As Covid-19 has shuttered schools across the globe, leaving parents to pick up childcare responsibilities, a handful of studies have converged on the same grim picture: Women in academic science and medicine are publishing far less since the pandemic hit.

Two studies published in May looked at preprint servers and found that women in life and medical sciences aren’t seeing the same gains in publishing compared to their male peers since the pandemic started. Another analysis, which was published in a preprint server and looked specifically at Covid-19 papers published by U.S. researchers, found that first authorship among women declined 23% compared to papers published in the same journals last year. 

That disparity is thought to be driven, in large part, by parents — primarily mothers — being forced to spend more time caring for and teaching their kids. And if the gap continues to grow, it could have lasting consequences on careers. 

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“We are seeing something that is very disturbing, and that is that women are publishing less,” said Miriam Bredella, the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Faculty Development. 

But that publishing chasm is tricky for employers to close, given that it is largely grounded in decisions that happen outside the workplace and instead occur in the home. The big question: How does a workplace support women without overstepping its bounds? 

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STAT spoke with Bredella about how she and other leaders are navigating how to best address those issues and make sure that women researchers and clinicians have the support they need. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

What factors might account for this discrepancy in publishing between men and women during the Covid-19 era?

Bredella said both national and international data show, even before the pandemic, that women in academia are saddled with more household and child care tasks than are men. One such study, narrowing in on a high-achieving cohort of NIH-funded physician-researchers, found that women spend, on average, 8.5 hours more on child care and other domestic tasks than their male counterparts each week. Bredella noted that besides having societal norms on their side, men enjoy a number of other factors that might make transitioning to remote work during the pandemic easier. 

“Studies have shown that, for example, male academicians, they often are married and their wife is not an academic. So they are not as much affected,” she added, explaining that non-academic spouses might have greater time or ability to manage domestic tasks. By contrast, women in academia tend to have a partner in the same trade — and thus under the same work pressures that don’t leave much room for extra responsibilities.

“And if you have a single woman or minority household, then you are really bearing the brunt of everything,” Bredella emphasized. She explained that single women can’t count on spouses for assistance, while women of color often earn less and may not have the same access to child care support and resources.

“I do think that is an intersectionality, and women who are underrepresented in medicine — or minority faculty — are hit the hardest,” she said.

That’s particularly troubling, given that women constitute a mere 25% of full professors in American medical schools, and Black women — for example —  account for only 2.8% of women professors.

What have you heard from women who are clinicians or researchers at MGH? 

“I have heard from women who want to drop out of the workforce because they can’t handle it anymore,” Bredella said. Her inbox is flooded with messages from women on MGH’s faculty — often those with young children — who say they can’t find the time they need to write and feel simultaneously exhausted and guilty. They’re stuck pulling together half-finished papers and grant proposals late at night after caring for kids during the day — a schedule that takes a physical and emotional toll.

Among their messages: 

“I worry that I will not be able to keep up with my research because I have to manage childcare.”

“Without time to think which is needed for writing and brainstorming, I can only manage tasks that require short attention spans. I am afraid that this will have a long-term impact because grants and papers take months to come to fruition. but I am sure in a year we will see impact.”

“I negotiate ‘protected time’ with my office door closed for seeing patients, but ‘thinking time’ for grants or papers is out of the question, maybe around 11 p.m., but at that point I am too tired to think.”

“I am definitely less productive and work at night to make up for it. I struggle all day to try to get something done, at the same time feeling guilty for being a bad parent.”

“I work several hours after my children go to bed being less productive and having less time for myself.”

“Everything is much, much slower pace, but the expectations don’t change,” Bredella concluded. “I’m still afraid that women will drop out of the workforce and academia to take care of their children — that we’re going to lose a lot of women if we don’t start putting initiatives in place that help them with their childcare and being more flexible.”

What is MGH doing to tackle those issues? 

Harvard Medical School — which oversees promotions at MGH — has paused the clock for tenure-track hopefuls. This move, hopefully, will take pressure off women in the race to win grant money and publish. The hospital is also looking into the option of providing faculty members with in-home child care — though the solution is far from perfect. 

“It’s a very personal issue with child care,” she cautioned. “Some people don’t want day care providers in their house that they don’t know because they’re afraid that they might bring in Covid.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Bredella started hunting for a way to turn travel restrictions — and the subsequent shift of many conferences to virtual events — into a way to get more women in research opportunities to present their work. She established a visiting scholarship — named for her predecessor Anne Klibanski, who also established programs to support women at work — that places women in virtual roles at institutions across the globe, where they can give talks and reach new audiences with their research — all without leaving their homes. 

She’s hopeful it will make it easier for some women to make important presentations, which are a crucial part of promotions. Such talks almost always require travel, which can disadvantage women with household responsibilities and, in turn, affect their professorship prospects. 

“If you’re a woman and you have small children at home, or you have to take care of an ailing relative or your household, it is much more difficult to have three days or four days where you can just travel,” Bredella said. 

Recipients will also benefit from mentorship at the institution they’re visiting, Bredella added.

“I cannot emphasize this enough — how important it is to have a diverse set of mentors around the world in different areas,” she said.

Bredella noted that there are also existing MGH initiatives that support women in research, like the Claflin award, which MGH gives to mothers in the early stages of their careers. The award helps pay for a research assistant for two years. 

“This has been extremely, extremely successful, and has really launched the careers of very, very many successful women,” Bredella said. 

Will the current trends in publishing have lasting effects on women in science and medicine? How can employers help correct the course?

“This time is so critical. If you lose three months of your research, it’s very hard to submit grants and to be productive,” she said. “Once you drop out of the grant funding cycle, you don’t get your grants and it makes it harder and harder to to be successful again.”

Academia urgently needs to get ahead of that problem — and needs to do more going forward to push for gender parity, she said. That includes a radical rethinking of who is driving decision-making. 

“We have to have better representation of women in leadership and have more diversity. I think that is key so that we have women involved in critical decision-making,” she said. “I think it’s really important for women to feel integrated and supported. And this has to come from leadership.”

“You have to have options for work-family integration, you have to allow part-time working, allow remote working. And other things, simple things: Family-friendly meeting times — don’t have your meeting at six or seven o’clock when you maybe as a woman have to make dinner for the kids. Paid parental leave, lactation rooms.”

“We have a long, long way to go,” Bredella said. “But we are tackling it and there are a lot of initiatives so people are aware, which is the first part towards a solution.”

  • It is not just up to employers to seek solutions for continued productivity of women (like the title of this article implies). “One such study, narrowing in on a high-achieving cohort of NIH-funded physician-researchers, found that women spend, on average, 8.5 hours more on child care and other domestic tasks than their male counterparts each week.” ?? These smart women need to change this off-balance in their parenting relationships. Their equally smart partners must take responsibility for this unacceptable discrepancy at home.

  • What is the big deal?
    This trend: first authorship among women declined 23% compared to papers published in the same journals last year, could reflect the fact that these female authors simply did not contribute as much to the core conclusions or the finding of the paper. Thus, their contributions is not impactful and could be of secondary importnave.

    Why not have all the authors be female, then at least one of them would end up as the first author!!

    Not enough time? Really? Stop whining, and ask the employer for a promotion or big raise to reflect their valuable Corvid-19 research contributions to the company, then hire a babysitter or nanny!

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