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Scientist Mothers Face Extra Challenges in the Face of COVID-19

The pandemic is amplifying nearly every disadvantage that women in STEM already face. But institutions and the scientific community can help

When COVID-19 began to spread globally and stay-at-home orders were issued broadly, many were quick to point out that Sir Isaac Newton was his most productive when forced to stay home during London’s Great Plague of 1665. This commentary was almost immediately followed by the observation obvious to any scientist mother: Isaac Newton didn’t have caregiving responsibilities.

The pandemic is bringing to light many challenges that people have long worked to address. We are members of 500 Women Scientists, working to build a more inclusive scientific community and highlighting the unique challenges faced by women in scientific disciplines. It is clear to us that workplace policies and culture can undermine women’s success in STEM fields. The “mom penalty,” for example, is all too familiar to many of us. Now, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing necessary to address it have compounded our concerns about women’s success in scientific disciplines, worsening nearly every disadvantage that women already face.

Preliminary anecdotal evidence suggests that some journals have received fewer submissions from women authors since the start of stay-at-home orders, while submission numbers have increased in other journals for men. While there are ethical and methodological concerns with inferring gender based on names (on which some of these anecdotes may be based), it is unsurprising that there has already been talk about the impacts of the pandemic on the “maternal wall” that limits the advancement of all women in academia.

The impacts on women scientists are by no means uniform. Women scientists of color face even steeper hurdles than white women as they reconcile the increased risk of COVID infection and death in communities of color resulting from structural racism, concerns about racist reactions to precautions such as masking, and increased surveillance and policing in some communities to enforce social distancing, among other challenges. These inequities make clear that there are many steps that scientific institutions and colleagues can and should take now to alleviate the burden and start to address the inevitable inequities that will be exacerbated by this crisis.

The challenges of working as a scientist from home with children is, of course, a tremendous privilege in a world where the pandemic continues to exacerbate long-standing societal inequities, and where many have already lost jobs, health care and loved ones. In addition to the rising death toll of the illness, others have suffered and survived the illness, and many more essential workers risk their lives every day to allow the rest of us to live comfortably and receive care when we need it. We do not want to understate the significant sacrifice that many are now taking to protect all of us.

For those who are able to work from home, women—especially those at early and more vulnerable stages of their careers—are more likely to bear the responsibilities of childcare. Even when parenting tasks are split with a partner, it is widely assumed that mothers are in charge of managing caregiving. Scientific institutions can take steps now to ensure that the careers of their staff can survive the pandemic and thrive when it ends. Parents have figured out short-term solutions to balancing work and family in quarantine, but our demanding schedules are not sustainable. And we risk our long-term physical and mental health in the process.

These are not ideal conditions. We may not be able to work during standard business hours. However, it is also not reasonable to expect that we can work through the night, given that sleep loss is shown to result in reduced work quality and to pose health and safety risks. We are likely to experience decreased productivity. We no longer have the luxury of dedicating working hours to our jobs, as the lines blur between work and home life. We also are required to stay informed on changing emergency measures and to coordinate basic tasks that are now more difficult, such as going to pediatrician’s appointments and the grocery store. These tasks are complicated for everyone right now, and we must help the hardest-hit in the scientific community, especially those particularly at elevated risk in their careers due to this crisis.

For those in early-career positions, including interns and graduate students with educational obligations such as coursework or thesis writing, it is crucial to provide as much certainty as possible that training or degree programs are still viable. This might include extending contracts and funding beyond the original agreement dates. It will also be critical to consider the barriers postdoctorate academics face in obtaining data for their projects; the cancellation of conferences, networking and job interviews; and uncertainty in funding. These issues will affect whether some early-career mothers are able to stay in science or academia. We urge national funding agencies to provide gap funding for graduate students and postdocs who are particularly affected by the current crisis. This would provide a crucial lifeline to our most vulnerable early-career scientists awaiting their next career steps so that they can stay in science or academia.

Department heads, deans and upper administration should also think creatively about ways to facilitate accommodation for their hardest-hit faculty members, often either untenured or not on the tenure track, in the wake of this crisis; this could be in the form of one-semester teaching releases or temporary no-cost release from service or advising responsibilities. The widespread implementation of optional tenure clock stops for pretenure faculty may be a positive development, although it will have negative longer-term consequences such as lower salaries for those who choose to take these accommodations.

Finally, academic leadership should carefully consider how to use student teaching evaluations, as they are susceptible to biases. These are likely to be amplified during the pandemic, when faculty had a matter of days to revise their courses so they could be moved online. Accommodations to help avoid the exacerbation of lasting inequalities are crucial as we recover from this crisis. However, such accommodations should be implemented not only in the wake of the pandemic, but as standard policy for any early-career scientists facing life circumstances that have the potential for long-term career impacts, be these caring for sick family members, pursuing treatment for infertility or facing serious illness or disability (see here, here, here and here).

Nonacademic institutions that support scientists can draw similar lessons. Ensuring that employees who are caregivers are allowed flexibility while not penalizing their career advancement or depriving them of professional opportunities is critical for ensuring that inequities in career potential don’t arise between parents and nonparents.

Some in the scientific community are already stepping up. A recent letter from the Colorado State University Council for Gender Equality on the Faculty to the President and the Office of the Provost asked university leadership to take specific actions to counter the disadvantages sure to face many at the university, if left unaddressed. “Leadership must be thoughtful and intentional,” the letter reads, “even at these early stages of the pandemic, to avoid promoting inequalities as outcomes that could persist for the lifetime of a career.”

Even as governments and communities reopen, challenges will remain. Returning to offices and labs will take time, as children may not return to school or day care on the same schedule. For the youngest children, group day-care settings may remain closed, and some scientists may need to continue working from home. And when elementary, middle or high schools finally reopen with social distancing measures in place, it may also be difficult to collect needed supplies such as face masks, especially for those in places where they are required and children are taught how to properly wear them.

Parents are already thinking about how to prepare our children for new routines that may be very different from what they have previously known. For example, if public schools open in the fall, they may operate on staggered schedules, without recess, to reduce the risk of viral resurgence.

We ask that scientific institutions do everything possible to ensure that all of their employees—parents and nonparents, caregivers and noncaregivers, abled and disabled people—have the tools to succeed, given the new and long-standing hurdles our society faces. Indeed, nonparents also have changed circumstances and many of the current challenges for women scientist mothers have been ongoing hardships of others, such as providing care for extended family members, or working with their own disabilities.

The pandemic has made clear that many of the accommodations that employers are now willing to make could have been made sooner. For years, #DisabledandSTEM advocates asked for the ability to work from home and flexibility of assignments, but met resistance. These are the same accommodations that scientific institutions are now making for all staff.

It is our hope that the empathy and support that have been demonstrated among colleagues during this time extends beyond our immediate crisis situation, and that we don’t fall out of the habit of supporting each other in our personal and professional lives. The pandemic is making it abundantly clear how scientific institutions can make science more inclusive and accessible for everyone, parents or not.

We are thankful for the understanding of our colleagues and students as we navigate the challenges of parenting in a pandemic. Our children have seen us persevere and work hard to stay up on our projects and responsibilities. This is a good life lesson for them. We want them to know the value of hard work and nimbleness. In fact, the ability to shrug off the absurdity of one’s circumstances can boost creativity. It is our hope that we can take the best lessons of doing science from home back into workplaces; we hope the rest of the scientific community will too.


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