How the Gender Gap Widened for Women Academics

The COVID-19 pandemic set the clock backwards on closing the gender gap in academic publishing. With daycare centers and schools closed, women in academia, especially those who are mothers, were saddled with the extra burdens that came with working and teaching from home. The stress led them to lose sleep, cut back work hours and interrupt their career plans. 

Stacey Finkelstein, an associate professor of marketing at Stony Brook University, is one of these moms. Her five-year-old daughter, Maddie, attended kindergarten virtually. Finkelstein said 24 hours was not enough time in a day to handle Maddie’s online school and her own work at the same time. 

“I feel like I’m trying to wring productivity out of a place of absolute exhaustion,” said Finkelstein, who has a doctorate in business. “I feel like I’m working harder than I did as a Ph.D. student and that was really tough.” 

Early career academics and doctoral students bear the brunt of the pandemic’s effect on women academics. Kehinde Cole had her first child, a boy, a year ago – just one month before the campus locked down. At the same time, she was trying to finish her Ph.D. in integrative neuroscience. 

“It’s affected my research over 80 percent,” Cole said. “I can’t be in the lab. I can’t do anything. The least I could do is maybe when he’s napping, I can go hop on a call or ask my partner to hold him while I go join a meeting.” 

And when her son was exposed to COVID at daycare, things only got worse. “In terms of actual research? Zero. I couldn’t do anything at all,” Cole said. 

Cole expected to graduate in May 2022 but is now forced to stay longer at school until she can complete her research. Academic promotion and admission into postdoctoral programs rely mostly on getting published, so much so that the expression “publish or perish” often holds true. 

“If I’m not publishing, no one is really looking for me,” Cole said. “I’m gonna perish, literally. No one will look at me.” 

If mothers like Cole can’t get published, the gender gap in pay and promotions that so many have been fighting to close will only grow wider. 

A recent study showed that in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – women’s research hours fell by nine percentage points more than men’s in spring 2020. COVID-19 has inspired research in many STEM fields. But according to an analysis of pre-published manuscripts in medRxiv – an online archive and distribution service for unpublished papers in medical and health fields – representation of women researchers in the early phases of their careers fell by 44 percent that spring. The service hosts preliminary research in the health sciences that has yet to be peer reviewed.

Molly King is a sociologist from Santa Clara University in California who co-authored a paper titled “The Pandemic Penalty.” King analyzed two other preliminary research servers, called preprint repositories, focused on biology and economics research. 

“What’s notable about our findings that there is a large gap in the last authorship position and that this underrepresentation is getting more inequitable during the pandemic,” King said. “That’s important because this last authorship position is important for retention and promotion in tenure.” 

The last authorship position is usually reserved for the lab director or the head of a university’s research department. Fewer women in this important position means that during the pandemic, senior women were either stepping down from these high-level jobs or weren’t getting promoted.  

“Closing the gender pay gap will enable women to purchase childcare, to afford help around the house, to do the kinds of things for their family that enable them to focus on their research and teaching.”

– Molly King, a sociologist at Santa Clara University in California and co-author of a paper titled “The Pandemic Penalty”

Stony Brook University, like many other institutions of higher learning around the country, allowed academics to add a year to their tenure clock because of the pandemic. It’s a good start, King said, but it’s not enough to fix gender inequity. 

“It’s definitely not a panacea,” she said. “In fact, there’s some research that shows that setting the clock back doesn’t necessarily help women. It can in some ways harm them and it does push back the promise of security.” 

There is some hope that the pandemic’s effects will motivate universities to review how advancement works, especially for women who are caregivers. King said introducing a flexible benefit to hire house help and acknowledging biases in hiring and promotion can help. But she added that closing the gender pay gap, a fight that has been ongoing for decades, is the biggest step universities can take. 

“Closing the gender pay gap will enable women to purchase childcare, to afford help around the house, to do the kinds of things for their family that enable them to focus on their research and teaching,” King said. 

The bipartisan push for more government-supported caregiving programs could be pointing to a shift in thinking, Julia Bear, associate professor of management at Stony Brook, said. 

“Time will tell if we do get a silver lining from the pandemic,” said Bear, who studies gender gaps in the workplace. She said she hopes the silver lining is that “we value caregiving and actually put our money behind that as a society.” 

The clock is ticking, especially for caretakers like Cole. But if universities listen to women, especially moms, there’s still a chance to reverse the trend. 

“That, for me, is proof enough that we need more allowances,” Cole said of having to push back her graduation a year – “more funding, more opportunities to be able to get where we need to get, despite having a kid. A kid should be a plus.” 

A plus that won’t force women to choose between career and  family.

Listen to more of Niki Nassiri’s report: