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The pandemic has significantly impeded the careers of women in academic science, technology, math, and medicine fields, according to a new report.

STAT spoke with Eve Higginbotham, chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that wrote the report, about the significance of this negative trend in fields where women are already underrepresented. Higginbotham is also an ophthalmology professor and vice dean of inclusion, diversity, and equity at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.


This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired this deep dive into how the pandemic is affecting women in STEMM?

There was a recognition that this Covid pandemic was going to create an environment like no other. Self-identified women were not going to have the same kinds of platforms for networking and collaboration and doing experiments, and that there was going to be a significant disruption.


Can you talk about the methods and the process of this study?

The challenge with this report was, we didn’t have a lot of strong evidence because it was still evolving. So what we determined to do was create a report based on whatever evidence there was available and tee up, not necessarily recommendations, but research questions that would be reflected back on academia to ensure that the trajectory of women is certainly protected going forward.

So this is a report that the outcome was not going to be findings and research and recommendations, but findings and research questions. It’s preliminary evidence and we developed about 31 research questions. And so these questions are the ultimate outcome of the paper.

What were some of your major takeaways from this?

The vitality of the STEMM community is dependent upon the sustainability of women in STEMM. STEMM can’t exist without women, and women need to have the support of a more robust infrastructure within institutions to be able to have the optimal vitality so that we can succeed.

These five areas span the primary focus of our report:

Academic productivity and institutional responses: If women are not publishing, if they’re not doing experiments, that’s going to affect their academic productivity and ultimately their promotion.

Work-life boundaries and gender divisions of labor: Caregiving responsibilities fall on the women. Certainly it’s children or aging parents. It’s caring for the home. Regardless of how many women are in the primary workforce, there is still the continuation of caregiving responsibilities falling on the shoulders of women.

Collaborations, networks, and the role of professional organizations: In academia, it’s your networking, engaging with others who might be in the same area of interest so that you can work on a paper together or develop a grant together. Oftentimes those engagements occur at professional organizational meetings. And without that opportunity to have those informal linkages, there was going to be a challenge.

Academic leadership and decision-making: The best expression of leadership in this era is an equity-minded leadership model where leaders need to look at the population of academics using an equity lens. What does that mean? Well, it’s the recognition that women have more caregiving responsibilities. So I have to adjust my policymaking to ensure that caregiving responsibilities are not a deficit, or do not actually come across as a negative.

Mental health and well-being: We know from previous pandemics that women do suffer more from social isolation, from anxiety, from depression, compared to men. There’s a disproportionate impact on women compared to men. And so this needs to be addressed at the institutional level and there needs to be that recognition.

How does the report take into account the additional burdens and stressors that women of color and particularly Black women have been facing in the pandemic?

The social isolation in the halls of academia has actually increased and because the conversation around structural racism has really been a big topic, the intensification of workload has changed for people of color. We are the ones that are being asked by organizations to step up and either lead or fully participate in conversations around structural racism.

If you add caregiving responsibilities and lack of ability to set boundaries in terms of space or time to do work at home, it just has not been helpful and may certainly continue to negate any progress that has already been made in advancing particularly women of color in academia.

How were trans women included in the discussion of the study?

We do have a footnote that this was really primarily focused on cis[gender] women. But I would say that anyone who identifies in this space, it’s a relevant report.

Was there anything in this process that you learned that surprised you?

The survey [that was sent out to female STEMM professionals] is more granular and really helps to further frame the importance of these issues. When women were asked the impact Covid-19, of course, everyone found there was increased workload in hours worked. The workload expanded and the time to do work expanded into weekends, so there was less time to do work. There was less time to do reflection. The huge impact on productivity was quite significant.

Do you have any personal predictions on how the ongoing pandemic will continue to affect women’s careers in STEMM longer term?

If institutions do not aggressively correct for this, then we will see fewer women being promoted to professor, to leadership positions. 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.

What can institutions do to support women in their careers, during and after the pandemic? You mentioned a previous report, called “Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine,” that was released in February of last year — are there practices from there that should be implemented?

There were some wonderful evidence-based interventions that were there [in “Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine”]: Institutionalizing caregiving help for women, for instance, making sure there are adequate facilities for child care on campus, mentorship, and sponsorship. From an institutional level, incentivizing senior faculty to be mentors and sponsors, as well as ensuring that the quality of mentorship is equitable across the spectrum so that some groups are not mentored differently than others. Ensuring that promotion criteria are such that it reflects a more equitable platform for considering the research that women may be doing more than men, or people of color may be doing more than men.

Across academia, we want to see, what were the interventions that were put forward and how did they actually change the trajectory of women?

  • “How does the report take into account the additional burdens and stressors that women of color and particularly Black women have been facing in the pandemic?”
    Does race have to be dragged into everything? Do we always have to be in competition about who is more of a victim?

  • I earned my PhD in Engineering in 2001, as a married woman with 2 teenagers. My marriage & family survived, but ultimately my career & health did not. By 2009 I went into premature retirement. I have survived multiple serious health problems since then. The stress of trying to pursue teaching & research was too much, I think. Now I am thankful to be alive, still married, & have a decent relationship with my adult children. These are truly important things, priorities that I want to last. Worldly fame & success can be fleeting, & are dependent too much on the opinions of others.

    • The level of inequity in gender roles continues to be shocking. As an HMS post-doc in neuropsychology I recall one of my male mentors describing one of his young children jumping into his lap when he was reviewing a paper for publication; the kid was hungry for attention. Multiple marriages later he manages to have ok relationships with his kids, but the wives – who were also professionals – certainly bore the brunt of the childcare duties. We all, as individuals & societies making up the world, suffer!

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