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Mind the academic gender gap: How COVID-19 is skewing an already uneven playing field for female academics and what we can do collectively to respond

by Guest Author on 22 Feb 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had negative impacts on many, including female academics and researchers. Here, Sarah Arrowsmith, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool, writes about her own struggles, as well as those of other women who are having to juggle being an academic and a parent during this pandemic.

In 2017, a recording of a Professor of South Korean politics went viral after his children famously gate-crashed his live BBC News TV interview. At the time, it was rather amusing, and I remember thinking what would I do if that were me? Fast-forward three years and the comedic chaos that unfolded then for Professor Kelly is all too familiar for those of us with caring responsibilities, trying to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. In my case, my daughter had just turned two and usually attended nursery full-time close to University of Liverpool where I worked as a Senior Postdoc. Three months prior to lockdown, I had been granted a career development award from the University which I was using to generate pilot data to support Fellowship applications, such as the MRC Career Development Award – the first step to becoming an independent researcher. With just some final processing left to do on the patient samples that I had collected for my project, lockdown meant that my applications, along with my samples, were going to have to be put on hold.

Sarah Arrowsmith, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool

I planned to use the time to write up papers, complete outstanding data analysis for other projects, even read! But like many other women, despite having a supportive and hands-on partner, the majority of childcare (and domestic duties) was on me. With an inexhaustibly energetic two-year-old around who was enjoying the novelty of having both parents at home ‘to play with’, scholarly activity was confined to the times when my daughter slept which was not very conducive to the creative thinking required for research or writing.

I soon learned that I was not the only one experiencing these challenges. As early as May 2020, reports of gendered differences in the impact of COVID-19 on academic productivity measures such as publishing and rates of registered research proposals were circulating. A subsequent study at my own Institution showed that, compared to the equivalent months in 2019, the decrease in the number of grant applications submitted between March and June 2020 was more than double for females (-48%) than males (-21%) (see figure 1). As the pandemic continued, this difference persisted. Now, with almost a years’ worth of data on grant submission rates from our Institution during the pandemic, we have learned that overall, grant application rates for male academics in 2020 actually grew by over 11% compared to 2019, but applications by females are down by nearly 20%. That’s a combined difference of over 30%!

Figure 1 – from a study by the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool

In response to these findings, some academics in the research community have commented that more female academics tend to have student-facing roles with higher teaching and administrative loads than male researchers. The rapid shift to online teaching necessitated by the pandemic has absorbed time, which when coupled with the additional caring responsibilities and domestic duties that often fall to women [1], leaves little if any time for research. While these factors may be involved, unless action is taken to understand and address the situation, the hard-fought-for marginal gains[2] that we have recently seen in gender equality in research are in danger of being eroded by the disproportional impact of COVID-19. This is especially important as we remain in another lockdown in 2021.

I’m pleased to say, that the University of Liverpool are taking this very seriously. Through our Research in an Inclusive and Sustainable Environment ‘RISE’ project, we are seeking the views of our research community on how we can respond to these challenges and co-develop approaches to build a more equitable and supportive research environment going forward; one that recognises gendered and other inequalities (and not just those attributed to COVID-19) and proactively addresses them. But we need proper processes to accurately and sensitively record the impact of the pandemic on academic progress. The jury is still out on the mechanism, but perhaps considering granting extensions to probation periods (if requested) or at the very least re-visiting the progress and promotion criteria to account for the impacts of COVID-19 for working parents, would go some way to alleviate some of the concerns of the research community. Offering more bespoke professional services support aimed at those who need it most, with emphasis on bid development to aid recovery, and mentoring to encourage women to apply for higher valued grants may also help restore the gender balance. To be truly effective, we also need input and a collective effort across the research sector; from funding bodies and grant reviewers who recognise and understand gaps in productivity caused by the pandemic, to fairer local processes which can prevent, or at least minimise, the effects in similar situations in future.

As for me, my daughter has turned three and has journeyed from the terrible twos into the talkative threes. Her nursery is open (at least for the time being) so I have resumed some semblance of a normal working pattern. As for the status of my Fellowship, my samples are still on hold in the freezer, but my application has at least started to thaw.[i]

[1] https://s3.amazonaws.com/kajabi-storefronts-production/sites/45828/themes/2439331/downloads/vdBOifYHSSmJEzZMBiHA_Sharing_the_Caring.pdf

[2] https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/UKRI-020920-DiversityResultsForUKRIFundingData2014-19.pdf

[i] Please note:

At the Medical Research Council (MRC) we are aware of the potential for inequalities in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on researchers. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been carefully monitoring grant applications for any differences from previous years and will continue to do so as it progresses. We already have processes in place to support fair decision making for applications and are at the early stages of discussing what more can be done to address COVID-19 impacts within this.

UKRI continues to monitor applications and awards by diversity characteristics through a year on year comparison to understand the impact of the pandemic. If there are any changes, we want to be clear which are normal fluctuations due to research cycles and what may reflect impacts of COVID-19. Currently we are piloting the use of a narrative CV, based on the Resume for Researchers, to allow applicants to describe and evidence their contributions in a wider range of ways. Supporting and valuing diverse contributions is one way of addressing concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on individuals who have experienced higher levels of disruption to their research.

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