Women in research: Solutions to the pandemic's disproportionate impact
- Disparities exist between men and women working in healthcare, causing equity gaps in salaries and promotions.
- A new expert opinion paper discusses how additional barriers related to the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing women out of academic medicine.
- The researchers suggest financial, cultural, and operational solutions that institutes and foundations can adopt to solve this problem.
Many studies have shown a disparity between men and women working in healthcare. Not only are there gaps in salary and leadership positions, but female physicians in academic medical centers are also less likely to receive professorship or department chair promotions.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, research has shown that this situation has worsened.
Women have reportedly lost more than 5.4 million jobs in the United States, accounting for 55% of all jobs lost since the start of the pandemic. Of those jobs, more than 1.5 million were in healthcare.
Now, an expert opinion paper, which researchers from seven medical research and academic institutions have written, warns that female researchers in academic medicine have been falling behind with being published and receiving grant funding during the pandemic. The authors argue that this puts women at risk of completely dropping out from the research workforce unless institutes, foundations, and funders take certain actions.
The results from this commentary appear in the journal Nature Medicine.
The disproportionate burden of caregiving
According to lead author Dr. Pamela B. Davis, Ph.D., professor at the Center for Community Health Integration at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, the aim of this paper was to support the clinical research workforce, which was stretched thin during the pandemic.
Dr. Davis and her team collected information from other studies about the effects of pandemic stresses on caregivers conducting research in academic medicine.
“We were concerned because the burdens of caregiving, especially for young children, but also for dependent elderly relatives, fell disproportionately on women, and women who are engaged in a research career are pulled away from their work to render care that formerly was done by the schools, day care, babysitters, or home health aides,” Dr. Davis told Medical News Today.
“This is damaging to the clinical research enterprise, just as there is increasing public understanding of the importance of clinical research in bringing treatments and vaccines to patients,” she said.
This issue rings true for Dr. Jennifer Bramen, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA, who spoke with MNT about the paper.
Dr. Bramen said that reviewing the commentary made her think about her own experience when in graduate school. She said that she and many other women in her program either made career decisions around their desire for children or made family plans around their passion for their academic career.
“I elected not to have children for fear of becoming a trailing spouse after investing 10 years into my secondary education,” Dr. Bramen recalled.
“In my experience, male students did not face these considerations. I know a lot of women who left academia for careers that were kinder to women with family obligations. I do also know many women who have succeeded in having both children and an incredibly successful academic career.”
– Dr. Jennifer Bramen
The changes that can help close the gap
Providing benefits that help women with children, such as tax-exempt accounts to support child care, is one of the recommendations Dr. Davis and her team list as ways in which institutions can help reduce the number of women leaving academia.
The study authors suggest that institutions consider providing short-term, flexible research support for junior faculty with caregiving responsibilities. They are asking foundations and funders to help by advocating for the value that both child care and the care of older adults offer to society.
The authors also recommend certain operational changes, including a flexible work schedule and the availability of high quality mentorship and sponsorship programs for all junior faculty. One actionable suggestion, in particular, proposes that institutions pause the promotion timeline when necessary.
“I believe that the ability to request a pause (to) the promotion timeline for maternity leave and creating a culture open to accepting maternity leave as a reasonable explanation during reduced productivity periods would be helpful to women with children long after the pandemic,” Dr. Bramen said.
The authors also recommend cultural changes, such as sharing the responsibility of establishing gender equity and engaging Boards of Trustees.
For such transformative changes, Dr. Davis said that leadership is key and that institutional leaders — including board members, deans, and chairs — should incorporate this message into their communications and their decisions regarding invited speakers. Funders should advocate, celebrate, and publicize programs that address gender equity.
“Gender equity accelerates research excellence; we need multiple perspectives and all the brainpower to maximize research productivity and quality.”
– Dr. Pamela B. Davis
“The sort of cultural change that we need to drive excellence in the research enterprise needs to be infused throughout the system. There is no more rapid impetus for cultural changes than to have it adopted by those who provide the funding,” Dr. Davis said.
Dr. Bramen agreed:
“If institutions want to support gender equity, they need to provide financial support or make monetary investments. [O]therwise, institutional support for gender equality is a lot of pretty words and will not effect real change.”
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