Pandemic May “Roll Back” Women’s Gains in STEMM: NASEM Report
Pandemic May “Roll Back” Women’s Gains in STEMM: NASEM Report

Pandemic May “Roll Back” Women’s Gains in STEMM: NASEM Report

A National Academies study of COVID-19’s effect on academic researchers adds to the evidence that women’s careers have been particularly damaged by the global disruption.

Catherine Offord
Mar 10, 2021

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The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report this week (March 9) showing how disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on women’s careers in research. The document, which runs more than 200 pages and includes survey responses from women in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM), identified several areas of concern, including decreases in publishing, challenges with work-life boundaries, and mental health problems.

“The evidence available at the end of 2020 suggests that the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic endangered the engagement, experience, and retention of women in academic STEMM,” reads the report summary, “and may roll back some of the achievement gains made by women in the academy to date.”

Through surveys, the report’s organizers collated hundreds of responses from women in academic STEMM about their experiences last year. They concluded that although women’s representation and influence in STEMM fields have been increasing in the years leading up to 2020, these trends have been hindered as difficulties with remote work and increased caregiving responsibilities have piled up during the pandemic.

See “Gender Gap in Research Output Widens During Pandemic

An anonymous professor whose survey responses were excerpted in the report wrote: “As a professional engineer working in academia, and 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.”

Another respondent, an associate professor, was quoted in the report as writing: “I am on the verge of a breakdown. I have three children doing virtual school full time who need my attention throughout the day. . . . I try to wake up before them and work after they sleep, but this is hard given they wake up at 7 AM for school and don’t go to bed early.”

The report’s authors determined that some of academic institutions’ efforts to improve the situation may be backfiring, according to Times Higher Education. By providing deadline extensions and work-from-home flexibility, rather than reducing women’s workload to allow them to cope with other demands on their time, employers likely aren’t providing the support women need, and may instead be exacerbating gender inequality by lengthening the time it takes women to advance in their careers.

Eve Higginbotham, the chair of the committee behind the report, tells STAT that the ongoing pandemic could have worse effects on women’s careers in STEMM in the future. “If institutions do not aggressively correct for this, then we will see fewer women being promoted to professor, to leadership positions,” she tells STAT. “It’s just going to look like the 1950s again. So I would say that it would be the gender recession that we’re seeing in corporate America.”