Women in science are battling both Covid-19 and the patriarchy

The pandemic has worsened longstanding sexist and racist inequalities in science pushing many of us to say ‘I’m done’, write 35 female scientists 

May 15, 2020
A black female scientist working in a lab
Source: iStock

Successful female scientists are, by definition, resilient. We have overcome well-documented barriers throughout our lives: discouragement by teachers, family and society to pursue careers in STEM fields; a lack of role models; hostile and sometimes abusive work environments; disproportionate domestic work and caring responsibilities; and biases against us in favour of men in every aspect of our professional lives – hiring, promotion, publishing, pay, service loads and grant allocation. These barriers are felt even more keenly by women of colour, who face the intersectional effects of racism and sexism.

And yet, even these lifelong battles for a place in science have left us unprepared for the gendered and racial inequalities we have experienced in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The worst impacts of the coronavirus will undoubtedly be the loss of lives, the collapse of economies, the disruption of humanitarian aid and the decay of democracies. But we fear that the hard-won progress for women in science will be collateral damage of this crisis.

Together, we represent scientists in North America and Europe who are working on Covid-19 both through research and in the translation of research to clinical responses, policy and public communication. We span the academic career pipeline from graduate students all the way up to senior, tenured faculty. We all share the same experience: the scientific response to Covid-19 has been characterised by an extraordinary level of sexism and racism.

In some ways, the issues we face represent an exacerbation of the inequalities we have always had to manage. But what is surprising and demoralising is seeing the fault lines of sexism that define our unequal footing with men crack into gaping chasms under the pressure of the pandemic. 

Women are advising policymakers, designing clinical trials, coordinating field studies and leading data collection and analysis, but you would never know it from the media coverage of the pandemic. More than ever before, epidemiologists, virologists, and clinicians are communicating with journalists and the public about their science. But highly visible articles in The New York Times and other media outlets about the scientists involved in the response are biased towards men, even though there are plenty of qualified women on the frontlines of the Covid-19 response that could easily be identified by checking author lists and scientific websites.

Neither epidemiology nor medicine are male-dominated fields, but women are quoted less often – sometimes not at all – in articles. What’s more, the lack of inclusion of leaders of colour is striking and disenfranchising for minority women scientists of colour, particularly as communities of colour are being hit hardest by this epidemic.

Even within our own institutions, unqualified men’s voices are being amplified over expert women because they have been identified through informal male networks, or have blustered their way in to social media and TV interviews and are therefore perceived as “high profile”.

Not including women’s voices in the public discussion of the Covid-19 pandemic is a distortion of reality. It not only perpetuates the invisibility of women in science and leadership positions, undermining our ability to be taken seriously as experts and failing to provide role models for younger women, but also impacts our careers as we strive to prove the impact of our work to funding agencies, colleagues, and hiring or promotion committees.   

We have also noticed that women are more likely to be doing work that is focused on “getting shit done”–  the operational work and supporting decision-makers, for example – rather than writing scientific papers or grants.

All the while we are disproportionately supporting students and filling service or pastoral roles in our institutions; a continuation of a troubling trend of women doing the “invisible work in academia” even in the absence of a pandemic. At the same time, we see that the opportunistic but not necessarily qualified researchers who are applying for newly available Covid-19 funding are overwhelmingly male; this is not only skewed in favour of men and often fails to acknowledge junior women involved, but also represents a misallocation of funds.

And then there is the potentially dangerous issue of unqualified men being listened to more than women experts, reflecting the fact that white male power structures seem unable to entrust the most important public health questions to anyone other than white men, regardless of their qualifications.

Management consultants – largely male – with negligible relevant experience are making key decisions about the health of millions. Tech sector data scientists with no prior experience in any aspect of public health, biology or disease control are being “pulled in” to task forces to discuss the finer points of contact tracing with policymakers. Senior male academics, famous for their innovations in other spheres, are giving public commentary with ill-informed modelling exercises, conjectures, or policy prescriptions with no basis in rigorous science.

For many women, the final straw is the inequality they face in domestic work, childcare, and responsibility for ageing parents and community members. There is ample evidence that women faculty spend significantly more time doing household chores and looking after children than their male counterparts. Now, with almost all of us working from home and schools closed around the world, the burden of these responsibilities – particularly childcare – falls heavily on women.

We already know how this discrepancy plays out in terms of academic productivity, where “equal” maternity and paternity leave policies come with a deficit for women and provide a boost to men. Now there is evidence of the productivity divide during the Covid-19 crisis, with fewer women submitting papers than men, which we suspect reflects both the type of academic work women are doing and the time deficit created around trying to balance work with increased domestic responsibilities. Even the crucial medical research into Covid-19 is male-centric.

As women who are deeply involved in Covid-19 science, it has become clear to us that our expertise means little when it comes to real decision-making in this public health emergency. We are frustrated that our work is being overlooked and misrepresented in the media. We’re exhausted knowing that after this is all over we will have a powerful fight on our hands to reclaim the professional ground that is slipping away from us during this emergency.

And we fear that these experiences will lead to a haemorrhaging of women from academia in the aftermath of the pandemic – particularly junior women – even with assurances of tenure clock stoppages or other mitigating policies. The disillusionment and cynicism we hear in the voices of our colleagues and friends fill us with sadness. “After this is over, I’m done” is a refrain we have heard many times in the past few months, almost exclusively from women.

We are reticent to complain for fear of being seen as weak, as if we are overly fixating on prestige or whining about being left out, when in fact the stringent filters of sexism and racism have left us all with tougher skins and greater resilience than many of our male colleagues.

Potential solutions to these problems have been proposed and discussed many times: changes in promotion criteria, targeted funding opportunities, raising awareness among journalists, and mandated inclusion of diverse speakers on academic panels.

While urgently needed, these solutions are insufficient to respond to the amplification of inequalities that the pandemic has brought. We need to deeply examine these issues, and to reflect seriously on the cultural and institutional toxicities they expose.

No doubt this article will provoke predictable responses: accusations that we are elitist; we are entitled; we have our priorities wrong; we are over-reacting; we are paranoid; and it’s #NotAllMen. Meanwhile many of our male colleagues will send us well-meaning private messages of encouragement, asking which women to follow on Twitter.

Journalists will ask us who to interview and if we can provide a list of options. The answer is yes, of course. There are lists of female experts; there are author lists on scientific papers; and there are academic websites. These exist precisely because we have been fighting for years to progress science in spite of patriarchal barriers. We wish that we could now focus on fighting Covid-19.

Caroline Buckee is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Bethany Hedt-Gauthier is an associate professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Ayesha Mahmud is an assistant professor of demography at the University of California, Berkeley.

Pamela Martinez is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Christine Tedijanto is an epidemiology graduate student at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Megan Murray is a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School.

Rebecca Khan is an epidemiology graduate student at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Tigist Menkir is an epidemiology graduate student at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Ruoran Li is a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Sara Suliman is an instructor in medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

Bailey K. Fosdick is an assistant professor of statistics at Colorado State University.

Sarah Cobey is an associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

Angela Rasmussen is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Saskia Popescu is a senior infection preventionist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Muge Cevik is a clinical fellow at the school of medicine at the University of St Andrews.

Sara Dada is a global health researcher at the Vayu Global Health Foundation.

Helen Jenkins is an assistant professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health.

Hannah Clapham is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

Erin Mordecai is an assistant professor of biology at Stanford University.

Katie Hampson is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow.

Maimuna S. Majumder is a faculty member of the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Amy Wesolowski is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Krutika Kuppalli is an Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Isabel Rodriguez Barraquer is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Tara C. Smith is a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University College of Public Health.

Emma B. Hodcroft is a postdoctoral researcher at the Biozentrum institute at the University of Basel.

Rebecca C. Christofferson works in the department of pathobiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University.

Jaline Gerardin is an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Rosalind Eggo is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Lauren Cowley is a prize fellow of Bioinformatics at the University of Bath.

Lauren M. Childs is an assistant professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech.

Lindsay T. Keegan is a research assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Utah.

Virginia Pitzer is an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. 

Catherine Oldenburg is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Roopa Dhatt is executive director and co-founder of Women in Global Health.

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Reader's comments (6)

Women are not underprivileged in the very PC world of academia. The opposite is true and has been for a long time. If you are too weak and cowardly to do the job for which you are well paid, then move aside in favor of someone else. We are in a time of crisis. Do the job or resign.
Women in the past may have been disadvantaged and when I entered academia sexual harassment was rife... and accepted. I navigated tough waters and being outspoken, suffered but survived. My research stood the test of time. However, the opportunities given to women since have led to more women in power and sadly, sometimes the wrong types of women. Women as line managers of other women can be far worse than men and ruthlessly ambitious. I have witnessed female line managers shouting at men. I know of women who have risen on charms and not talent. I also know of brilliant female leaders. Women are certainly not underprivileged. Certain women and men... the quiet achievers remain the most disadvantaged. The answer to this is to cease outdated appraisal systems and asked the managed, not the managers for their views.
I'm always sad to hear from people who feel that they are hard-done-by.... but at the far side of 60 with a career that spans software & web development, teaching in FE and now the delight of having slithered into academic life I've never found that the fact I happen to be female has ever been a barrier to doing what I want. However, I may be an odd-ball. My role-models are people who have done things that I aspire to do myself, not people who are physically like me, however successful.
I'm so grateful for your article! It exactly describes much of my experience. Women being assigned admin and data gathering tasks, being left out of calls between men discussing work ideas. Ive twice recently suggested research ideas and got the reaction - 'that's a good idea, why doesn't Paul lead that' even though i am at the same job level as Paul. I can think of more ideas but it's sooo annoying and tiring. Thank you so much for making me feel not alone.
Thank you for the article. I see this my field too (also STEM). I see also the tendency for women to be asked to take on administratively heavy duties during this time of emergency planning, it does feel like a relentless battle on all fronts, home and work, emotional and practical. I currently work closely with several senior (male) colleagues. They are the figureheads for the work while the thinking, planning and managing and execution of projects fall to me. When I've suggested it would be better (and in my head I'm thinking *more honest*) for me to officially take the lead, since I have the knowledge and the contacts, there is always some vague excuse to do with 'right now it's better this way for this ambiguous reason'. Structural injustice exists and dominant systems protect themselves. I like and admire these colleagues, but I also recognise that they're products (as we all are) of a societal system that has a stubborn tendency to default to using archetypes to decide competencies, rather than actual, well, competencies.
These men are no worse than the women in the world of children who keep men at arm's length and limited in their participation. Where are the male workers in maternity wards, daycare, kindergarten...and other "old girls'" realms. Hiring gaps are proof of discrimination. “A Comprehensive Look at Gender Equality: The Doctrinaire Institute for Women's Policy Research” https://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/the-doctrinaire-institute-for-womens-policy-research/