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Female Scientists Are Bearing the Brunt of Quarantine Child-Rearing

That’s bad news for all of us, particularly when it comes to research relevant to our current crises.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

I was late filing this article. While I was writing it, my three-year-old son refused to nap. When I interviewed people, he interrupted to tell them stories. He climbed on my lap as I typed and twice accidentally smacked me in the face with his plastic dinosaur. He hit a keyboard shortcut and pulled up my photo library, and then he somehow changed my font to Calibri.

Raising kids has always had its challenges. But raising kids during a pandemic, with no schools, no daycares, and no support from friends or family, and while trying to work, is downright impossible. And in certain fields—including those producing vital work for addressing the coronavirus itself, as well as the oncoming climate crisis—that’s starting to show.

Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, recently wrote on Twitter that women have been submitting a “negligible” number of articles during this pandemic. “Never seen anything like it,” Hannon wrote. Another editor said submissions from women have stayed steady, while submissions by men have risen by 50 percent. Another said that submissions by women and men were high at the beginning of the year, but she expected a slowdown in the coming months. Recent analysis from University of Toronto ecologist Megan Frederickson confirms it’s not just those individual journals: Women submitted markedly fewer papers to preprint servers, where scientists post papers before peer review, in March and April, both compared to prior months and compared to those same months in 2019. The pandemic may be exacerbating—and revealing—stark divisions that have long existed in science and other fields, with troubling implications for the research these fields go on to produce.

All research has suffered from lab closures and travel bans. But being at home all day, every day, has also dramatically increased domestic duties, particularly for parents, Hannon told me in an email. (Like many of the women I spoke with for this article, email was easier to manage than a phone call.) Childcare and homeschooling are perhaps the biggest tasks, but we’re also cooking and cleaning more, grocery shopping has become a job unto itself, and we’re spending much more time checking in on family and friends.

There are disruptions in the professional realm, as well. Researchers with university appointments have had to figure out how to transform classroom instruction into distance learning on the fly while dealing with a significant increase in administrative duties at the same time—work that tends to fall more heavily on more junior instructors. Teachers are also providing support beyond educational instruction for students who are living and learning in a tumultuous time.

“If the disparities we’ve witnessed in submissions to the journal aren’t just a statistical blip, then the obvious conclusion is that women bear the brunt of these disruptions,” Hannon said. Early evidence suggests that may be the case: In a recent poll, almost half of men said they do most of their children’s lockdown-era homeschooling; only 3 percent of women, on the other hand, agreed that their spouse was taking on the lion’s share of the homeschooling work. Hannon, who is also a researcher herself with the London School of Economics and Political Science, told me that she hoped the decrease in women’s article submissions was a temporary downturn, but she’s working with other journals to establish whether the dip is statistically significant—and whether it will last. “Will we see an increase in submissions from women over the next couple of months as they find ways to juggle all the new demands on their time?” she wondered.

Merritt Turetsky had just started a job at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, one of the country’s leading research institutions on climate change and environmental issues, a month before the pandemic ramped up in the United States. She’s a mid-career academic who has spent much of her time trudging through peatlands in the north, slicing up wedges of permafrost and studying carbon sequestration. And she’s also a mom to three kids.

When I reached out to her, the first point Turetsky wanted to make was that many people in the world right now are suffering—in terms of health, finances, and losses of loved ones. While researchers and scientists are among those suffering, many have been able to keep their jobs and some measure of stability. That being said, she told me in an email, “there is nothing like a crisis to shine the light on structural cracks that have always been present.”

In disciplines that have been slow to admit women into their ranks, the average age of women in the field will be lower than the average age of men, Hannon told me. “Women, then, are more likely than the field’s average to have young children.” In addition, Turetsky said, there’s evidence that most female academics who are married tie the knot with another academic, while a large proportion of male academics have a partner who stays at home and tends to the family. These inequities, as always, don’t end with the gender divide; for people of color and others with marginalized identities, the pandemic is striking especially hard.

Leslie Gonzalez, associate professor at Michigan State University, and Kimberly Griffin, associate professor at the University of Maryland and editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, recently co-authored a report on the importance of equity in education during the Covid-19 pandemic. Women in research, and particularly women of color, tend to shoulder the burden of emotional activities, empathy, and service more than their white male colleagues—and even more so in a global pandemic, they told me.

“There already are burdens that women and women with racially minoritized identities tend to carry that men do not,” Griffin said, like connecting with and supporting students—which has become all the more important during the pandemic. Women have also often been told to communicate “more like a man,” Griffin said, and to be constantly available like their male counterparts, who “try to work all the time, and they do whatever they can, and they’re always on. How does that look for women who are more likely to be the main caregivers for children or parents, family members, who may not have that time to yield, as compared to cis heterosexual men who probably have a partner that they can give more of the household responsibilities to?” Griffin asked. “You have all of these things happening, and then you layer on top of that a pandemic.”

The coronavirus itself, separate from the issue of lockdown work, has also hit certain communities—especially communities of color—harder. “There’s this additional layer of emotional trauma that particular communities are probably going to be experiencing at different rates,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not just a dip in productivity because people are working from home and we have children and families. But there’s going to be a long-term emotional impact on a lot of communities.”

These inequities could affect science moving forward. Research shows that having diverse researchers matters for the quality of the research produced. A gendered divide affects the way scientific research is conducted and even the conclusions that are reached in that work. The sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, for instance, found that previously established conclusions in primatology research were upended when women began entering the field and spotting the biases of previous (white, male) researchers. Artificial intelligence projects have ended up replicating racist biases.

As the world confronts the climate crisis and a global pandemic, diversity in research has never been more important. One 2017 report found that, while female researchers were less mobile and thus less likely to collaborate with international colleagues, their work was also “highly interdisciplinary.” (Several experts have recently pointed to the importance of interdisciplinary work when confronting society-wide, multifactor shifts like climate change.) Research from Stanford University has found that female researchers were more likely to pay attention to sex and gender in medical research—which is vital, given that medical studies have long excluded women, and thus many drugs’ and diseases’ effects on nonmale bodies is poorly understood. Diversity in research on crises, from the pandemic to environmental change, is particularly important given the disproportionate effects of crises on communities of color. This is especially true for research that informs public policies.

Gonzalez recently had to stop working on one of her research projects because, between work and homeschooling her teenage daughter, it was just too much. Stories about working during the pandemic usually fall on one side or the other, Griffin told me—that we should try to relax and enjoy this unplanned time with our families, or we should try to be as productive as possible. But the reality falls somewhere between, she said. “It’s OK to sit with that tension,” she said, between being professionally productive and balancing other duties. This tension isn’t new, after all. The hope, for many, is that inequities revealed by the pandemic may begin to improve as professionals in all fields, from research to education, reimagine what work and life look like.

After we ended our conversation, my son burst into my office, waving his dinosaur and jumping into my lap. My workday was officially over—at least, until he went to bed.