Has COVID-19 caused gender disparities in health research?

covid-19 gender disparities

A study has found that COVID work-from-home orders caused women physicians to publish fewer studies than men

During the work-from-home period of the COVID-19 pandemic, journal submissions from academics surged across the board. Exploring the wider trends in academic publishing, this is the first study to find such patterns in family medicine.

This study, from Northwestern University, found as men’s scholarly productivity increased, women physicians were submitting less.

The research reflects a growing compilation of evidence that the pandemic caused unique career disruptions for women as they became overworked during remote work, causing stress, burnout and anxiety.

This study highlights the additional gender expectation of women taking care of their children – who were not in school during lockdowns – while also working from home with more responsibility.

Gender composition in career disruptions

Published in the journal Annals of Family Medicine, the study was partly conceived by author observations in their departments, where they witnessed work roles adapting dramatically, with many doctors attempting to play dual roles between childcare or eldercare as well as increase work responsibilities.

Katherine Wright, the paper’s corresponding author, said: “The worry is that these problems will compound. As men were able to submit more, they may benefit from more citations, promotions, funding and career opportunities as women fall further behind.”

Santina Wheat, co-first author, discussing her own experiences in the remote work shift, added: “All of a sudden we were doing telehealth at all hours of the day, and hours of the clinics shifted significantly and quickly.

“There was also always the sense you may need to cover for someone else, which impacted your ability to think about the academic side — or mentor others to do the same.”

Using the last five years of submission data from the Annals of Family Medicine, the scientists reviewed submission data before and during the pandemic by gender and distribution of author’s gender by submission type – such as original research versus special reports, which can impact tenure differently.

A “troubling” gap in the medical field

A widening gender gap in the field was highlighted in the Annals of Family Medicine, which received 41.5% of its submissions from women during the beginning of the pandemic, which was the period analysed by scientists.

Researchers warn the long-term repercussions for women in the medical field because of how tenure decisions are made, and the paper details the gap as “troubling”.

Wright continued: “Publications are still the hallmark of tenure and promotion decisions, so we want to make sure women aren’t at risk of falling further behind. Our hope is this data might be used by promotion and tenure committees to revaluate promotion criteria.”

For example, women tend to be more involved in creating curriculum and service, therefore, heavier activities like these more equally with publications could help balance the scales. With both a childcare and eldercare crisis in the country, parents and caretakers need additional and better support to thrive in their roles.

These impacts are bound to reverberate beyond the pandemic, as the gender disparity in home and work life widens.

Juggling home life and more work responsibilities

The researchers aim to analyse other metrics of diversity in the data to find out if other populations have been impacted disproportionately by the pandemic. They’re also currently analysing the gender composition of peer reviewers, the gatekeepers of the work accepted by scientific journals.

By adding this research to the growing body of data, the authors hope this will catalyse change in these fields.


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