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Why it’s difficult to be a woman in research right now

2 Jun 2020962 Views

Trinity College Dublin’s Prof Clodagh Brook discusses how women in research have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and what can be done to ensure that female researchers continue to be heard.

Prof Clodagh Brook is an associate professor and head of Italian at Trinity College Dublin. In October 2019, she was also elected as the college’s first associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion.

Given her senior role in diversity and inclusion and her career as an academic, Brook has been looking at some of the issues impacting women in research as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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In particular, she spoke to me about women researchers publishing less and starting fewer research projects during Covid-19, which may be due to caring and teaching responsibilities.

‘The pressures to be the perfect parent, a fantastic teacher, as well as a world-leading researcher, are simply too great’
– PROF CLODAGH BROOK

Clodagh Brook is smiling into the camera against a black background.

Prof Clodagh Brook

What have been the impacts of Covid-19 on women academics’ research?

It’s very early to tell, but the first evidence points to female academics submitting fewer articles and starting out on fewer research projects than their male counterparts. Nature recently reported that women were submitting articles at a lower rate in March and April this year compared to the same months in previous years.

And, more worryingly perhaps, male authors on preprint articles have grown faster than female authors during Covid-19. This confirms research found elsewhere which points to similar shifts in fields such as political science. But it is complicated. In some cases, men have also had their research impacted by Covid-19.

And women themselves are not equally impacted. We would expect those with young children or caring responsibilities (especially single mothers), those with high teaching loads and early-career researchers to be among the most deeply impacted. Intersectionality will undoubtedly compound problems too, especially for women with disabilities. We will need to develop ways to measure the impacts over the short and longer term.

Why is this the case for women in particular, do you think?

The closing of schools and childcare facilities especially and the cocooning of the elderly and vulnerable during Covid-19 has exasperated gender imbalance in the home. It is well documented that caring responsibilities fall mainly on women workers.

Then, research shows that women shoulder the greater part of the teaching in universities. Moving courses online, which is very time-consuming, therefore hits them most forcefully. This isn’t to say that men aren’t carers or teachers or don’t play a full part in looking after children – it is just to say that a greater share of that burden is falling to women.

So much progress has been made for gender equality in the Irish higher-education sectors and in each institution through Athena SWAN and here in Trinity, of course, through the sterling work of TCGEL. What we’re seeing in publications like Nature is a real cause for concern as it risks undoing our progress, creating new bumps in a playing field which is still very far from level.

Research power is key to promotions so whenever women fall behind in research, they are falling behind in their careers. But there’s another more serious question to be addressed here: we cannot lose the invaluable contribution of women to each research field.

We need women to raise new questions and propose new, and concrete, solutions. I find it particularly worrying that early signs show women contributing less to research papers about Covid-19, for example. But this is not just a problem in scientific fields: female sociologists, educationalists and experts in the humanities are critical as we experiment a massive shift to online working and teaching.

Any solution to this pandemic cannot be impoverished by a lack of female-authored research. This is critical because universities, like many businesses, have already embarked in rethinking now the process of redesigning our futures. It is imperative that the lived experience and perspectives of women lead the debate on what our future might look like.

What can be done to overcome this issue?

There are some obvious solutions. To mitigate the effect on women’s career progression, Covid-19 should be noted as a legitimate special circumstance on promotions forms and must be concretely taken into account and weighted so that those women (and men) who have been adversely affected do not stumble in their careers.

However, there is also the broader question of how we ensure that female voices lead research at this time. Here, we need to look especially at how researchers with caring responsibilities or with large teaching and administrative loads can best be supported. The pressures to be the perfect parent, a fantastic teacher (in a new online environment), as well as a world-leading researcher, are simply too great.

I would suggest that universities need to make it clear that productivity will be reduced in this period. They need to make it easier for everyone to get work done, too. Examples include shortening meetings, running them efficiently, ensuring that meeting and email overload is under control and allowing for flexibility so that work can be done at different times of the day. And taking pressures off by, for example, making staff aware, as we did in Trinity, that emails simply don’t have to be answered out of hours.

Those in senior positions need to champion culture change so that it becomes acceptable for women to be honest about challenges so that they can get appropriate support. A more radical approach would be to offer special post-Covid-19 sabbaticals to women and men adversely affected to enable them to fully contribute to research, or a research fund for assistance in preparing research. With the university’s straightened circumstances, such radical thinking is likely to be curtailed, unless there can be investment.

What would your advice be for women academics facing this issue at the moment?

Don’t try to be perfect in everything! I would suggest focusing on one or two areas of commitment during this period – areas where you can contribute most and set attainable and reasonable goals. The perfect carer-researcher-teacher-leader isn’t attainable at this (or indeed any) time, and it is much more satisfying – and productive – to set goals in some areas and achieve them than be swept along in a sea of Zoom meetings and email.

I would suggest the obvious things we know but often forget to do: a healthy work-life balance, exercising outdoors, eating healthily, talking to friends and family, and keeping work within set hours so that it doesn’t spill out.

No one can do cutting-edge research when overtired. Doing longer hours is proven to lead to no increase in productivity. So, work smart and well in your designated working hours and set aside specific time for research each week, if that is a key goal.

And I’d strongly advise identifying what is hampering your work and work-life balance and to raise this with the Athena SWAN committee in your school. This committee can set and lead agendas and feed not just into the way your school is managed, but also right to the heart of the university so that problems in the system can be fixed.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa joined the team as senior Careers reporter in July 2019 with previous experience in science communication and media. With a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication, she is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos.

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