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Pandemic ‘may roll back’ US progress on research equality


Fears for female and minority researchers as national academies’ report details unequal impacts of Covid-19

The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on female and minority researchers in the United States has given rise to fears that progress made on diversity and inclusion could be reversed.

On 9 March, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report gathering evidence of the impact of the pandemic on the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) during 2020. The academies found that, on several measures, Covid‑19 disruptions had affected the productivity of women more than men.

Eve Higginbotham, chair of the report committee and vice-dean for inclusion, diversity and equity at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of medicine, said that women were at risk of leaving jobs in STEMM and that Covid-19 “may roll back some of the achievement gains made by women to date”.

“Leading up to the Covid‑19 pandemic, the representation of women has slowly increased in STEMM fields, but such progress is fragile and prone to setbacks, especially in times of crisis,” Higginbotham said.

Caregiving costs

Since the start of the pandemic, concerns have been raised that women would be disproportionately affected due to greater caregiving responsibilities. The committee found that, to cope with additional caregiving demands, women in STEMM were reducing their work hours and engaging in fewer collaborations than before the pandemic.

“Women published fewer papers and received fewer citations of their work between March 2020 and December 2020, which may affect their job stability and future ability to obtain funding,” said committee member Reshma Jagsi from the University of Michigan.

Such impacts have been compounded by the measures taken by institutions to deal with shutdowns and the loss of activity. The report detailed how rapid decisions on layoffs and furloughs had an outsized impact on women and minority researchers.

“Budget cuts made by many colleges and universities in response to the economic constraints that arose during 2020 greatly affected contingent and non-tenured faculty members, positions disproportionately occupied by women and people of colour,” said Jagsi.

In addition, the report authors suggested that the measures taken by funders to help researchers, such as grant extensions, “may not be sufficient to address the added caregiver status and home responsibilities” of many women.

Diversity action urged

Separately, the authors of a paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on 10 March have called for academic medical centres in the US to redouble their efforts to maintain staff from underrepresented minorities, who they said are the most vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19 on medical research careers.

Rotonya Carr and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania’s school of medicine said that by taking steps in the “pandemic recalibration period”, institutions “may be able to prevent the negative consequences on science and medicine that come with the attrition of diverse members of the academic community”.

Such measures could include developing databases to monitor the academic progress of minority staff and integrating research structures with offices for diversity, inclusion and equity to develop strategies to prevent researchers leaving the workforce.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe