The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in late 2019, created unprecedented global disruption and infused a significant level of uncertainty into the lives of individuals, both personally and professionally, around the world throughout 2020. The significant effect on vulnerable populations, such as essential workers and the elderly, is well documented, as is the devastating effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on the economy, particularly brick-and-mortar retail and hospitality and food services. Concurrently, the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers created a heightened awareness of the persistence of structural injustices in U.S. society.
Against the backdrop of this public health crisis, economic upheaval, and amplified social consciousness, an ad hoc committee was appointed to review the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in academic science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) during 2020. The committee’s work built on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors (the Promising Practices report), which presents evidence-based recommendations to address the well-established structural barriers that impede the advancement of women in STEMM. However, the committee recognized that none of the actions identified in the Promising Practices report were conceived within the context of a pandemic, an economic downturn, or the emergence of national protests against structural racism. The representation and vitality of academic women in STEMM had already warranted national attention prior to these events, and the COVID-19
pandemic appeared to represent an additional risk to the fragile progress that women had made in some STEMM disciplines. Furthermore, the future will almost certainly hold additional, unforeseen disruptions, which underscores the importance of the committee’s work.
In times of stress, there is a risk that the divide will deepen between those who already have advantages and those who do not. In academia, senior and tenured academics are more likely to have an established reputation, a stable salary commitment, and power within the academic system. They are more likely, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, to have established professional networks, generated data that can be used to write papers, and achieved financial and job security. While those who have these advantages may benefit from a level of stability relative to others during stressful times, those who were previously systemically disadvantaged are more likely to experience additional strain and instability.
As this report has documented, during 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic had overall negative effects on women in academic STEMM in areas such productivity, boundary setting and boundary control, networking and community building, burnout rates, and mental well-being. The excessive expectations of caregiving that often fall on the shoulders of women cut across career timeline and rank (e.g., graduate student, postdoctoral scholar, non-tenure-track and other contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty), institution type, and scientific discipline. Although there have been opportunities for innovation and some potential shifts in expectations, increased caregiving demands associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, such as remote working, school closures, and childcare and eldercare, had disproportionately negative outcomes for women.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in STEMM during 2020 are understood better through an intentionally intersectional lens. Productivity, career, boundary setting, mental well-being, and health are all influenced by the ways in which social identities are defined and cultivated within social and power structures. Race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, academic career stage, appointment type, institution type, age, and disability status, among many other factors, can amplify or diminish the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for a given person. For example, non-cisgender women may be forced to return to home environments where their gender identity is not accepted, increasing their stress and isolation, and decreasing their well-being. Women of Color had a higher likelihood of facing a COVID-19–related death in their family compared with their white, non-Hispanic colleagues. The full extent of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for women of various social identities was not fully understood at the end of 2020.
Considering the relative paucity of women in many STEMM fields prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women are more likely to experience academic isolation, including limited access to mentors, sponsors, and role models that share gender, racial, or ethnic identities. Combining this reality with the physical isolation stipulated by public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic,
women in STEMM were subject to increasing isolation within their fields, networks, and communities. Explicit attention to the early indicators of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected women in academic STEMM careers during 2020, as well as attention to crisis responses throughout history, may provide opportunities to mitigate some of the long-term effects and potentially develop a more resilient and equitable academic STEMM system.
Given the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not possible to fully understand the entirety of the short- or long-term implications of this global disruption on the careers of women in academic STEMM. Having gathered preliminary data and evidence available in 2020, the committee found that significant changes to women’s work-life boundaries and divisions of labor, careers, productivity, advancement, mentoring and networking relationships, and mental health and well-being have been observed. The following findings represent those aspects that the committee agreed have been substantiated by the preliminary data, evidence, and information gathered by the end of 2020. They are presented either as Established Research and Experiences from Previous Events or Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic during 2020 that parallel the topics as presented in the report.
Established Research and Experiences from Previous Events
|Finding 1||Women’s Representation in STEMM: Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the representation of women has slowly increased in STEMM fields, from acquiring Ph.D.s to holding leadership positions, but with caveats to these limited steps of progress; for example, women representation in leadership positions tends to be at institutions with less prestige and fewer resources. While promising and encouraging, such progress is fragile and prone to setbacks especially in times of crisis (see Chapter 6).|
|Finding 2||Confluence of Social Stressors: Social crises (e.g., terrorist attacks, natural disasters, racialized violence, and infectious diseases) and COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions to workload and schedules, added to formerly routine job functions and health risks, have the potential to exacerbate mental health conditions such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress. All of these conditions occur more frequently among women than men.1 As multiple crises coincided during 2020, there is a greater chance that women will be affected mentally and physically (see Chapters 4 and 7).|
1 This finding is primarily based on research on cisgender women and men.
|Finding 3||Intersectionality and Equity: Structural racism is an omnipresent stressor for Women of Color, who already feel particularly isolated in many fields and disciplines. Attempts to ensure equity for all women may not necessarily create equity for women across various identities if targeted interventions designed to promote gender equity do not account for the racial and ethnic heterogeneity of women in STEMM (see Chapters 1, 3, and 4).|
Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic during 2020
|Finding 4||Academic Productivity: While some research indicates consistency in publications authored by women in specific STEMM disciplines, like Earth and space sciences, during 2020, several other preliminary measures of productivity suggest that COVID-19 disruptions have disproportionately affected women compared with men. Reduced productivity may be compounded by differences in the ways research is conducted, such as whether field research or face-to-face engagement with human subjects is required (see Chapter 3).|
|Finding 5||Institutional Responses: Many administrative decisions regarding institutional supports made during 2020, such as work-from-home provisions and extensions on evaluations or deliverables, are likely to exacerbate underlying gender-based inequalities in academic advancement rather than being gender neutral as assumed. For example, while colleges and universities have offered extensions for those on the tenure track and federal and private funders have offered extensions on funding and grants, these changes do not necessarily align with the needs expressed by women, such as the need for flexibility to contend with limited availability of caregiving and requests for a reduced workload, nor do they generally benefit women faculty who are not on the tenure track. Furthermore, provision of institutional support may be insufficient if it does not account for the challenges faced by those with multiple marginalized identities (see Chapters 3 and 4).|
|Finding 6||Institutional Responses: Organizational-level approaches may be needed to address challenges that have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as well as those challenges that may have existed before the pandemic but are now more visible and amplified. Reliance on individual coping strategies may be insufficient (see Chapters 2 and 6).|
|Finding 7||Work-Life Boundaries and Gendered Divisions of Labor: The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified complications related to worklife boundaries that largely affect women. Preliminary evidence|
|from 2020 suggests women in academic STEMM are experiencing increased workload, decreased productivity, changes in interactions, and difficulties from remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated disruptions. Combined with the gendered division of nonemployment labor that affected women before the pandemic, these challenges have been amplified, as demonstrated by a lack of access to childcare, children’s heightened behavioral and academic needs, increased eldercare demands, and personal physical and mental health concerns. These are particularly salient for women who are parents or caregivers (see Chapter 4).|
|Finding 8||Collaborations: During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has allowed for the continuation of information exchange and many collaborations. In some cases technology has facilitated the increased participation of women and underrepresented groups. However, preliminary indicators also show gendered impacts on science and scientific collaborations during 2020. These arise because some collaborations cannot be facilitated online and some collaborations face challenges including finding time in the day to engage synchronously, which presents a larger burden for women who manage the larger share of caregiving and other household duties, especially during the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic (see Chapter 5).|
|Finding 9||Networking and Professional Societies: During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, some professional societies adapted to the needs of members as well as to broader interests of individuals engaged in the disciplines they serve. Transitioning conferences to virtual platforms has produced both positive outcomes, such as lower attendance costs and more open access to content, and negative outcomes, including over-flexibility (e.g., scheduling meetings at non-traditional work hours; last-minute changes) and opportunities for bias in virtual environments (see Chapter 5).|
|Finding 10||Academic Leadership and Decision-Making: During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many of the decision-making processes, including financial decisions like lay-offs and furloughs, that were quickly implemented contributed to unilateral decisions that frequently deviated from effective practices in academic governance, such as those in crisis and equity-minded leadership. Fast decisions greatly affected contingent and nontenured faculty members—positions that are more often occupied by women and People of Color. In 2020, these financial decisions already had negative, short-term effects and may portend long-term consequences (see Chapter 6).|
|Finding 11||Mental Health and Well-being: Social support, which is particularly important during stressful situations, is jeopardized by the physical isolation and restricted social interactions that have|
|been imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For women who are already isolated within their specific fields or disciplines, additional social isolation may be an important contributor to added stress (see Chapter 7).|
|Finding 12||Mental Health and Well-being: For women in the health professions, major risk factors during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 included unpredictability in clinical work, evolving clinical and leadership roles, the psychological demands of unremitting and stressful work, and heightened health risks to family and self (see Chapter 7).|
While this report compiled much of the research, data, and evidence available in 2020 on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, future research is still needed to understand all the potential effects, especially any long-term implications. The research questions represent areas the committee identified for future research, rather than specific recommendations. They are presented in six categories that parallel the chapters of the report: Cross-Cutting Themes; Academic Productivity and Institutional Responses; Work-Life Boundaries and Gendered Divisions of Labor; Collaboration, Networking, and Professional Societies; Academic Leadership and Decision-Making; and Mental Health and Well-being. The committee hopes the report will be used as a basis for continued understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in its entirety and as a reference for mitigating impacts of future disruptions that affect women in academic STEMM. The committee also hopes that these research questions may enable academic STEMM to emerge from the pandemic era a stronger, more equitable place for women. Therefore, the committee identifies two types of research questions in each category; listed first are those questions aimed at understanding the impacts of the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by those questions exploring the opportunities to help support the full participation of women in the future.
- What are the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the career trajectories, job stability, and leadership roles of women, particularly of Black women and other Women of Color? How do these effects vary across institutional characteristics,2 discipline, and career stage?
2 Institutional characteristics include different institutional types (e.g., research university, liberal arts college, community college), locales (e.g., urban, rural), missions (e.g., Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Asian American/Native American/Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities), and levels of resources.
- How did the confluence of structural racism, economic hardships, and environmental disruptions affect Women of Color during the COVID-19 pandemic? Specifically, how did the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black citizens impact Black women academics’ safety, ability to be productive, and mental health?
- How has the inclusion of women in leadership and other roles in the academy influenced the ability of institutions to respond to the confluence of major social crises during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How can institutions build on the involvement women had across STEMM disciplines during the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the participation of women in STEMM and/or elevate and support women in their current STEMM-related positions?
- How can institutions adapt, leverage, and learn from approaches developed during 2020 to attend to challenges experienced by Women of Color in STEMM in the future?
Academic Productivity and Institutional Responses
- How did the institutional responses (e.g., policies, practices) that were outlined in the Major Findings impact women faculty across institutional characteristics and disciplines?
- What are the short- and long-term effects of faculty evaluation practices and extension policies implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic on the productivity and career trajectories of members of the academic STEMM workforce by gender?
- What adaptations did women use during the transition to online and hybrid teaching modes? How did these techniques and adaptations vary as a function of career stage and institutional characteristics?
- What are examples of institutional changes implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that have the potential to reduce systemic barriers to participation and advancement that have historically been faced by academic women in STEMM, specifically Women of Color and other marginalized women in STEMM? How might positive institutional responses be leveraged to create a more resilient and responsive higher education ecosystem?
- How can or should funding arrangements be altered (e.g., changes in funding for research and/or mentorship programs) to support new ways of interaction for women in STEMM during times of disruption, such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
Work-Life Boundaries and Gendered Divisions of Labor
- How do different social identities (e.g., racial; socioeconomic status; culturally, ethnically, sexually, or gender diverse; immigration status; parents of young children and other caregivers; women without partners) influence the management of work-nonwork boundaries? How did this change during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How have COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions affected progress toward reducing the gender gap in academic STEMM labor-force participation? How does this differ for Women of Color or women with caregiving responsibilities?
- How can institutions account for the unique challenges of women faculty with parenthood and caregiving responsibilities when developing effective and equitable policies, practices, or programs?
- How might insights gained about work-life boundaries during the COVID-19 pandemic inform how institutions develop and implement supportive resources (e.g., reductions in workload, on-site childcare, flexible working options)?
Collaboration, Networking, and Professional Societies
- What were the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic-prompted switch from in-person conferences to virtual conferences on conference culture and climate, especially for women in STEMM?
- How will the increase in virtual conferences specifically affect women’s advancement and career trajectories? How will it affect women’s collaborations?
- How has the shift away from attending conferences and in-person networking changed longer-term mentoring and sponsoring relationships, particularly in terms of gender dynamics?
- How can institutions maximize the benefits of digitization and the increased use of technology observed during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue supporting women, especially marginalized women, by increasing accessibility, collaborations, mentorship, and learning?
- How can organizations that support, host, or facilitate online and virtual conferences and networking events (1) ensure open and fair access to participants who face different funding and time constraints; (2) foster virtual connections among peers, mentors, and sponsors; and (3) maintain an inclusive environment to scientists of all backgrounds?
- What policies, practices, or programs can be developed to help women in STEMM maintain a sense of support, structure, and stability during and after periods of disruption?
Academic Leadership and Decision-Making
- What specific interventions did colleges and universities initiate or prioritize to ensure that women were included in decision-making processes during responses to the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How effective were colleges and universities that prioritized equity-minded leadership, shared leadership, and crisis leadership styles at mitigating emerging and potential negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in their communities?
- What specific aspects of different leadership models translated to more effective strategies to advance women in STEMM, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How can examples of intentional inclusion of women in decision-making processes during the COVID-19 pandemic be leveraged to develop the engagement of women as leaders at all levels of academic institutions?
- What are potential “top-down” structural changes in academia that can be implemented to mitigate the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic or other disruptions?
- How can academic leadership, at all levels, more effectively support the mental health needs of women in STEMM?
Mental Health and Well-being
- What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and institutional responses on the mental health and well-being of members of the academic STEMM workforce as a function of gender, race, and career stage?
- How are tools and diagnostic tests to measure aspects of wellbeing, including burnout and insomnia, used in academic settings? How does this change during times of increased stress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How might insights gained about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic be used to inform preparedness for future disruptions?
- How can programs that focus on changes in biomarkers of stress and mood dysregulation, such as levels of sleep, activity, and texting patterns, be developed and implemented to better engage women in addressing their mental health?
- What are effective interventions to address the health of women academics in STEMM that specifically account for the effects of stress on women? What are effective interventions to mitigate the excessive levels of stress for Women of Color?
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