Disappearing Scientists: The Female Researchers Lost To Pandemic Childcare

There was plenty of work to do, the horrors of Covid-19 provided a glut of vital research projects, turbo charging the turgid publication process and even providing that most precious of commodities, funding. But some of those best placed to help us through the pandemic went missing. Men have always published more scientific papers than women. Covid-19 has made the gender divide even worse.

One of the more fun things I’ve done since my last visit here was a science writing course and so I am back to try and practice my writing. Only fitting then, that my first blog after a long, childcare related absence, is about the disappearance of female authors from scientific papers. 

Even in the before times women were underrepresented as authors of scientific papers. But research published last month in the BMJ, which looked at 11 major scientific journals, has found that the divide widened once the pandemic struck.  It’s particularly bad for the coveted “first author” position.

Most research papers have a long list of authors. Who goes where on that list is significant and occasionally contentious. The last author is generally a senior person, typically the head of the laboratory, who is overseeing the project. The first author is the one who has done most of the hard work, and will get most of the credit, often a younger member of a lab. 

Assistant Professor Angèle Gayet-Ageron of the University of Genève found that the number of female first authors dropped by almost 20% once the pandemic struck. Things were especially bad between January and May 2020. I suspect those with small children could guess why…

I spent much of that period utterly exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to teach two different age children curriculums utterly foreign to my 1980’s primary school experience, while dealing with a toddler who did not want to be contained in a house for weeks, let alone kept quiet while mummy surreptitiously googled “what the hell is a fronted adverbial?!”. But I was incredibly lucky, I didn’t have a job.

All around the world, the first half of 2020 brought lock downs and school closures. Women bore the brunt of domestic labour, childcare and homeschooling. Unsurprising then that the scientific publication gender gap widened, with female scientists having to use so much time and energy just to keep family life going. You can’t simply “work from home” if you have a curious three year old and your job requires a biohazard lab (something I once had to point out to an HR person at a former workplace).

Added to this, female academics are more likely to take on teaching responsibilities. Leaving many women facing the double hit of trying to teach their own children while also setting up improvised systems to teach university classes remotely. 

While of course plenty of men were taking on these challenges, overall, the burden was greater on women. A study from Brazil found that Female scientists with children were less likely to submit a paper for publication than male scientists with kids. Male scientists without kids did even better and who fared worse of all? Black women.

Even senior women were not protected from this issue. Last authors are generally older, may have older children and are less likely to be doing hands-on lab work, but there was still a drop of 12% in the number of female last authors in the early days of the pandemic.

 Gayet-Ageron and her colleagues found that the number of female authors has now returned to levels similar to those before the pandemic. But how much damage has been done? The early stages of an academic scientific career usually involve a series of short term contracts lasting only a few years. Finding the next job depends heavily on having a catalogue of high quality publications to show off. What then is the impact of those lost months for the long term career prospects of many women in science? 

What was lost to the rest of us? At a time when biomedical research has moved faster than anyone could have ever imagined, and when we have needed scientists more than ever, how much more could we have done if some of our best and brightest hadn’t been forced to abandon their work to hunt down loo rolls and endure Jo Wicks?

Female scientists are of course not alone in this. This new study spotlights a niche, but it reflects light onto the whole of our pandemic society. I honestly do not know how some of my working Mum friends made it through. While huge gains had been made for women’s rights it’s clear that, in a crisis, they are easily sacrificed. 

There is a glimmer of hope though.  Gayet-Ageron also found that there were more female first authors if the senior, last author, was also a woman. Perhaps a sisterhood of scientists exists and can help the coming generation up the ladder. But society, and politicians need to do their share. We can not keep asking tired women to carry exhausted women up these hills. 

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