There are signs that COVID-19 may be impacting women’s careers in STEM – and they’re not good.

The story of underrepresentation of women in STEM is known all too well, with only 27% of the STEM workforce being female, compared to 52% of the wider workforce.

To make things worse, COVID-19 is skewing a playing field that was never level in the first place, with women’s academic journal submissions plummeting in the past year.

Having articles published in academic journals is a critical measure of success by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which rates departments by academic publications and impact. It’s also worth mentioning that the REF oversees the distribution of around £2bn of funding to universities annually.

In a COVID-stricken 2020, an overwhelming number of research publications such as arXiv, bioRxiv, and The Lancet have reported either fewer article submissions received by women (as the lead author) or the number of submissions by male authors growing faster than the number by females. 

What’s more, women’s expert voices in COVID-19 media stories are far and few-between (even more so than non-COVID news stories). Data shows that men are quoted nearly three times more in COVID-19 new stories than women in the UK, despite a more equal gender ratio of experts available.

So, why is this happening?

In the past few weeks, we saw an infographic (right) urging people to “Stay Home. Save Lives.” The image shows women homeschooling children and doing chores, whilst the only man featured was depicted relaxing on a sofa.

The image has since been withdrawn after criticism for stereotyping women however, there’s an even more disappointing outlook to this message: the accidental, accurate depiction of many women’s realities during lockdown. Many women are looking at the image with an outpour of recognition, saying “Well, yeah.”

The additional lockdown responsibilities such as childcare, homeschooling and increased housework, on top of their regular academic work, is causing a “double shift”, slowing female researchers’ progress far more than their male counterparts.

It’s important to note, however, much of this research focuses largely on households comprising of heterosexual couples. In reality, many households do not look like this, with varying effects of the “double shift” apparent across different family structures such as single parents, co-parents living apart, same-sex couples etc.

Research by the UK Time Use Survey found that women in heterosexual couples are bearing the brunt of this extra, invisible, unpaid work. During April and May 2020, a mother’s average weekly hours spent on childcare rose to 26.5 compared to a father’s 14.8 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Weekly hours spent on childcare and homeschooling by gender in April, May and June 2020.

To make matters worse, papers are the products of months (if not years) of work. The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s scientific contributions is likely to be even greater in a few months’ time.

Recently, some publications have reported a bounce back in women’s research output. This was observed through the Autumn months when lockdowns were eased resulting in schools and nurseries briefly reopening. Despite this seemingly positive news, women shouldn’t have to play “catch-up” between lockdowns. With this level of childcare, homeschooling, housework and academic commitment near impossible to juggle, solutions such as targeted funding opportunities or diverse academic panels could counterbalance the unavoidable, lower output of female scientists.

To cut a long story short – it’s not looking good. Female scientists’ positions may be at risk, threatening hard-won gender-equity advances achieved over the past few decades. Together as a society, we need to question: how can we value and recognise the disproportionate amount of invisible work women do every day? And more importantly, how can we try to distribute it more evenly?

For up-to-date information and research on this topic, visit the Mendeley public library focused on COVID-19 and gender.