Women in science and medicine have experienced significant disruption to their research, publishing and career advancement during COVID-19. Systemic biases and disproportionate distribution of household and caring responsibilities have culminated in fewer women on policy committees and publishing research papers as a result of the pandemic.  

COVID-19 has shone a light on pre-existing inequalities within scientific and medical research. This is evident with only 20% of the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19 being women, even though 70% of frontline health workers are women. Prominent peer-reviewed medical journal, BMJ, says within their specialty publications, females represented 39% of female first authors (females listed first), as opposed to 53% male in 2019. The lack of female output has only deepened since the emergence of COVID-19, with female first authors declining to 26%, whilst male authors have risen to 60%. These widening inequalities are attributed to the increase in household demands that are disproportionately assigned to women, such as cleaning, cooking, home schooling and caring for the elderly. Surveys highlight the disparity in the division of domestic duties: while men have taken on more responsibility within household and parenting duties, women still carry majority of the load.  

Adrienne Torda, Associate Professor in medical education and innovation, said this has created an environment where men are more confident in providing opinions on new and unfamiliar terrains, while women feel the need to thoroughly polish themselves before putting their knowledge forward. 

“There is also a number of surveys that have shown that women are more reluctant to apply for jobs if they have less than 100% of the criteria, whereas men will apply,” Professor Torda said. Women may often hold back from applying for jobs or promotions and face more career interruptions and external pressures that can limit their time and impede their career trajectory.  

“Women are often tasked with picking up children, feeding the family, doing the shopping, so men are more academically productive and move up the career path quicker,” Professor Torda said.  

“To be successful in academia requires many hours of writing up research for publications, preparing talks, preparing at conferences. All of these very hard to do if the ‘ladder’ years coincide with ‘young family’ years,” she said.  

Professor Torda said there were promotions and senior job opportunities she didn’t actively seek, because she was too busy, balancing work and life duties. 

“I only thought about applying, after a male colleague suggested it,” Professor Torda said.  

Dr. Holly Seale, Senior Lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said the increases in responsibilities on women and the consequent disadvantage they face during COVID-19, were emblematic of the balancing act that women have always experienced – albeit on an amplified scale.  

“I was recently on The Drum, ABC. In order for me to be at the studio at 4.40pm, I had to call in favours with family members to pick up my children from childcare, while also ensuring that I was leaving the family in the lurch by running out at dinner time! These are the stories that need to be told- because it is a challenge,” Dr Seale said. 

Barriers to academia entry and subsequent career advancement are often decided upon by hiring committees, conference panels and journal editors that are often dominated by male. Professor Torda said this makes it difficult to seek female mentors.  

“This is why we need to actively change things by having appropriately diverse representation on committees, conferences etc (as per panel pledge) and really embedding EDI principals in the centre of explicit design of many of these things,” Professor Torda said. 

Dr Seale echoed her sentiments, emphasising that data will always reflect the bias of the programmers.  

“If we want equity and diversity, we need to have equity in the ability to hear diverse voices. Without these voices, there will be gaps in addressing issues important to all genders. Without these voices, we are probably missing the voices of a very intelligent 50% of the community,” Professor Seale said.  

However, Dr Seale emphasised that despite significant hurdles for women in science and medicine, there have been substantial improvements and a formidable cohort of Australian females are leading the field during COVID-19. UNSW is home to two of Australia’s most influential public health academics, Mary-Lou McLaws and Raina MacIntyre, who have been prominent media voices during COVID-19. 

“We are lucky to have two female representatives in the top 10 media people which is great to see (acknowledging that it is only 2/10 are females) The other thing is that we also have strong female leadership at health departments in many states and with the modelling team,” Professor Holly Seale said. 

“So, it feels that within my sector, I feel like there are great female leadership within the COVID-19 response,” Professor Seale said.  

Yet the challenges for women exasperated by COVID-19 are still rampant and may not be easily resolved post COVID-19. 

 “They won’t recover quickly in terms of research, publication and hence grants. In addition to the devastating effects of COVID-19 on everyone, there will be more indirect effects on women (rolling on from the discussion above) with things like childcare and schools affected,” Professor Torda said. 

“When they apply for grants, jobs or promotions next year, the concept of ‘relative to opportunity’ will be a real one for many women, whose opportunity to do their job has been severely affected this year,” she said. 

Instead of focusing on the problems, Professor Seale emphasised the importance of a solutions-based approach. She said in order to shift systemic biases, change need to occur at every level – starting with education and mentoring.  

Professor Seale said measures to level the playing field and dismantle discrimination would be effective in transforming attitudes, increasing opportunities and providing women with more guidance. She pointed to Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid’s advice as key benchmarks: 

  • A mentoring program pairing more experienced women with less experienced women 
  • Encouraging the Universities and Institutes to see the value of their staff engaging with the media 
  • Media training by these Universities specific to #womeninSTEM and their unique challenges 
  • Programs such as UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champions Program and Superstars of STEM are great but don’t reach every person, are there open resources from these programs that can be shared  
  • Engage with relevant organisations such as Franklin Women 

UNSW aims to build an inclusive and equitable research culture, where everyone’s voices are heard. If you are an active-women researcher, we encourage you to join UNSW’s Women in Research Network – a leading forum for women to connect, collaborate and receive information and support.