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COVID-19 will affect women’s career prospects more than men’s. Here’s what we can do about it.

The insidious effects of gender disparity affect all the facets of our society. In times of crisis, all forms of inequality -including those based on gender, but also race, or sexuality- are often aggravated. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Unidad de Mujeres y Ciencia of the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación establishes a series of actions that the scientific community must consider in order to both track this disparity and minimize its effects. The report highlights that the gender gap in scientific productivity, exacerbated in this crisis, will have consequences for women researchers' careers.

Gender and science during the pandemic

The Unidad de Mujeres y Ciencia of the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación has published “Género y ciencia frente al coronavirus”, a document cataloguing the inequalities based on gender during this coronavirus crisis, and presenting some ways in which it can be tackled. It is important that action plans are created in order to face this issue in an effective way.

The main problems this document points out are the ways in which family life and scientific work are balanced, and how these two worlds coexisting under the same roof will negatively affect women’s careers.

Some studies have already warned about this issue, for example, in the article "Impact of COVID-19 on academic mothers" (Science, 268 6492, 724, 15 May 2020) “After a bit more than two months of lockdown, declarations by editors in academic journals warn about significative differences in the number of articles sent during lockdown signed by men and women: “men have had more time to publish”.” 

The Unidad de Mujeres y Ciencia worries about how this will affect women’s careers, specially those who have to take care of their children or parents in their households. In the long term, in a field with little vertical movement and difficulty of promotion, this reduction in research and publication for a sustained period of time can accentuate the gender breach in scientific publicationIt is a matter of concern, as expressed in the article "The decline of women's research production during the coronavirus pandemic" (Nature Index, 19 May 2020)

The article "Checking in with Women Materials Scientists During a Global Pandemic: May 2020" (Chem. Mater. 2020), in which our Project Manager, Laura Cabana, participated, features the expererience of many women working in Materials Science during the COVID-19. We would like to highlight here a situation that may be common for many women scientists: "I suddenly found myself at home with a 7-month-old, 3.5-year-old, a partner with a full time job, and a class to teach online. Now that we are 8 weeks in, I can easily say it has been the most challenging time of my career."  (Jenny Y. Yang, Associate Professor, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA, USA)

Other articles about the topic include "The pandemic and the female academic" (Nature, 17 April 2020) "This pandemic can teach some of us an important lesson: mothers and fathers together are facing a short-term reorganization of care and work time. In the long run, these changes in productivity will affect careers. Those with fewer care duties are aiming for the stars. Will anyone in the academic community take into account our unbalanced approach to family care and work? No. All of us will participate together in open competition for promotion and positions, parents and non-parents alike."

What can be done to tackle the gender breach in women researchers' career during the Covid-19 pandemic 

To face this issue, many measures can be taken by organizations and institutions in the field, starting with the funding agencies, which should study their evaluation processes, based on disaggregated statistics, in order to localize if and how this breach takes place. Once localized, it must be acted upon, through measures like compatibility of family life and international mobility, or temporary measures to overcome the "maternity wall" that affects many women’s careers.

The publication also calls for more general improvements in the scientific area, like (1)  offering training in gender in research to predoctoral researchers, to be able to include gender perspective in the project proposals, so that this dimension is accounted for in every process, (2) stablish mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the integration of gender analysis in every part of the research process for any project publicly funded, (3) fund gender perspective multidisciplinary research about the Covid-19 and its consequences in different areas, (4) include gender knowledge and experience in the advisory groups and in the decision making groups related with the Covid-19, so the decisions can take into account the potential impact of gender. 

This situation presents a good opportunity to face the gender disparity in the scientific community structurally, through a transformation of the stablished hierarchy and the hidden power structures within. To do so, the document proposes the development of disruptive measures based on the integration of scientists in the diagnosis of this gender breach, the coordination of gender equality departments, or the stabilization of funding for science research and development that ultimately improves the careers of researchers and guarantees stable and qualified professional careers, which avoid the loss of talent among young women. 

The bottom line for this publication is clear: neither societal change or crisis confrontation can be properly achieved without transversal gender perspective that allows the identification and resolution of gender disparities. 

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Cover image: Researcher at ICMAB's Labs 

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