Spring 2020 changed how nearly everyone conducted their personal and professional lives, within science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) and beyond. For academic STEMM, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic ranged from delayed experiments in individual laboratories to transformed or canceled global scientific conferences. People shifted classes to virtual platforms and negotiated with family members for space in their homes from which to work. This changed reality blurred the boundaries between work and nonwork, infusing ambiguity into everyday activities. While adaptations that allowed people to connect became more common, the evidence available at the end of 2020 suggests that the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic endangered the engagement, experience, and retention of women in academic STEMM, and may roll back some of the achievement gains made by women in the academy to date.
By the end of 2020, it was well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly detrimental to vulnerable populations, such as People of Color and elderly individuals, and had a devastating effect on the economy, particularly brick-and-mortar retail and hospitality and food services. Less rigorously documented was how the COVID-19 pandemic added to and amplified gendered expectations for women in academic STEMM during its first several months. Although women shared firsthand accounts of new and enduring challenges, the overall effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were challenging to quantify using rigorous, data-driven methods less than 1 year after it began. To better understand and gather the available evidence on the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers of women in academic STEMM, an ad hoc committee was
appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in late summer 2020.
Less than 6 months earlier, the National Academies released the consensus study report Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors (the Promising Practices report). While that report called attention to the challenges that women in STEMM experience and presented evidence-based recommendations to address the well-established structural barriers that impede the advancement of women in STEMM (NASEM, 2020), the actions it identified were not conceived within the context of a pandemic, an economic downturn, or the emergence of national protests against structural racism.
ABOUT THE REPORT
This report arose out of the need to expeditiously identify, name, and document how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the careers of women in academic STEMM during the initial 9-month period from March to December 2020, and to consider how these disruptions—both positive and negative—might shape future progress for women in academic STEMM. The committee’s task was to build on the Promising Practices report and examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s potential influences on women in academic STEMM. Preliminary evidence indicated that such disruptions could have both short- and long-term consequences, and will likely vary across institution type (e.g., community colleges, baccalaureate-granting institutions, doctoral-granting and research universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges); career stage or focus (e.g., graduate student; postdoctoral scholar; medical resident; clinician; tenure-stream, tenured, full-time non-tenure-track, and adjunct faculty); academic rank (e.g., assistant professor, associate professor, full professor); and personal characteristics, including family structure, caregiving responsibilities, and behavioral health status. Developing a comprehensive understanding of the nuanced ways these disruptions have manifested may help the academic community emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic ready to mitigate any long-term negative consequences the COVID-19 pandemic might have on the continued advancement of women in the academic STEMM workforce. It may also help the academic community build on the adaptations and opportunities that have emerged during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To inform its deliberations, findings, and research questions, the committee commissioned five papers. Each paper focused on a unique aspect of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected women in STEMM academics during 2020. The topics of the five papers as commissioned (and their authors) are as follows: the Impact of COVID-19 on (1) Tenure Clocks, the Evaluation of Productivity, and Academic STEMM Career Trajectories (Felicia A. Jefferson, Matthew T. Hora,
Sabrina L. Pickens, and Hal Salzman); (2) Boundary Management, Work-Life Integrations, and Household Labor (Ellen Kossek, Tammy D. Allen, and Tracy Dumas); (3) Collaboration, Mentorship and Sponsorship, and the Role of Networks and Professional Organizations (Rochelle Williams and Misty Heggeness); (4) Academic Leadership and Decision-Making (Adrianna Kezar); and (5) the Mental Health and Well-being of Women in STEMM (C. Neill Epperson, Elizabeth Harry, Judith G. Regensteiner, and Angie Ribera).
The central chapters of the report are based on the final drafts of these five papers. Each chapter provides key insights about how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the careers of women in academic STEMM fields in 2020, approaching this core concept from different disciplinary perspectives. Chapter 2 sets the stage for the ensuing chapters and presents the results of a survey conducted in October 2020, providing a window into the very personal perspectives offered by respondents;1Chapters 3 through 7 review literature and concepts established before the COVID-19 pandemic, summarize the preliminary evidence and data on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 from the perspective of that field, and—where possible—speculate about potential long-term implications. Taken together, these six different approaches form a single unified description of the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers of women in STEMM during 2020.
BEFORE THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Advances in knowledge and practice in academic STEMM demand and benefit from a diversity of perspectives, including people who represent different genders, ethnicities, and ancestries. Different perspectives contribute unique “vectors of skills, experiences, and talents” to the STEMM enterprise (Page, 2007, 2008, 2019). However, women remain underrepresented in STEMM, with both societal and institutional inequities contributing both to this persistent underrepresentation and to the disproportionate burdens many women face in academic STEMM fields.
The organizational structures of colleges and universities, as well as the leadership and the decision-making context, are important determinants of gender equity. Women have a long history of underrepresentation in academic institutional leadership roles (Glazer-Raymo, 2001)—Women of Color even more so. Women also face numerous barriers, such as a “chilly climate,” as well as organizational work policies that make it challenging for women to succeed, including tenure policies that make it challenging for women to have families (Maranto and Griffin, 2011; Sandler and Hall, 1986). Research shows that women are less likely to receive either mentoring or benefit from the sponsorship of senior academics,
have limited or no access to support structures, have less access to networks that would help them to move up in the ranks of administration, and become more isolated as they advance in the academic hierarchy (Maranto and Griffin, 2011; Sandler and Hall, 1986).
Institutional policies have often incentivized successful tenure-track faculty to secure substantial grants, patents, and licenses, while those same policies place a lower value on service work, mentoring, and student support—typically taken on by women and Faculty of Color—when it comes to deciding on tenure and promotion. However, nearly 70 percent of faculty are not on the tenure track, and women are overrepresented in this group (AAUP, 2020a).
During stressful times, those who are systemically disadvantaged are more likely to experience additional strain and instability than those who have an established reputation, a stable salary commitment, and power. Women of Color are impacted more significantly than others, given the layering of gender-bias and racism contributing to their career trajectories. In STEMM, desirable attributes are generally granted to those who adhere to masculine and majority norms. Women in academic STEMM are more likely to be early in their career, have a lower salary regardless of professional ranking in STEMM, be a single parent or a primary caregiver, and report experiencing greater work-related stress and discrimination in the workplace or their community. In addition, the caregiving responsibilities that often fall on the shoulders of women cuts 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.
IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The preliminary evidence gathered in this report indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the productivity, boundary setting and boundary control, networking and community building, and mental well-being of women in academic STEMM. It has led to school closures, shifting caregiving responsibilities onto parents and guardians, which has disproportionately negative outcomes for women across all sectors. Within STEMM, collaborations have been disrupted, career progressions have been paused, and women are facing challenges associated with gendered effects of remote work conflicting with caregiving responsibilities.
Because women were underrepresented across most STEMM fields, particularly in the upper echelons, women are more likely to experience academic isolation, including limited access to mentors, sponsors, and role models that share gender, racial, or ethnic identities. Coupled with the physical isolation stipulated by public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, women in academic STEMM have been isolated within their fields, networks, and communities,
putting at risk the progress they have made in building networks and maintaining collaborations.2
Furthermore, women working in STEMM disciplines have begun to experience additional disruptions that may affect their academic productivity and careers. Preliminary evidence from 2020 suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic affected women’s ability to engage actively in collaborations. For women in STEMM with children or other dependent care responsibilities, many had significantly less time in the day to network and engage in collaborations because of increased nonwork tasks (Heggeness, 2020; Kossek and Lee, 2020b; Myers et al., 2020). Studies suggest, too, that team size has decreased during 2020 and that women’s shares of first authorships, last authorships, and general representation per author group have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic (Andersen et al., 2020; Fry et al., 2020).
With variations by discipline, women also published fewer papers and received fewer citations of their work since between March 2020 and December 2020 (Amano-Patino et al., 2020; Andersen et al., 2020; Gabster et al., 2020), which may affect their job stability and future ability to obtain funding. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many stresses women in academia face under usual conditions. For example, delays in obtaining clearance for conducting research during 2020, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, led researchers to experience increased burnout, sleep disturbance, poor appetite, increased interpersonal problems, and decreased motivation (Sharma et al., 2020).
Available information indicates that the alterations to healthy boundaries between the multiple roles women assume (e.g., as caregivers and professionals) and increased isolation may also negatively impact productivity; harm the recruitment, retention, and persistence of women in STEMM; and/or affect mental well-being. Women faculty in STEMM faced unique challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic related to juggling growing second shift challenges juxtaposed with increased boundary permeability, rising workloads, and persistent ideal worker cultures. While remote work can facilitate the management of work-family roles, it also increases multitasking, process losses from switching frequently between tasks, and interruptions and extended work availability that may harm mental health and well-being. In addition, several studies have shown there are health and well-being implications of these unequal childcare responsibilities (Kossek et al., 2014). To cope with additional caregiving demands, women are reducing their work hours (Madgavkar et al., 2020).
Postsecondary institutions and funders also found themselves in uncharted territory as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have responded in several ways including altering tenure and promotion policies. Tenure clock
2 Social support—particularly that gained from in-person contact—is a protective factor against the adverse effects of stress on health and during many recent societal stressors in the United States, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, individuals have been able to gather with family, friends, and colleagues to grieve and heal.
extensions were widely implemented as policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic productivity challenges3 and may be important for some faculty members. However, these policies were often implemented without addressing disparities in caregiving and job-related workload that women faculty across all ranks and job status faced. Moreover, extending the tenure clock may put off financial incentives, career advancement, and academic freedom. Many funders modified their policies to allow greater flexibility to researchers in 2020, but there was often no additional funding to support staff and graduate students over the longer project period. While 1-year extensions and grant extension flexibility are helpful, overall, the differential effects for women may not be sufficient to address the added caregiver status and home responsibilities that affect work-life integration.
There were some emerging data by the end of 2020 indicating that approaches some academic leaders used to make decisions, govern, and be accountable were more gender inclusive and may help to eradicate growing equity gaps. The predominant approaches included at least three strategies: utilizing the expertise of existing diversity, equity, and inclusion staff to inform decision-making processes; creating new structures to address decision-making needs; and altering existing processes to include more voices in decision-making. Some campuses began to think about the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and suggested strategies to address this issue, such as revised strategic plans aimed at ameliorating equity gaps. However, 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 Color.
Along with these potential negative effects, the COVID-19 pandemic may be catalyzing changes that could portend a better future for women in academic STEMM. Emerging work from several nations suggest that men have started shouldering more caregiving and child-rearing duties, a view corroborated by their partners (Carlson et al., 2020b; Savage, 2020; van Veen and Wijnants, 2020). A study by a consumer marketing group found that 62 percent of men wanted to keep working at home specifically because it increased family time (Fluent, Inc., 2020). As the collective boundaries and barriers between work and home were removed, there were instances of humanization and increased understanding or empathy. Professional conferences adapted quickly to virtual platforms, allowing global participation and often increasing access by removing travel-related barriers that can affect women more than men, given their caregiving responsibilities. Taken together—positive and negative—it is important to identify and illuminate the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and will affect women in academic STEMM for years to come.
3 An informally gathered list of changes to tenure clock policies is available at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1U5REApf-t-76UXh8TKAGoLlwy8WIMfSSyqCJbb5u9lA/edit#gid=0&fvid=238051147.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERSECTIONALITY AND EQUITY
The concept of intersectionality—a lens for understanding how social identities, especially for marginalized groups, relate to systems of authority and power—is helpful for understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect women in STEMM. Productivity, careers, boundary setting, and mental health and well-being are all influenced by the ways in which social power structures define and cultivate social identities. Race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and disability status, among many other factors, can amplify or alter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for a given person. It is therefore critical to investigate, understand, and present the topics explored herein through an equity lens. However, while international scientists have been specifically affected by travel restrictions, increased isolation, and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, this report does not focus on the citizenship of the researchers when considering intersectionality and equity (OECD, 2020).
OTHER SIGNIFICANT FACTORS
Although the primary focus of this study is the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not the only crisis that affected the United States in 2020 and could not be considered in isolation. The committee considered several contextual elements that interacted extensively with the COVID-19 pandemic, including the effects of anti-Black racism, the economic recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increase in technology-mediated interactions, all of which had additional significance for the careers of women in academic STEMM.
Difficult and compounding issues, such as the persistence of structural injustices in U.S. society and increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, led to the creation of departmental committees, special councils, and task forces. Understanding the implications of these issues will take time and careful examination. A complete review lies beyond the scope of this report, but it is important to recognize that these events and activities were occurring and absorbing resources of administrators and faculty—particularly Faculty of Color—concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic. The devastating economic recession not only affected women in STEMM at postsecondary institutions directly, as they felt the consequences of policies such as furloughs, hiring freezes, and elimination of merit increases, but also indirectly as women were forced out of the workforce at a higher rate than men and were more likely to report the need to leave the workforce if their children’s school systems did not have in-person classes in the fall of 2020 (FRB, 2020; Heggeness, 2020). The increased use of technology presented many opportunities for increased access and engagement as well as potential avenues for virtual harassment. It also required resources (financial and technological) to engage with the various platforms that are not ubiquitous in the United States.
Expectations of gendered roles in society often take on added emphasis during periods of stress, and there is a risk that the divide between those who have privilege and those who do not may deepen. Explicit attention to the early indicators of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting women in academic STEMM careers, as well as attention to crisis responses throughout history, may illuminate opportunities to mitigate some of the long-term effects and even create a more equitable system.
The information and experiences assembled in this report represent a description of what was known by the end of 2020. While the report may help inform the decisions that academic leaders, funders, other interested stakeholders, and both current and aspiring academics will continue to have to make over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the charge to the committee was to inform, without making recommendations. Academic leaders and key decision makers may use the information gathered in this study as they consider new policies or adapt current ones to be more responsive to the challenges that women in academic STEMM experience. They may also use the report’s findings as they look for new ways to engage and move forward in creating a more equitable and inclusive higher education and research system. In addition, the lessons that can be gleaned from the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic may be applicable to other large-scale disruptions (e.g., climate change–related events, severe economic recessions, or other novel infectious disease outbreaks) that will continue to be risks faced by the STEMM enterprise over time.
This report, however, was motivated by and focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on the Promising Practices report, the committee provides findings based on the preliminary evidence available during 2020 and identifies questions to create a research agenda about short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, the findings and research questions can help better prepare higher education institutions to respond to disruptions and explore opportunities that support the full participation of women in the future.
The future almost certainly holds additional, unforeseen disruptions that will test the principles and resilience of institutions of higher education. It also almost certainly requires the contributions of STEMM, which can be fully realized only if the well-being of women in these fields does not significantly suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic and other disruptions.
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.4 As multiple crises coincided during 2020, there is a greater chance that women will be affected mentally and physically (see Chapters 4 and 7).|
|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).|
4 This finding is primarily based on research on cisgender women and men.
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 work-life 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 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 that 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 research questions for both understanding the impacts of the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and exploring the opportunities to help support the full participation of women in the future.
Research questions listed under Cross-Cutting Themes tackle the overall impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s participation in STEMM, particularly Women of Color, and the confluence of social stressors that were experienced during 2020. Academic Productivity and Institutional Response research questions probe how policies and practices such as extensions may affect the career trajectories of women, both short and long term. The challenges and insights gained from work-life management, especially for parents and other caregivers, are explored in the Work-Life Boundaries and Gendered Division of Labor research questions. Collaboration, Networking, and Professional Societies research questions cover several aspects of the changed nature of connectivity and conferencing. Research questions about models of leadership and potential institutional change are included under Academic Leadership and Decision-Making. Finally, research questions listed under Mental Health and Well-being consider how colleges and universities can support their academic STEMM workforce. during and after societal stressor events like the COVID-19 pandemic. The full list of research questions is provided in Chapter 8.