How does COVID-19 affect scientific performance of female researchers?

As I am writing this blog post about how COVID-19 affected scientific performance of female researchers the Eastern parts of Austria are again in a severe lock down due to the third wave of COVID-19 moving through Austria.

How does COVID-19 affect scientific performance of female researchers?

This means all shops besides grocery shops are closed, the government recommended to work from home, and schools are also closed and kids have to learn at home (alongside several other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19). I have two kids at the age of 8 and 10 who are at home at the moment participating in video classes and doing home work in their rooms. Although we, my wife and I as well as our children, have already some experiences in dealing with this situation as it is the fourth school lock down in Austria within a year in the pandemic, it still poses challenges everyday – especially for the parent who is responsible for supporting the kids during their online classes and home work. Yes, we have divided these responsibilities, no not equally but we made an arrangement that seems to work for us. I am the parent who takes over the role of a teacher (actually I am many teachers at the same time – Math, German, English, Biology – you name it), parent, cook and friend today – beside the role as a researcher. Nevertheless, everyday is different, everyday has its challenges and everyday has its special moments for us.

While I try to work and finish a report, my children participate in the in online meetings. Often they have questions or need support because the online meeting will not start, they need a print out, they need a snack or they need to be motivated to finish their homework. They do not need much attention as we have accommodated ourselves in this home office, home schooling situation and know our roles, rules and responsibilities (most of the time). This was different a year ago when we started our home office, home schooling career, and when the pandemic has shattered our highly elaborated formal and informal childcare arrangements involving grandparents, friends, sport clubs etc. But today it works – mostly, sometimes, more often. But while I am tending the needs of my children I should also work and as I try to finish my report the small needs of my children keep me from focusing, on my reasoning – I am distracted and cannot concentrate on my work as a researcher. As I come back to my home office desk, I need to start to concentrate and focus again. At noon, as I prepare a quick lunch, I am sure that I will not be able to finish my to do list for today but that is ok. I have learned to accept this – I can still work in the evening after my children went to bed. And there is still some time in the afternoon – maybe then I have more uninterrupted periods of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to prevent its spread have impacted on the lives of everyone and have turned them upside down. But, we have also learned that it impacted highly different on people and researchers depending on their family situation, career stage, age, discipline etc. So my story is not representative for the effects of COVID-19 but it shows that not biological sex but rather gender roles, identities and norms are relevant for these experiences. But, there is evidence that women researchers as in many countries they are still mainly responsible for care giving (Bianchi et al. 2012; Goulden, Mason and Frasch 2011; Shollen et al. 2009) are more affected by lockdown measures due to COVID-19 than their male colleagues. Or more precisely that the COVID-19 crisis has intensified longstanding gender inequalities in academia (Oleschuk 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has led to reduced working hours for women and intensified care responsibilities – in Europe and abroad, for women working in academia as well as in other economic sectors (Eurofound 2020; Zamarro and Prados 2020; Yildirim and Eslen‐Ziya 2020). Women tend to work more from home than men to be able to support their children, invest more time in childcare and housework per day than fathers and they have less uninterrupted working hours than their spouses (Sevilla et al. 2020). Especially working women with younger children have reported higher work-life conflicts (Collins 2020; Krukowski et al. 2021): the “maternal wall” (Williams 2005) has gained height and the “motherhood penalty” (Lutter and Schröder 2020) seems to have increased during the pandemic. But it seems that also fathers have increased their daily time spent for childcare and housework during the pandemic but the gender gap still prevails (Sevilla et al. 2020). Also, the stress level for women carers has increased during the pandemic (Zamarro and Prados 2020). Other studies report that women in academia have invested more time in online courses and counselling students during the pandemic (Guy and Arthur 2020; Minello et al. 2020). More time spent on care taking and teaching very often comes at the expanse of time devoted to research – which means writing proposals, papers or conference presentations. Consequently, studies have shown that women have written and submitted fewer papers than their male colleagues – in journal publications but also in papers published on pre-print servers (Squazzoni et al. 2020; Frederickson 2020; Krukowski et al. 2021; Oleschuk 2020); studies by Vincent‐Lamarre et al. (2020a, 2020b) have also found that less papers have been submitted with women as first authors whereas in many disciplines more senior authors are ranked at the end of papers. They interpret this that the COVID-19 pandemic may have disproportionately affected women in the early stages of their careers (see also Squazzoni et al. 2020). Other studies have shown that especially in research papers on COVID-19 women are highly underrepresented: only one third of all authors of COVID-19 related research papers are women (measured since the outbreak in January 2020) and women are even more underrepresented as first and last authors in these COVID-19 papers (Pinho-Gomes et al. 2020; Amano‐Patiño et al. 2020; Andersen et al. 2020).

The mid- to long term effects of these interruptions of research due to the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely have negative consequences especially on female early career researchers (but not exclusively) and on those working on their tenure (Kramer 2020; Husby and Modinos 2020, Gewin 2020). There is growing evidence and concern that the pandemic has affected early career researcher in general more severely and threatens their career trajectories and that research performing organisations, research funding organisations and publishers need to find adequate policy responses to alleviate the setbacks caused by the differential impact of COVID-19 on researchers. At the 21st Gender Summit someone suggested to compensate women for their loss of time and career opportunities by letting women in first (after labs and offices are open again), so they have more time for their research. I would agree but rather say support and compensate people who have had devoted more time to care and emotional work during the lockdowns – independent of their sex or other identity categories and independent of the context the care and emotional work – may it be for children or students.

No, I did not finish my report today – I started to write this blog post – as my children went to the park to play football I have indeed more uninterrupted and focused working time. Next week schools will open again in Vienna and I can go to the office regularly, catch up with things, and work more uninterrupted – hopefully. But, there is another learning from one year dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: expect the unexpected.

“Two scientists are racing
For the good of all mankind

Theirs is to win
If it kills them
They're just humans
With wives and children”

Race for the Price, Flaming Lips



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