How COVID-19 Impacts Early-Career Women Microbiologists

March 7, 2021

The consequences of COVID-19 restrictions heavily pressure women microbiologists at all career stages. These disruptions have, unfortunately, left productivity almost solely dependent on personal circumstances, including but not limited to location, health and level of dependant responsibilities (children, elderly parents or vulnerable partners/household members). These challenges will lead to inequitable competition when it comes to climbing the academic career ladder.
Early-career women microbiologists (Ph.D. students and postdocs) are the most challenged category of all career stages during this time, since moving on to the next career stage depends on their ability to perform and analyse in-person, wet lab experiments in many cases. Almost every research project, except those focused on COVID-19, has experienced delay. The ability to perform in-person lab experiments (when permitted by local regulations) is reliant on the nature of the experiments (length and frequency of follow-up) and the microbiologist's personal circumstances. Many microbiology experiments require an extended period of follow up, such as evolutionary experiments. Therefore, many were left with no means of generating data. Even staying late or working over weekends to rescue experiments is mostly a personal choice, continuously and, sometimes unexpectedly, affected by local restrictions and closures.
Evidence shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in women being less likely than men to visit STEM workplaces in person. For example, 16% of women vs. 28% of men on staff visited campuses in Australia between March and April 2020. Also, many women who are pregnant, nursing or have a health condition that may affect their immunity were advised to stay at home longer than their colleagues due to increased vulnerability to COVID-19 infection. For example, women have a greater tendency to develop autoimmune diseases than men throughout their life, and at least some autoimmune diseases increase the risk of COVID-19 deaths. Thus, lab experiments for women in these categories have come to a complete halt, which negatively impacts their future careers, as halted experiments mean fewer results, fewer papers and an inevitable delay in securing a tenure-track academic job. At the beginning of the pandemic, editors of 2 journals reported that they were observing unusual, gendered patterns in submissions, with solo-authored submissions by women down substantially. The academic tenure track selectively favours frequent and high-impact publications; thus, lower productivity will correlate with higher drop out of the academic workforce. The pandemic will only worsen the fact that fewer women than men stay in academia and attain professorships, also known as the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon.
Women in academia who can work from home still face challenges. Evidence shows that, while work-from-home policies apply equally to women and men, women in heterosexual relationships often bear the majority of the home-schooling, meal preparation and general housework burden compared with men. This is not about whether men help or the fact that they are similarly overwhelmed by work and family life, but women already juggled more domestic and emotional labor with their research work before the pandemic. Female academics, as a group, also struggle more with work-life balance, and thus, the pandemic is worsening pre-existing gender inequalities.
Additionally, working from home comes with a considerable amount of distraction, such as caring (for elderly or extremely vulnerable household members) and parenting responsibilities for many, especially for mothers. There are well-documented challenges that mothers in academia already face. COVID-19 added a new element as a barrier to career progression for mothers in science. For example, a recent survey revealed gender imbalance in the impact of home schooling, with graduate mothers particularly likely to report that home schooling is interfering with their jobs. Again, this has jeopardised women’s daily work productivity, with a tremendous bias toward those who have less or no parenting responsibilities.
Additionally, for many early-career women microbiologists, shifting or dividing responsibilities between research lab work and work from home has not been self-determined. Under no clear rules from universities, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, supervisors decided what work pattern to approve, opening the door for competing interests; senior researchers need a job done, while women early-career researchers may have health conditions or caregiving responsibilities affecting the pattern they can commit to during the pandemic. Such settings are a great environment to cultivate abusive treatment against early-career women microbiologists, who feel less powered to keep their jobs, escalate in the career ladder and perform their parenting responsibilities. Moreover, under these unprecedented conditions, they are likely to be hesitant to speak up.
All these challenges have created an inequitable environment that bases the success of early-career scientists not on their research and ideas, but on their location, health and parenting/caretaking responsibilities. A recent study concluded there is a need to support working parents and early-career researcher scientists. The findings agree with the recently released report commissioned by the Australian government and produced by the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) that estimates that the pandemic will result in greater disadvantages for women than men in the STEM sector.  Women in STEM are falling behind in comparison with their male colleagues, who often have more flexible circumstances, and the resulting impact of this pandemic on early-career women microbiologists will unfold over the next few years.

Author: Enas Newire, Ph.D.

Enas Newire, Ph.D.
Dr. Enas Newire is an early-career molecular microbiologist with extensive antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and bacterial whole genome sequence (WGS) analysis experience.