The cost of COVID-19 on Women in the Biosciences

11 Feb 2021 - By: Rebecca Ellerington

The cost of COVID-19 on Women in the Biosciences

 Woman biologist

The under-representation of women in science is an ongoing problem across all employment sectors and geographical boundaries. While the biosciences are usually ahead of other disciplines in terms of gender-balance, in academia particularly, there is a clear problem with female retention, resulting in a larger disparity moving up the career ladder. In 2018/2019, UK statistics on higher education revealed that 64% of bioscience postgraduate students were female, however only 15% of professors are women [1]. These figures have been gradually improving, however. Between 2007 and 2012, there was a 3% increase in female bioscience professors [2], but progress is slow, and it is clear there are barriers that are causing women to be disadvantaged in pursuing an academic career in the biosciences. 

Unfortunately, there are fears that the COVID-19 pandemic may have further slowed equality progression. Scientific output from female academics across the biosciences has been disproportionately reduced, leading to loss of women's scientific expertise from the public realm. Initial data indicates that female researchers, particularly those at an early stage of their career, have had far reduced scientific-publishing outputs and submissions to preprint servers rose more quickly for male authors than for female authors as nations adopted social-isolation measures [3]. Academic publishing is essential to career advancement, and the greatest indicator of a future publication is a previous publication. As such, there are likely to be long-term effects of this trend, posing a threat to progress by amplifying existing gender disparities.

Alongside concerns around academic output, there are also worries that the pandemic may cause increased risk to research positions held by women. In May, a report found that female scientists in Australia are 1.5 times more likely to be in short-term contract jobs, and are more likely to lose jobs, paid hours, and career opportunities as a result [4].

The reasons for such disparities are still being investigated. Some evidence has suggested that while lockdown has provided men with time and space to boost their academic output, women have been disproportionately burdened with traditional “female roles” within the home. A study investigating inequalities from the impact of COVID-19 across the US, UK and Germany found that in a typical work-day, women with children who have been working from home during the pandemic spent over an hour more on childcare, and an increased amount of time on home-schooling than their male counterparts [5].

Of course, childcare duties cannot be the only factor influencing this trend as not all academics have children. Well-documented pre-existing challenges facing women in academia including male-dominated institutional cultures and lack of female mentors. There is also evidence for implicit and subconscious biases in recruitment, outcome of peer review, and number of citations [6]. These aspects will continue to have an effect during the pandemic. There may also be a case for reduced support in the workplace, with anecdotal evidence suggesting cancellation of career-progression programmes by some academic institutes in response to budget-cuts related to the pandemic [3]. If true, this would disproportionately disadvantage women and minority groups.

Unfortunately, our current situation is highlighting just how fragile advances to equality in academia can be, and the importance of support structures and incentives for progression. The academic community, funders, and bioscience professionals must continue to support women in academia during this pandemic and beyond. It is important to collect and report institutional data on gender representation, including in academic output and senior positions. This will allow clear and specific goals and guidelines to be set in a proactive effort to identify and address the impact of COVID-19 on female academics. We should also recognise that women from ethnic minority groups face additional challenges in academia, and structural action is needed to provide support and address these challenges too.

Science and innovation benefit from diversity. Science expertise and knowledge from all genders is an essential part of building a diverse and inclusive research environment that will be advantageous for us all.


1. UK Higher Education Student Statistics (2018/19) 

2. RSB Response to Women in STEM Careers Inquiry 2012

3. Nature News: Are women publishing less during the pandemic?

4. Rapid Research Information Forum

5. Inequality in the Impact of the Coronavirus Shock: Evidence from Real Time Surveys

6. Barriers to women leaders in academia: tales from science and technology  

7. Covid-19: Why we still need more women in academia

8. The career cost of COVID-19 to female researchers, and how science should respond





Author: Rebecca Ellerington
Category: SEB News