3 Jun 2022

A "She-Cession" in Academia: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women in Academic Publishing

 Guest post by Sinead Carey. This post was written as part of the MLIS Scholarly Communications module at UCD School of Information and Communication Studies.

For more than a decade, feminism has experienced a revival off the back of modern social movements. The world of scholarly communication is no exception, having experienced an explosion of interest in research surrounding gender inequalities, the gender pay gap and women in leadership. As time passed, those in the media began to brandish the growing gender diversity in academic publishing as an optimistic sign for the future.

And then the pandemic happened.

COVID-19 has had unprecedented ripple effects for the entire world, and certainly, this has trickled down to female scholars. Social isolation, remote work and the increased burden of home-schooling have all taken a toll, with many women with young children describing perceived 'penalties' they have faced in the workplace. In the past year, researchers have begun to call attention to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women in academia, with new gender gaps being identified in the areas of publishing and productivity.

Is this a temporary setback? Or will COVID-19 have long-lasting effects on the progression of women in academic publishing?

Image credit: photo by Luke Southern / Unsplash

One Step Forward...
Before the pandemic hit, women in academia saw (some) progress. According to the European Commission (2022), the number of women at bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels has been growing steadily in recent years. Women had also begun to join the workforce in higher numbers than men. From 2015 to 2018, women saw a 2.2% increase in workforce involvement compared to a 0.8% increase for men.

In Ireland, progress was slow but still visible. The first female president of an Irish University was appointed in 2020, with more following closely in her wake. Today, four of the seven Universities in Ireland are headed by female leaders. On top of this, a recent report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) showcases that more than half of lecturers in Ireland are female. It seemed that women were making strides across the field of academia.

But these figures tell only one side of the story.

Two Steps Back
The She Figures 2021 report indicates that women remain under-represented in research and innovation careers. Since 2003, this report has monitored "the progression of gender equality in research and innovation in the European Union and beyond". Figures show that women represent a mere one-third of researchers (33%), and at the highest level of academia, women possess around one-quarter of full professorship positions (26%). The report also emphasises an insidious experience that has worsened throughout the pandemic; due to competing obligations in the home, women in academia began to publish less and, therefore, received less funding. This meant they were less likely to be published in the future and subsequently less likely to receive further funding and be cited by others. The report suggests that this damaging occurrence represents a cycle that women may find difficult to come back from as life returns to normal.

And around and around it goes.

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Women in academic publishing
Though the included research is indeed unsettling, the question still remains:

Has COVID-19 affected women in academic publishing?

 IT professor Cassidy Sugimoto believes it has, stating that 16% fewer women were lead authors for articles published on the preprint-platform medRxiv between December 2019 and April 2020. Fellow scholars Lundine et al. echo this sentiment in a more general sense:

"Bias and structural sexism affect women at every stage in the research and publishing cycle, cumulatively disadvantaging women and their advancement throughout their careers," said the authors. "Women are less visible as researchers and authors and thus less likely to be invited as peer reviewers and editors".

Research by Kim & Patterson (2021) argues that the pandemic enforces this both directly and indirectly by examining "1.8 million tweets from approximately 3,000 political scientists". This research suggests that increased familial obligations are placed primarily on women, causing a detriment to professional visibility, productivity and likelihood of being published. Pinho-Gomes et al. (2020) argue that this gendered disadvantage is also reflected in peer-reviewed publication rates. Their paper, which looks specifically at publications regarding COVID-19, found that women accounted for just one-third of authors who published since January 2020. It also found that female representation was lower again for first and last authorship positions.

Anecdotal evidence on social media further supports the idea that female academics have been more negatively affected by COVID-19 than men. However, it must be noted that much of the available data focuses on female scholars in the medical sciences, and it would be interesting to note whether such effects have taken hold within other specialities such as humanities and social sciences.

Certainly, it does not look good, and public discussion on social media has led to mass outrage and sensationalised debate.

Image credit: photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

Gender Roles and the Pandemic
The impact of COVID-19 on women has been given many glib nicknames, from 'she-demic' to 'disaster patriarchy'. The most infamous of these is a term coined by American author and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, C. Nicole Mason, who said: "We should go ahead and call this a 'shecession.'" Though such terms often dramatise women's struggles, it is important to consider whether there is any merit to their claims.

The term "she-cession" was originally devised to represent the unemployment rates of women in comparison to men during COVID-19. However, as time went on, the meaning of the phrase began to morph and change. Today, it is used more flippantly to echo the dissatisfaction of many women regarding their perceived setbacks since COVID-19.

The most significant implication put forward by women is the return of traditional gender roles. With the closure of schools, day-care and other recreational supports, families were put in a difficult position of deciding how to take care of their children and maintain the household whilst also bringing in enough income. As men often hold higher-paying jobs, studies have shown that traditional gender roles were promoted, female academic productivity decreased, and pre-existing gender inequalities were exacerbated.

Canadian columnist Alison Hanes also highlights this pressure to take up traditional gender roles, saying: "There are so many measures of how gender inequality has worsened during the pandemic that it's difficult to keep track. But for me, it's calculated in stacks of dirty dishes." As Hanes aptly describes, the fortification of outdated gender norms has affected more women than the general public may be aware of and has filtered down to all fields of work in some way or another.

"It's like the virus seeped into the gender gaps that already existed in our society and cracked them wide open," said Hanes.

The Road to Post-Pandemic Recovery?
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women in academia compared to men. The European Commission declares that women are still acutely under-represented in research and academia despite the long history of scientific achievements. An EU-sponsored SUPERA project is now being touted as "the key to long-term institutional change". This project outlines a plan for audits of practices and procedures in an effort to address gender discriminatory shortfalls. Though it is beyond the remit of this author to comment on the validity of this project, it is undoubtedly positive to see initiatives targeting the pandemic's ripple effects.

Could this be the mark of a road to recovery?

A new article in the New York Times provides additional optimism. The article, by correspondent Claire Cain Miller, claims that recent studies have shown a particular group of women have avoided the so-called she-cession. College-educated American women with young children were shown to be more likely to work than before the pandemic. The cause of this is still being researched, but Miller states that it is likely because careers requiring college degrees are far more adaptable to working from home.

Despite Miller's insistence that a "she-cession" is not credible, she does maintain that women are "stretched thin", adding that American President Joe Biden has declared "there are nearly 1.2 million extremely qualified women who haven't returned to the work force". Whether the sensationalised term "she-cession" is warranted or not, it appears there is a consensus that action needs to be taken.

It is time to knit together the scattered articles that have shone a light on the impact of COVID-19 on women and open the conversation about the pressures of traditional gender roles that are still faced today. If this is not addressed at a core level, women in academic publishing may suffer consequences long after COVID-19 becomes a story in the history books.

As said by gender politics researcher Maria Bustelo "Only when academia and research include scholars with different backgrounds and identities will we be able to achieve results that are meaningful to everyone."


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