A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) presents preliminary evidence indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted women in academic science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields in a number of areas, including productivity, work-life boundary control, networking and community building, and mental well-being.
“Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the representation of women has slowly increased in STEMM fields, but such progress is fragile and prone to setbacks, especially in times of crisis,” said Eve Higginbotham, chair of the panel that authored the report and inaugural Vice Dean for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Emerging evidence suggests that the disruptions caused by the pandemic endanger the engagement and retention of women in these fields — and may roll back some of the achievement gains made by women to date.”
The report discusses how the shift to a virtual work environment “endangered the engagement, experience, and retention of women in academic STEMM.” The study committee examined the limited data on the pandemic’s impacts on women in STEMM fields that was available during 2020 and found that the pandemic “intensified complications related to work-life boundaries that largely affect women.” Certain measures of productivity, such as self-reported research and hours worked, authorship status, and attendance at conferences, indicate that women have been disproportionately affected compared with men. Many institutional decisions related to layoffs and furloughs made during the pandemic significantly affected contingent and nontenured faculty members, positions that tend to be occupied by women and other underrepresented minorities. According to the findings, while one-year extensions and grant extension flexibility are helpful, “the differential effects for women may not be sufficient to address the added caregiver status and home responsibilities that affect work-life integration.”
The report recommends further research on the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on the career trajectories, job stability, and leadership roles of women. It also calls for examining work-life boundaries during the pandemic in order to inform how institutions develop and implement supportive resources, for example, workload reductions, onsite childcare, and flexible working options. Higginbotham hopes that the “research questions posed by this committee will translate into enduring solutions that will strengthen institutional interventions to weather future disruptions.”
The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.