Covid ‘support’ for female scientists may be backfiring, US told

Time extensions on tenure may be among wrong cures, US National Academies assessment suggests

三月 10, 2021
Women tries to work while children talk
Source: iStock

US universities may be trying to help women in the sciences who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic, but they do not seem to know the best approaches, an analysis from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes.

The assessment, in the form of a 250-page report concluding a year-long review by an expert panel, details a growing recognition that the Covid crisis has pushed back attempts to foster gender and racial diversity in the academic sciences.

It uses survey data and personal details to describe female scientists confronting gendered labour divisions at work and at home, lacking established connections to help them compete in virtual settings, and experiencing negative effects in publishing, collaborating, hiring and stress.

And while universities appear to be trying to help, they may be worsening conditions in some key respects, according to the National Academies’ assemblage of more than a dozen academic experts.

As examples, the experts cite universities granting work-from-home allowances and extensions on project deadlines, while women may actually need reduced workloads in the face of their expanded caregiving demands.

The panel took an especially close look at the wider use by US universities of tenure clock extensions during the pandemic. That practice may have helped some faculty, but it has left others still struggling with their workload disparities at home and then facing even longer pathways to career advancement, the panel says.

As such, the experts say, university efforts to help women cope with Covid disruption “are likely to exacerbate underlying gender-based inequalities in academic advancement rather than being gender neutral as assumed”.

The panel’s chair, Eve Higginbotham, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, opens the report by recalling her own story of heavy disruptions to life and career after Hurricane Katrina forced her to take in her own parents from New Orleans.

“I wrote fewer papers and accepted fewer speaking invitations,” she remembers, “deepening my personal concern that my profession would perceive these absences more harshly, considering that I am a woman, and particularly as a woman of colour.”

To an important degree, the pandemic is exacerbating structural problems for female scientists that universities failed to resolve before Covid arrived, said another panel member, Reshma Jagsi, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan.

Just one year ago, Dr Jagsi noted, the National Academies issued an initial report of more than 200 pages that produced a series of recommendations for addressing major gender-based disparities in academic sciences.

That February 2020 set of suggestions included the idea of creating new institutional reward structures focused on increasing the representation of women in the sciences, and building data-driven tools for monitoring success.

The follow-up panel aimed to point out the ways that Covid has made such solutions more complicated. “Given the wholly new context,” Dr Jagsi said, “we really do need to be sure we evaluate the impact of innovations and interventions.”

The available data were found to be especially weak for the purposes of understanding the effects of the pandemic on black female scientists, Dr Jagsi said. That’s “one of the areas in greatest need for further research”, she said.



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