Women Are Falling Behind

Large-scale study backs up other research showing relative declines in women's research productivity during COVID-19.

October 20, 2020
 
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A new study of enormous scale supports what numerous smaller studies have demonstrated throughout the pandemic: female academics are taking extended lockdowns on the chin, in terms of their comparative scholarly productivity.

Yes, comparative productivity. While other studies using different metrics show that women are publishing much less now than they were before the pandemic, this new paper finds something different: at least in terms of submissions to academic journals from the mega-publisher Elsevier, both men and women’s productivity actually increased during the first few months of the pandemic, relative to the same period of time in 2018 and 2019. But women’s productivity didn’t increase as much as men’s, meaning that women are still trailing behind male peers as a result of pandemic-era increased caregiving responsibilities.

“Our complete data on all Elsevier journals indicate that the exceptional lockdown and social distancing measures imposed by the pandemic have penalized women academics and benefited men,” reads the study, published on the Social Science Research Network. “Given the importance of publications and citations for academic career and prestige in the current hyper-competitive academic environment, these gender disparities could have important short- and longer-term effects, which need to be considered by academic institutions and funders.”

The gendered “distortion” is especially prominent in health and medicine, where productivity has surged the most during the pandemic, according to the study. In terms of who is most affected, women at later stages of their careers were “penalized the most, which in principle could be explained by more intense family duties,” the paper says.

Co-author Bahar Mehmani, a physicist who works for Elsevier in the Netherlands, said Monday that she and colleagues suggest faculty evaluation committees “give less weight to publications during COVID, or if needed discard it.”

In May, Mehmani and a group of international researchers established a confidential agreement with Elsevier to access manuscript and peer review metadata from all its 2,347 journals. In so doing, the researchers were able to analyze not just how journal submissions were faring during COVID-19, but how some six million individual researchers’ productivity was faring, in terms of submissions, by comparing their rates of submission to before and after the pandemic.

Over all, the researchers found that there was a “race for publication, particularly in related topics with an abnormal rate of journal subscriptions.” Manuscripts submitted to Elsevier's journals increased 58 percent from February to May 2020, compared to that same period in 2019 -- to 738,705 manuscripts, from 466,846.

In health and medicine journals, in particular, the submission rate increased by 92 percent.

Men submitted many more manuscripts over all, however.

An initial analysis found that while the pandemic benefited men’s publishing, it had a statistically significant negative effect for women in three of the four main research areas: health and medicine, physical sciences and engineering, and social science and economics. Life sciences, meanwhile, was not apparently affected.

Except in the social sciences and economics, the researchers also found a consistent, negative interaction effect between gender and seniority, meaning women at intermediate or advanced stages of their career appeared to be "more penalized" than Ph.D. students and researchers without a Ph.D. The paper links this finding with the likelihood that those with Ph.D.s are more likely to be older and therefore more likely to have families to take care of.

To test the hypothesis that the gender and seniority effects were about social distancing and lockdowns, a more advanced analysis included a proxy for social distancing in various countries: Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, which tracks where people spend their time via their cellphones. The researchers were particularly interested in whether country-level data showed people spending more time in residential areas in February to March than they had in January of this year.

Such data aren’t available for countries such as China and Iran. But the restricted sample, including the U.S., confirmed the negative interaction between gender and time in residential areas, when considering authors of submissions to journals of health and medicine, and of physical science and engineering. This was not the case for life science journals, however. Significance was there, but weak, concerning submissions to social science and economic journals.

An analysis of COVID-19-related research in particular found that women submitted fewer COVID-19-related manuscripts in 2020 than men, especially in health and medicine journals.

The rate of accepted review invitations, meanwhile, was similar to years prior, with minimal differences for acceptances by men and women.

In addition to paving the way for large-scale data collaborations between publishers and researchers, the study says data demand that “funding agencies and hiring and promotion committees at national and international levels reconsider their policies.” Flagging or “even disregarding COVID-19 related publications and citations from applicants’ assessment could also be considered,” it says.

Indeed, the researchers wrote, “one of the most important lessons from the pandemic could be to follow multi-dimensional criteria in any academic assessment, which truly reflect a variety of factors describing the potential of an applicant either for an academic job or a grant.” This could include a COVID-19 impact statement, in which candidates explain their opportunities and constraints during this time.

Simultaneously, the paper argues, institutions should promote “a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable working environment” and embrace “a family-friendly leadership policy in the reopening plans of labs and institutes.”

In response to the pandemic, many institutions have offered junior faculty members tenure-clock extensions. Nearly as many critics have said that step doesn’t go far enough, and essentially punishes researchers financially and professionally -- in the way of delayed promotions -- for circumstances beyond their control.

Suggested alternative or complementary interventions include more supports for caregivers. Few institutions have delivered on this. Yale University recently announced that nonladder instructional faculty are now eligible for a full semester of paid parental leave, up from a previously offered eight weeks, and closer to what tenure-track and tenured faculty members get. Still, faculty members at Yale continue to organize for more relief for working parents, even beyond the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, women were still working "double shifts," at work and at home.

Naomi Rogers, professor of the history of medicine and chair of Yale's Women Faculty Forum, said the group sees the announcement "as just one step, an important step, in the path to addressing many of the issues around childcare that the pandemic has brutally made so visible." COVID-19 has "highlighted problems which many Yale faculty and staff had been able to keep under the radar with a kind of patchwork of care that is now almost impossible to reestablish or rely on." Rogers and colleagues are planning a "kid in" on Twitter, similar to a virtual sit-in, for later this month, to make visible the "daily frustrations of balancing work and family."

The University of California, Los Angeles, has also said that professors can ask for two quarters of “modified duties” for caregiving. Professors at UCLA have applauded that step, but many also have asked the university to do more.

Miriam Posner, an assistant professor of information studies and digital humanities at UCLA, mom of two young children, and critic of academe’s nonresponse to the fact that many professors are now teaching and homeschooling their own children, on Monday called the new policy “incredibly vague.” Professors must negotiate the substance of their modified duties with their department chair and dean, she said. “So in effect, UCLA has guaranteed that the faculty who most need the time off -- junior faculty, especially women -- will feel least comfortable trying to get it.”

Posner said that the “sum total of UCLA's lack of support for caregivers will be disastrous for this generation of female faculty members. Everyone I know is in crisis.”

Bill Kisliuk, university spokesperson, said that UCLA issued additional policy modifications for caregivers last month, including relief from service obligations and responsibilities for an academic term, flexibility in terms of requesting courses to teach and when, co-teaching with advanced graduate students, and partial relief from teaching without the assignment of additional future teaching duties. 

"The policy modifications initially will be effective for two academic years," beginning with this year, Kisliuk said. "Use of the modifications will not affect how candidates’ dossiers for advancement are considered by their departments, deans or the university."

Alicia S. Modestino, associate professor of public policy and urban affairs and economics at Northeastern University, helped survey 2,500 working parents across sectors in the U.S. and found that 13 percent of lost a job or reduced hours solely because of childcare during the pandemic. One-quarter of women who became unemployed said it was because of childcare.

According to The 19th, a news website about women and politics, the nation’s "first female recession" deepened last month, with more women leaving the labor force than the country added jobs. About 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce, compared to 216,000 men.

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