COVID-19 has made an often-tough situation even harder for women researchers in the sciences

Stories of the pandemic’s effects on women’s work lives have spread far and wide: mothers having to quit jobs to care for their homebound toddlers following the closure of daycare facilities; moms helping kindergarteners navigate online school in between their own Zoom conferences; adult daughters juggling career responsibilities while tending to the immediate needs of elderly relatives who cannot leave the house for fear of COVID-19.

Along with painting a picture of women often stressed and stretched to the limit, those scenarios explain a lag in women’s professional productivity during recent lockdowns—and they could impact female research faculty especially hard over the long term.

So says Sofia Fernandez, a postdoctoral associate within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. She and four other FIU authors recently published a study on the barriers to women’s progress within the health sciences. Concerned with the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, they investigated, before the current global crisis began, what holds back women academics and researchers from moving up. The pandemic has only made the situation more urgent.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated some of the existing disparities in terms of career and leadership advancement,” Fernandez says. “COVID has differentially impacted women’s work.”

One example of how the pandemic has hampered women involved in the sciences: fewer female researchers have published papers recently when compared to their male counterparts. While publications were up across the board for all researchers during the health crisis, a recent report finds that women have not seen as steep a rise as men—something Fernandez says could hurt the former when they come up for evaluation.

“Journal publications are one of the most important ways that people are evaluated for tenure and promotion,” Fernandez says. “If a woman is going to be compared to a male counterpart at this time, they’re not going to be viewed as favorably and they’re not going to get the same promotion as someone else—if we don’t consider the context of what’s happening.”

In its pre-pandemic activities, the FIU team interviewed 15 “early-career researchers,” defined as postdoctoral associates and assistant professors. Respondents commonly cited family responsibilities, including those related to child rearing, as a barrier to professional advancement. Also high on the list: a lack of female mentors in the workplace and differential expectations regarding the roles of female and male faculty.

“While women’s representation in health-related sciences, as well as in other sciences, has increased substantially, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership roles,” the authors write. (They note that women and men have similar success in obtaining advanced doctoral degrees in biomedical and behavioral sciences, for example, yet women comprise only 34 percent of senior research grant investigators.) The study sought to identify “influences at the individual, interpersonal, organizational and societal levels” that interfere with women’s upward trajectory.

“The takeaway is that all levels need to be addressed in order for sustained change to occur in terms of increased gender equity in health sciences leadership,” Fernandez says.

To even out the playing field, the authors suggest that organizations create support systems for women with female mentors and that universities enforce consistent policies regarding the roles and expectations of faculty. Women’s duties within families may also need some shifting and will need to be considered at work if professional women are to get ahead, they add. Authors also note that disparities are even more pronounced among Black and other minority groups and such women may face unique and compounded barriers.

The value in fostering female leadership, Fernandez says, will manifest in improvements for everyone in society.

“Having diverse leadership ensures that we have diverse perspectives among those that are making important decisions,” she says. “This is especially true in health sciences, to create solutions that are meaningful for the diverse people that we’re trying to serve.”

A discussion on the topic, featuring paper co-author Diana Sheehan, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, will be held by FIU’s Office to Advance Women, Equity and Diversity at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11. Register here .