The Virus Is Hitting Women in Academia Harder

The Virus Is Hitting Women in Academia Harder

By Pallabi Munsi

Boy looking at mother using digital tablet. Woman sitting with son at table in kitchen. She is working from home.


If the world’s research output gets skewed further against women, it will affect how future generations understand society.

By Pallabi Munsi

In the first lesson that Italian social demographer Alessandra Minello recorded for her class at the University of Florence during the lockdown, her 2-year-old son can be heard playing his trumpet in the background. Minello quickly realized that “night and dawn — when he’s asleep — are my only options for recording.”

That leaves her no time to work on the academic research she wants to get published. So when a male colleague told her that the lockdown was giving him more time to focus on his writing, she wanted to scream, Minello wrote in Nature in April.

She’s not alone. 

Around the world, academia has long been weighted in favor of men. Now, the pandemic is threatening to widen the gender divide even further. Between March 11 and April 20, the Journal of the European Economic Association found that:

The number of research papers submitted to it by female authors dropped from 11 percent in 2019 to 4 percent, while male-authored submissions rose from 58 percent to 66 percent.

That may be the most comprehensive evidence, but there is other data that also indicates this pattern — on both sides of the pond. In the United States, the American Journal of Political Science saw a drop in the contribution of submissions written by women from 22 percent to 17 percent between March 15 and April 19. “As a percentage change, that’s substantial,” the editors wrote last month. The journal Comparative Political Studies saw a 50 percent increase in submissions by men during this period, while the numbers for women remained stagnant.

The reasons why female academics are more affected than their male counterparts — even when both are forced to stay at home — are clear, says Jenna Stearns, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. “The pandemic has made families stay at home — without an additional support system. Women generally have more family responsibilities than men — and child care forms a big part of that responsibility,” she says. “So of course, there’s hardly any time to concentrate on academic work.”

This is compounding the stark disadvantages that women in academia already face. Recent research by Stanford University shows that, on average, male faculty are four times more likely than female faculty to have a stay-at-home partner. Women in academia with children spend considerably more time engaging in caregiving activities compared with their male counterparts (35 versus 20 hours per week). Most editors of peer-reviewed journals are men, points out Aniruddha Ghosh, a doctoral candidate in economics at Johns Hopkins University who has previously researched gender pay disparities in academia. Between 1991 and 2010, only 4 percent of editors at the top five economics journals were women, says economist Olga Shurchkov, director of the Knapp Social Science Center at Wellesley College.

The consequences of that divide increasing could play out in the coming months and years — even after the pandemic has passed — as female researchers fall behind men in the number of papers published, thus hurting their prospects of tenure-track positions and promotions. And the impact of gender inequality in research and academics extends to what is taught in the classroom and what research questions are asked, Shurchkov wrote in a recent blog post on Medium.

To quantify the coming crisis, Stearns and Shurchkov are teaming up with Tatyana Deryugina, an assistant professor of finance at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They’ve scanned 10,000 research papers published from 2018 to April 2020, across major economics-focused journals, and found that submissions by female authors dropped more than 3 percentage points in March 2020, and by 5 more percentage points in April. Because women represent only about a quarter of published authors to start with, this drop actually represents a fall of more than 12 percent for March, and 20 percent for April. And because there’s a lag between when an author works on a paper and when it’s published, “the adverse productivity effects may be even larger in May,” Shurchkov explains.

She points out that because researchers are less likely than other professionals to have lost jobs due to the pandemic, the numbers pointing to lower productivity among female academics is not confounded by changing employment patterns.

Stearns and Shurchkov both emphasize that female researchers have diverse experiences. Some, especially those with older children, have been less constrained by the lockdowns. In families where male partners are primary or equal caregivers, men have faced similar productivity challenges. Minello cites the example of a male economist colleague who take cares of two children — 18 months and 5 years old — while his pediatrician spouse continues to work. The impact on female academics may also vary from country to country, depending on cultural expectations of women.

For now, Stearns, Shurchkov and Deryugina are compiling a more thorough survey for female researchers to understand the problems faced by them during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s critical, the three women emphasize, that policies for a post-pandemic world are designed to avoid exacerbating gender inequality. But Stearns worries that’s going to be even harder if women produce less academic work than usual during the crisis. “The papers we publish lead to broader policy decisions, make students decide what they want to study and do in life and so much more,” she says.

Without that research from female academics, the pandemic could make it even harder than it already is for women’s concerns to find adequate representation in policies. The coronavirus is a universal affliction, and it very much affects gender bias.