History has a habit of erasing women’s contribution to science — from NASA’s ‘hidden figures’ and the women who propelled men into space to the many female researchers whose work won Nobel prizes for their male supervisors. We cannot give recognition to female scientists and their contributions to the fight against COVID-19 without acknowledging the barriers they have overcome.
This year, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science will focus on female scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.
Barriers and challenges for women in science existed long before the pandemic but are now in the spotlight due to increasing social and professional inequities — especially in academia, vaccine research and development, and COVID-19 response decision-making.
Women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with even lower representation in its leadership, while less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Over the years, these numbers have refused to change, and women remain underrepresented despite the increasing number of female graduates in these fields.
Numerous studies have revealed that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research, and do not progress as far as men in their careers, with the gap only worsening since the start of the pandemic.
Lockdowns implemented around the world left female academics and scientists with increased responsibilities in caring for children, older relatives, and ailing family members. Many women also faced increased domestic responsibilities as “work” and “home” became inseparable spaces.
Stemming from social inequities and expectations — and the fact that men in academia are four times more likely to have a partner engaged in full-time domestic care than their female colleagues — this led to women falling further behind than their male counterparts at work, and it lowered their ability to be productive.
Research in Nature suggests that although women have authored about 20% of working papers since 2015, they make up only 12% of the authors of COVID-19-related research. Also, the proportion of papers with women as first authors was 19% less in 2020 than it was in 2019.
Women’s increased care responsibilities have not only led to a reduction in scholarly production but also prevented them from leadership positions and institutional decision-making, thereby expanding inequity gaps in science and academia.
These challenges are then compounded for women of color, women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), women with disabilities, and women belonging to other marginalized groups, who all face additional unique challenges to equality in science and academia.
For example, only 0.5% of full professors in medical schools in the United States are Black women, while women overall make up 22%.
Women-led research is critical as it contributes to revealing significant gaps or differences in policy and program implications through a gender-conscious lens. For example, the predominantly women-led research on speech analysis of heads of states and COVID-19 unveiled significant differences in the way men and women talk about the pandemic.
What does it mean to have women setting the agenda in COVID-19 scientific research and development?
Women in Global Health recently conducted an in-depth analysis of women’s involvement in diagnostic testing, revealing the need for and benefits of women leading the development and delivery of testing and vaccines — particularly important in light of the COVID-19 vaccine and testing rollouts that the world is now undergoing.
Women driving testing and implementation improves trust in testing services, expands access for women, and begins to break down the barriers to information that women experience due to inequities.
Despite the global devastation that COVID-19 has caused and the structural inequities that have surfaced as a result, the pandemic provides an opportunity for drastic global health reform that places women at the top.
From President Biden’s nearly equal COVID-19 task force to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s successful pandemic response approaches, and from the election of Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President of the U.S. to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala being poised to be the first woman to lead the World Trade Organization — these incredible stories have paved the way for a radical change in women’s leadership in science, policy, and economics that will shape the global pandemic response.
However, we still have a long way to go.
The impacts of the pandemic on women in science have proven that society still adheres to troublesome gendered divisions of domestic labor and traditional social perceptions of women, increasing the gendered burdens women were already facing prior to COVID-19.
What we need now is to continue on this trajectory of advocating for women in science leadership through intersectional, gender-transformative policies that support women in science, academia, and health at all levels.
We must first address the gender inequalities and recognize that women carry disproportionate care and domestic burdens.
- At the institutional level, organizations can provide additional support, such as access to child care and options for family members. At the same time, they should be addressing biases that influence recruitment, research allocation, pay gaps, and the selection and evaluation of experts and leaders during times of crisis, alongside reversing male-dominated institutional cultures and power structures.
- At the household level, there is a need to redistribute care work and remove gender roles to allow for equality.
- At the global level, there must be multilateral cooperation for gender-transformative, intersectional policies designed to support women. These need to challenge the privilege and power imbalances that undermine scientific advancement and the COVID-19 response.
There is also a need for global investment in tools and resources that advance women’s involvement in academia, research and development, science, digital health, and AI. In addition, it is crucial to provide greater opportunities for training and education for girls in STEM — especially in LMICs — to put digital health tech into the hands of women and girls.
We need to do more than just break the glass ceiling. We need to shatter these deeply ingrained societal norms and expectations so that women from diverse backgrounds can succeed and lead this and future pandemics.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, COVID-19 stands as a stark reminder that we need all the talent we can muster at the lab bench and decision-making table.
From Nepalese mountain villages to Brazil’s city favelas, female Einsteins are everywhere — let them shine.
On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, join the movement for women in leadership with Women in Global Health.