A recent Northwestern Medicine perspective piece published in the journal Academic Medicine discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic could impact gender equity within the field, specifically the retention and advancement of women, given that women are already underrepresented in academic medicine.
According to Nicole Woitowich, PhD, research assistant professor of Medical Social Sciences and first author of the paper, the pandemic already has — and will continue to — hinder progress towards gender equity in academic medicine if left unaddressed by leadership at academic institutions and the greater scientific community.
Recently, with support from the National Science Foundation, Woitowich and Christine Wood, PhD, research assistant professor of Medical Social Sciences, launched a study that will examine the impact of COVID-19 on biomedical investigators’ productivity and professional advancement through quantitative and qualitative analysis. Woitowich said she anticipates their findings will uncover gender disparities in these areas, as well, and could help institutions develop strategies to better support female faculty during the pandemic.
Read a Q&A with Woitowich below.
What do we already know about gender equity in academic medicine?
Women are underrepresented in academic medicine, particularly in leadership roles. They account for only 22 percent of department chairs and deans compared to their male peers. The percentage of women of color of in these roles is even smaller. So how are women going to be impacted by COVID? At first, there was a shutdown, which literally halted research but now as things have reopened, we anticipate there will be lingering effects of the pandemic. Just because people are back in clinics and labs still doesn’t mean this is over.
What motivated you to write this piece?
I have a one- and a two-year-old and when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, I was trying to write grants related to COVID while juggling the full responsibilities of my role as an administrator, keeping up with research, and suddenly I was also tasked with being a full-time stay-at-home parent. I felt swamped and I knew this was not a unique experience for women.
Slowly, we are beginning to see information come out about how that this feeling wasn’t just field-specific, that women from all fields are having to navigate their professional life and take on additional family care duties, be it child care, elder care or being a support system for family and friends. So, I called a couple of my colleagues who are also involved in gender equity work and told them that we really needed to look at this from the perspective of women in academic medicine.
How can the scientific community and institutions help promote gender equity in academic medicine and better support female faculty and investigators right now?
Recent data shows that women are authoring fewer papers now compared to the same time period last year. If that’s the case, we think this will also affect grant submission rates. If women are taking on the burden of family care or household responsibilities, how is that going to play out in a year from now or three years from now? Are we going to see gender gaps in research funding?
In addition, the shift to move conferences and meetings to virtual formats may have unintended consequences. Women are already underrepresented as keynote speakers and panelists. While we are getting better at facilitating virtual events, there is a huge informal networking piece that is missing from the online environment. These interactions may be key to establishing collaborations and network-building. We suggest that sponsorship from senior faculty and also from professional societies will be critical during this time period to highlight and promote women.
It goes without saying that COVID is having a financial impact on academia, and we don’t know how long this will last. We argue that we need to sustain funding for projects, programs and people that promote inclusion, diversity, equity and access to science and medicine broadly. That is an imperative. Even though it might seem that there are other areas that are a stronger financial investment, we argue that in the long-term, this is a sound investment into the human and intellectual capital of an academic institution.
Lastly, we need to think about what institutions are doing to support women faculty. A lot of institutions across the board said they were going to stop or pause the tenure clock. In theory, that sounds great. But data suggests that when men and women have received tenure clock extensions for family care, men who take them are more likely to get tenure, whereas women are less likely to receive tenure if they take the extension. Is this going to happen now with COVID extensions? We think that tenure and promotion committees need to be cognizant and aware of this bias that already exists.
Additionally, when assembling COVID working groups or task forces, ensure that you have a gender balanced group, but also be cognizant of the fact that women are often tasked to join service-based committees that are traditionally undervalued by tenure and promotion committees. This is particularly true for women of color who are called upon to do more service work for the sake of representation. We argue that you must be mindful in creating your COVID response task force as we combat both pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism right now.