Progress on gender parity in research ‘set back a year’ by Covid

A young woman lies in shallow water after slipping on a boating ramp in Beccles Quay as a metaphor for progress on gender parity in research ‘set back a year’ by Covid

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Academia’s slow progress towards gender parity has been set back by at least a year because of the pandemic, according to new research.

Researchers from Spain analysed articles deposited in five major repositories from 2017 to 2020 and found that up until the pandemic, the proportion of female authors had been steadily increasing over time, with the proportion of male authors decreasing by 5 per cent per year on average.

The authors, due to present their findings at the British Sociological Association conference on 25 August, showed that lockdowns reversed that progress, with the proportion of male authors increasing again and female authors decreasing.

The overall number of papers submitted to preprints has been increasing year-on-year, they said. For the lockdown period, the probability of uploading a paper to a preprint was 3 per cent higher for men than for women.

The analysis of 502,762 articles in the arXiv, medRxiv, bioRxiv, PsyArXiv and SocArXiv repositories found that the trend was particularly clear when it came to single authors, where men were almost 50 per cent more likely to upload a paper.

This was likely because of the greater effort and time required to produce single-authored papers, which would be difficult for women who are more likely to bear the brunt of childcare and housework, they said.

The researchers found that the data were particularly stark for Covid-related research, with men significantly more likely than women to submit Covid-related research during the pandemic, with the probability of submitting a Covid paper 8 per cent higher among men.

The researchers observed that, pre-pandemic, Covid-related fields such as biology, health sciences and maths had seen the proportion of female authors increasing.

They estimated that lockdowns had set back the progress towards greater gender equality, which was already slow, by one year.

They also estimated progress towards gender parity had been set back by one-and-a-half years when it came to Covid-specific research, preventing women from benefiting from the unprecedented research opportunities that have sprung up.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, one of the authors, Margarita Torre, associate professor of sociology at the University Carlos III of Madrid, said their work builds on findings from previous studies that have demonstrated how women’s research production has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.

“I could see my female colleagues struggling with childcare, with housework…so I wasn’t surprised by our findings, but I was disappointed,” she said. “Previous articles looking at work and family life were already pointing in that direction. However, quantifying the magnitude of the effect is important to show the extent of the problem.”

Dr Torre said she and her colleagues wanted to look specifically at Covid-related research because it was reasonable to think that, in the coming years, many research funds would be redirected to support coronavirus-related studies, and this would probably be at the expense of other less cutting-edge topics.

“Women will be less likely to benefit from these new lines of funding and, of course, lower productivity levels also means fewer citations, fewer research grants and lower likelihood of promotion among women,” she said.


“It’s very important that employers − not just in academia but in other sectors, too − are aware of this reality and implement measures to mitigate it.”

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