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AS I SEE IT - The Impact of COVID-19 on Women in STEM By Neelam Bhohi

"I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science... and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing."

These are the words of Emmanuel Charpentier, who was announced as one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 alongside Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on genome editing. They are the first two women to share the prize, and as a female STEM student myself it is refreshing to see this historic achievement being made. It is role models like Charpentier and Doudna that inspire women and minority groups to persevere through the challenges of working in an industry where they are so outnumbered.

Seeing an announcement such as this may make you think that things are improving for women in STEM, however this is not necessarily the case. While the number of women graduating with a STEM degree in the UK has increased over the last few years, so have the number of men, meaning the overall percentage of female graduates is remaining pretty much the same. As of right now, only a quarter of the STEM workforce are female.

"It is role models like Charpentier and Doudna that inspire women and minority groups to persevere through the challenges of working in an industry where they are so outnumbered."

There are several problems that could be contributing to this gender gap. A lack of women in STEM leads to a lack of role models for young girls to look up to and aspire to. It is also rare that young girls find themselves in environments that encourage their interest in STEM, often meaning they lose motivation at secondary school age. One of the main issues facing women in STEM today is the presence of gender roles in our current society, which is worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on all of us, especially on our working lives. As we find ourselves in yet another lockdown, more of us are returning to the work-from-home lifestyle, something I experienced myself during my placement year. Working from home can be convenient but blurring the line between home and working life can bring along its own set of challenges.

In most households in the UK, women are still expected to be the primary caregivers for their children, so it comes as no surprise that working mothers have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. More than half of working mothers are struggling to find the childcare needed for them to return to work, and many have worked fewer hours or have been made redundant because of this. This has led to a widening of the gender pay gap.

"Over the years the authorships of research papers for women and men have remained mostly constant, however data suggests that women are publishing less research papers during the coronavirus pandemic."

Female academics are struggling to balance their jobs and their familial duties. Many are working very late nights and early mornings to give themselves the time to care for their children, and consequently are falling behind their male peers. This was especially prevalent during the first lockdown, when schools were closed for several months.

Over the years the authorships of research papers for women and men have remained mostly constant, however data suggests that women are publishing less research papers during the coronavirus pandemic. Women only account for a third of all authors who have published papers related to COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak in early 2020. A gender inequality in the fight against the virus may reduce our chances of dealing with it in a robust and efficient way.

One change that we have experienced as students is the shift to online teaching. On average female faculty shoulder more teaching responsibilities, and hence their productivity levels have been heavily affected, while increasing their workload. Another issue is the impact that staying at home as had on mental health in general, which has cause people to work less efficiently than they would have in the workplace and hinders their motivation.

"what women in STEM need is an investment in gender equality."

Is the damage COVID-19 is causing to women in STEM irreversible? Many female scientists will find their career trajectories pushed off course by the pandemic. Huge amounts of damage to the economy continue to be made with no end in sight. However, things will eventually go back to normal, and by making some changes, women in STEM could find themselves in a better position than ever before.

Firstly, the expectations surrounding caregiving needs to be removed. This means we need to evaluate how and why gender roles are still prevalent in our current society, and why there is a stigma of men being the primary caregivers for children. Next, it is important for women in STEM to talk about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, to raise awareness of the prejudices they are facing. This can lead to changes in company policies, grant extensions, and improvement of parental leave. These changes all boil down to one thing: what women in STEM need is an investment in gender equality.

It is important to note that there could be a silver lining to all this. Right now, our best hope of ending this pandemic lies in the hands of scientists and researchers, including men and women. As young girls see how important this life-saving work is, it is possible that COVID-19 could be the catalyst for them to pursue STEM related careers. These role models, just like Charpentier and Doudna, are inspiring the next generation of bright female scientists.

Credits:

Created with an image by ernestoeslava - "laboratory care health"