The Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Minorities in Science

Posted on 11/09/2020 in Other

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The Pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, or Coronavirus, put a strong toll on our society. The pandemic highlighted and amplified the inequalities and discrepancies worldwide and the long-term consequences are still to be assessed.

The impact on brain research

With universities and laboratories closing down, many brain research projects had to be postponed for months or cancelled. In the meantime, the pressure to publish increased as the scientific funding sector assumed researchers would have more time on their hands to work on publications for their grant extension or renewal. Having to face these problems in sometimes less than ideal environments, researchers from financially challenged backgrounds, ethnic minorities and women were particularly impacted.

A Nature survey on STEM principal investigators shows that scientists working in fields relying on hand-out laboratories and time-sensitive experiments, such as neuroscience, reported the largest declines in research time during the pandemic. A survey made by the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) shows that one third of the researchers could renounce their career in neuroscience as a direct consequence of the pandemic-related difficulties; even more so for scientists from under-represented groups

“It’s like we’re going back 30 years”

Mobility & careers

Aside from the local effects, the impact of COVID-19 is also global. During the lockdown, many researchers had to choose between staying in the country of their work or returning to their home country to take care of elderly relatives, thus putting at risk their academic position. Additionally, in the coming years, the travel bans and visa restrictions imposed by many countries will block the access to high-level universities for international students and researchers. As mentioned in this Nature Career Feature article: “It’s like we’re going back 30 years”.

Impact on women

In her WorldView Nature article “The pandemic and the female academic”, Alessandra Minello, PhD, draws up the portrait of her life as a female academic and a mother during the COVID-19 lockdown. She describes the difficulties of being scientifically productive while taking care of her children after the schools and nurseries had closed. In her view, the “Mom penalty”, worsened during the pandemic, could block the career advancement of women who had to put aside their scientific productivity for increased caregiving and domestic responsibilities.

The Inside Higher ED and Scientific American articles confirm Dr Minellos’ conclusions and show that while journals received a higher amount of submission during the lockdown, they also observed a strong reduction of article submitted solely by women.

What can be done to tackle these issues? 

Nature asked journal editors, funders and academic leaders how to close this gap created by COVID in their article “The career cost of COVID-19 to female researchers, and how science should respond”. The article suggests that funding bodies offer grant extensions and include the possibility to mention the impact of COVID-19 on applicants’ progress in their forms. Hiring committees and academic departments are advised to increase their effort in diversity hiring, with in mind the obstacles faced by under-represented groups during the pandemic.

Further solutions can be found in the 500 Women in Stem Association’s webinar on the topic and in their list of actions and recommendations to minimize career penalties for Parents in STEM fields during the COVID-19 Pandemic.