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The Impact of COVID-19 on Female Researchers

Representatives of different streams of feminism have critiqued the public/private spheres dichotomy[1], with Carole Pateman as one of the most vocal voices:

The private or personal and the public or political are held to be separate from and irrelevant to each other; women’s everyday experience confirms this separation yet, simultaneously, it denies and it affirms the integral connection between the two spheres. The separation of the private and the public is both part of our actual lives and an ideological mystification of liberal-patriarchal reality[2].

If feminist theorists have cast doubt on this distinction, for those teleworking since the COVID-19 breakout, the line between what is considered to be part of private life (family, leisure time) and public life (such as work and politics) has been almost completely erased. This blog entry is dedicated to exploring how the confinement and stay-at-home measures had an impact on female scholars and researchers’ work and aims to provide recommendations to mitigate the consequences in the mid and long run.

No Room of One’s Own

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write[3]. The pandemic has found women with no room of their own. In addition, many are assuming the biggest share of caring duties: preparing the regular three or four meals a day for the family, taking care of and playing with small kids, home-schooling the older ones and paying attention to the needs of elder parents or grandparents that are among the risk group population[4]. Alessandra Minelli, a social demographer who focused on families’ dynamics and paid work, has stated in an Op-Ed for Nature Research: “Silence and concentration are pivotal for my thinking and teaching. When I record lessons for my students to watch online, minimizing background noise is a must. But my son is two years old (…) Night and dawn –when he’s asleep– are my only options for recording[5]. Minelli’s perception is also confirmed by data. Statistics compiled by the European Institute for Gender Equality show that even before “the COVID-19 outbreak, women in the EU spent 13 hours more than men every week on unpaid care and housework. Now with the closure of schools and workplaces, and older relatives possibly getting sick, their unpaid workload is likely to further increase[6]. Furthermore, “[o]verall, 79 % of women cook and do housework daily compared to only 34 % of men[7].

What Are the Consequences for Female Researchers’ Production?

Juggling to maintain work-life balance has caused at least two harmful effects for female researchers’ productivity since the pandemic break-out:

  1. Women are sending fewer articles for publication: editors of renowned academic journals state that they have received fewer articles from women than from men since COVID-19 has hit the world[8]. This is especially problematic since the main criterion used to evaluate scholars is what and where they publish, and that impacts their career opportunities: whether they receive scholarships and funding which lead in turn to professional advancement[9].
  2. Women are under-represented in COVID-19 research authorship: a study conducted by Ana-Catherina Pinho-Gomes et al. shows that “women account for about a third of all authors who published papers related to COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak[10] and that “women’s representation is lower for first and last authorship positions”[11] in journals. It also demonstrates that “Gender biases seem to be affecting COVID-19 research similar to other scientific areas, highlighting that women are consistently being under-represented[12]. Similar patterns were found by Noriko Amano-Patiño et al. regarding female researchers in the field of Economics[13]. There is a pressing need for reverting these numbers since the lower representation of women in scientific studies related to COVID-19 jeopardises the excellence of these pieces of research by missing a complete picture of how the pandemic affects women and men differently (not only biologically and clinically but also socially).

Recommendations

  • To overcome the work-life imbalances, it is paramount to continue raising awareness for the need to alter traditional roles at home. But this aim is rather difficult to achieve without institutional involvement and incentives, such as promoting parental leaves (not only maternal). Organisations should also encourage men to share and talk more about their families and care responsibilities, showing the importance of connection, vulnerability and empathy[14].
  • As suggested by the position paper on the current COVID-19 outbreak and gendered impacts on researchers and teachings released by the Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation, research funding and research performing organisations should take into account the primary care tasks carried out by women, both when assessing grant applications and for career promotions[15].
  • For publishers, keeping a record of sex and gender-segregated data is key to monitor the situation and to underpin subsequent specific measures to encourage more female participation in the future[16].

Conclusion

While the data and articles exposed in this entry are not conclusive yet, it is at least clear that the pandemic outbreak exacerbated existing inequalities. Whilst feminists have emphasized that personal circumstances are shaped by public factors (institutional rules, arrangements and policies), the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted how “personal problems can be solved (…) through political means and actions[17]. Therefore, if ever there was a good time for action, this is the moment to make significant and structural changes towards gender equality inside research-related institutions.

Agostina Allori (Yellow Window)

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

[1] See: Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of State, Harvard University Press, 1989.

[2] Carole Pateman, The disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory, Polity, 1989, p. 131.

[3] Virginia Wolf, A Room of One’s Own, Global Grey Books, 1929, p. 1.

[4] Colleen Flaherty, “No Room of One’s Own”, April 21st 2020, Available here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity. Accessed 13/06/2020

[5] Alessandra Minello, “The Pandemic and the Female Academic”, April 17th 2020, Available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01135-9. Accessed 13/06/2020.

[6] European Institute for Gender Equality, “Unpaid Care and Housework”. Available here: https://eige.europa.eu/covid-19-and-gender-equality/unpaid-care-and-housework. Accessed 15/06/2020

[7] European Institute for Gender Equality, “Gender Equality Index”. Available here: https://eige.europa.eu/gender-equality-index/2019/domain/time. Accessed 15/06/2020.

[8] Caroline Kitchener, “Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says one editor”, 24th April 2020. Available here: https://www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/. Accessed 15/06/2020.

[9] Cristina Sáez, “Estoy fallando como investigadora y madre”: la covid-19 amplia la brecha de genero en ciencia”. Available here: https://www.agenciasinc.es/Reportajes/Estoy-fallando-como-investigadora-y-madre-la-COVID-19-amplia-la-brecha-de-genero-en-ciencia. Accessed 13/06/2020.

[10] Pinho-Gomes A-C, Peters S, Thompson K, et al. “Where are the women? Gender inequalities in COVID-19 research authorship”. BMJ Global Health 2020;5:e002922. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002922.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Noriko Amano-Patiño et al, “Who is doing new research in the time of COVID-19? Not the female economists”, 2nd May 2020. Available here: https://voxeu.org/article/who-doing-new-research-time-covid-19-not-female-economists. Accessed 15/06/2020.

[14] David Smith and Brad Johnson, “3 Ways to Advance Gender Equity as We Return to the Office”, 11th June 2020, Harvard Business Review. Available here: https://hbr.org/2020/06/3-ways-to-advance-gender-equity-as-we-return-to-the-office. Accessed 13/06/2020.

[15] Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation, “Position Paper on the Current COVID-19 Outbreak and Gendered Impacts on Researchers and Teachers”, Council of the European Union, Brussels 2nd June 2020.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pateman, supra note 1.

July 30, 2020

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