplace discrimination, and the traditional division of household labor are among the unseen factors pressuring women to step back from their career path. Enacting and enforcing policies that promote workplace equity and inclusion for women is fundamental for change and scientific progress.

The Society of Women’s Health Research recently submitted comments to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the importance of promoting diversity within the scientific workforce, and specifically, on the intersection of gender and racial/ethnic biases that frequently harm women of color. For more information read SWHR’s Position Statement on Advancement of Women in the Biomedical Workforce.