This chapter focuses on the potential direct and indirect effects that the COVID-19 pandemic may have on career trajectories of women in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) academic workforce.2 The COVID-19 pandemic’s potential influences on women’s careers will likely affect distinct aspects of academic work, including research, teaching, and service. Women in various appointment types (e.g., tenure-track faculty, postdoctoral scholars) are expected to engage in these activities at different levels and toward different goals. For example, whereas the postdoctoral researcher is likely focused on building a research program that will position them for a future faculty position, a tenure-track faculty member’s work profile will include a mix of teaching, research, and service and be oriented toward promotion to associate or full professor. It is critical, then, to account for these various appointment types to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to affect women situated at different points of the academic trajectory.
Women, in fact, are distributed across the academic workforce in distinctive ways. One study, for example, found that white women, followed by Asian women, hold the vast majority of women’s tenure-track appointments (Finkelstein et al., 2016). Meanwhile, Black, Indigenous, and Latina women tend to be concentrated
1 This chapter is primarily based on the commissioned paper “The Impact of COVID-19 on Tenure Clocks, the Evaluation of Productivity, and Academic STEMM Career Trajectories,” by Felicia A. Jefferson, Matthew T. Hora, Sabrina L. Pickens, and Hal Salzman.
2 For this chapter, the STEMM academic workforce includes tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students.
among the non-tenure-track appointments, especially in the part-time ranks (Banasik and Dean, 2015; Wilkerson, 2020). With Black, Indigenous, and Latina women situated in the most vulnerable ranks of the academic work force, it is critical to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic is not affecting all populations in the same way. Rates of infection and death are greatest among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, with Black people dying at 2.1 times the rate of white people (CDC, 2020a) and People of Color representing 78 percent of deaths among people under the age of 21 (Bixler, 2020). Given the disparate rates of documented cases and death caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognize that academics who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other People of Color, especially those women situated in non-tenure-eligible appointments, may be experiencing additional stressors with likely effects on their productivity and outcomes.
To the extent possible, this chapter also considers how women academics situated in various types of institutions are experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as appointment type shapes an academic’s work portfolio, so does institutional type. For example, Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) champion broad access missions, which means that they enroll large numbers of Students of Color, first-generation college students, and students from economically vulnerable backgrounds (NASEM, 2019a); these student characteristics play a role in shaping faculty work experiences and expectations. Academics working in small liberal arts colleges are likely to have experienced the teaching-related effects of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a postdoctoral researcher working in a research university laboratory, for example.
To contextualize how COVID-19 has the potential to affect women’s academic careers and trajectories, it is helpful to consider the pandemic’s overall gendered labor market effects. Recent economic recessions in the United States resulted in employment losses that were larger for men than women (Hoynes et al., 2012), but the recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women’s employment more substantially than it has men’s employment (Alon et al., 2020b). As of October 2020, the share of women who are working is the lowest since the mid-1980s, when labor force participation among women was lower but still rising (Kochhar, 2020). There are several reasons why this recession has hit women harder than men, but a major contributor is the higher concentration of women employed in low-wage jobs requiring face-to-face customer interactions (Allegretto and Cooper, 2014; Entmacher et al., 2014).
There is some optimism on the part of business leaders that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to greater opportunities for women and People of Color to advance professionally; employees, however, are more skeptical. A survey
conducted by Catalyst: Workplaces that Work for Women, in partnership with Edelman Intelligence, queried 1,100 U.S. adults in full-time employment between June 1 and 5, 2020, about their beliefs regarding the pandemic and gender equity in the workplace (Catalyst, 2020a). The respondents included 250 business leaders of large companies and 850 employees of large multinational companies. While the survey was not focused on women in academic STEMM fields, the data highlight relevant differences between employers and employees by gender. Women employees were somewhat more likely than men employees to express skepticism that their employer is fully committed to taking the action necessary to create a more inclusive work environment for women. Regardless of gender, more than twice as many employees, compared to business leaders, were more likely to report fear that the COVID-19 pandemic would negatively affect their prospects for promotion.
The ultimate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the working population, in light of shutdowns and furloughs, can be seen as a “career shock,” which is defined in vocational psychology as a “disruptive and extraordinary event” that occurs outside of an individual’s control and “triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career” (Akkermans et al., 2020). Studies of the effect of recessions on labor markets finds a “scarring” effect on careers—with diminished income and career advancement—even when delays in entering or losing employment result from structural factors in the economy rather than individual factors.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the current and future academic workforce, which includes postdoctoral scholars, non-tenure-track faculty, and tenure-track faculty among others with teaching and researching responsibilities. At the end of summer 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the largest-ever decline in college and university employment: “At no point since the bureau began keeping industry tallies in the late 1950s have colleges and universities ever shed so many employees at such an incredible rate” (Bauman, 2020). Moreover, because of declines in revenue from tuition, campus housing, athletics, and other sources, colleges and universities have instituted hiring freezes (UCB, 2020; UMR, 2020).
While many equate the notion of academic productivity with research-related products (e.g., publications, grants), academic productivity is much broader and varies by both appointment and institutional types. For example, faculty career success may involve taking on several types of demanding roles, including successfully writing and receiving large grants, running research laboratories, publishing in top journals, serving on many committees and engaging in public outreach, seeing patients if in clinical medicine, and mentoring and teaching large numbers of students (Kossek et al., 2019–2021). Non-tenure-track teaching faculty members are more likely to hold heavier teaching and service
responsibilities. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty members may be more concerned with their ability to provide high-quality instruction to students and to be evaluated for their instruction accordingly. Acknowledging that there are many forms of productivity, much of the emergent data concerning productivity available in 2020 focused on research productivity, as discussed below. In addition, the measures themselves may not reflect the relative value or importance of research and academic work (Bauerlein et al., 2010).3 Longer-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could include the influence of changes in academic productivity on the career trajectories of STEMM researchers.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Academic Productivity and Careers of Early-Career STEMM Researchers
Although the evidence as to how COVID-19 will impact opportunities in the academic STEMM workforce was still developing, studies in 2020 found that STEMM academic researchers, especially postdoctoral scholars, were deeply concerned about their future. For example, in a worldwide survey of 7,670 postdoctoral researchers in academia, approximately 61 percent of respondents believed their career options were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (Woolston, 2020c). Twenty-five percent of the respondents felt uncertainty regarding their future professional research careers. Entering the workforce during a recession, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, may lead to higher rates of unemployment and lower wages compared with graduating during healthy or neutral economic times. Potential outcomes include a 2 percentage point higher unemployment rate (Rothstein, 2020); a 10 percent wage gap that took an average of 8 years to close (Oreopoulos et al., 2012); and other effects such as employment in smaller firms and lower occupational attainment at higher rates for individuals from lower socioeconomic status groups (Kahn, 2010; Kawaguchi and Kondo, 2019; Kondo, 2015; Schwandt, 2019). One group of researchers found “a large degree of heterogeneity in the costs of recessions” (Oreopoulos et al., 2012, p. 26).
Other postdoctoral researchers expressed uncertainty about their visas expiring, which has inhibited them from completing their research and publishing their findings (Woolston, 2020c). In addition, international STEMM scholars have voiced increased concerns about their inability to travel across borders as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related travel restrictions (Woolston, 2020c). Respondents to the survey of postdoctoral scholars were also concerned that institutions would rescind offers as a result of the pandemic.
In addition to concerns about opportunity and stability of the academic workforce, early-career scholars have expressed concerns about competing in a
3 It should also be noted that there are well-established disparities in academic publishing by gender (e.g., Raj et al., 2016) and race (e.g., Mendoza-Denton et al., 2017), as well as gender biases in citations.
job market given their reduced productivity. For example, some STEMM disciplines require field research or laboratory studies. Loss of data during entire field seasons, for example, could be catastrophic for long-term studies, as well as for completing a dissertation, postdoctoral project, or a scholar’s early publications that can lead to academic jobs (Inouye et al., 2020). Given that disruptions in the early phases of a career can lead people to departing a profession and/or falling behind in terms of accomplishments and prospects for advancement, these effects on postdoctoral students and other early-career scientists should be a cause for concern among STEMM professionals, funding agencies, and postsecondary institutions (Shaw and Chew, 2020). Alternatively, those in mathematics, statistics, computer science, and economics had less of a decline in research time compared with those in experimental sciences (Myers et al., 2020). Trainees also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to hone skillsets, attend virtual conferences, and participate in online learning; 72 percent of experimental science trainees and 50 percent of computation science trainees reported gaining from virtual learning during the pandemic’s shutdowns (Korbel and Stegle, 2020).
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Academic Productivity and Careers of Women STEMM Scholars
During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to compound longstanding challenges and barriers that have faced women and contributed to their continued underrepresentation in STEMM, such as the persistence of gender bias in peer review, hiring, and promotions, and of gender-based stereotypes (Beede et al., 2011; Ertl et al., 2017). This could affect the careers of women across academia and particularly in the STEMM fields (Hansen, 2020).
As discussed further in Chapter 4, women are more likely than men to be responsible for childcare at home, adding to the challenges associated with overcoming inequalities in the academic workplace (Bianchi et al., 2012; Oleschuk, 2020).4 These challenges were reflected in measures of productivity that varied by discipline. Only 29 percent of computational life scientists and 10 percent of experimental life scientists reported more than 80 percent productivity (Korbel and Stegle, 2020), and those in experimental sciences across disciplines (e.g., biochemistry, biological sciences, chemistry, and chemical engineering) reported having 30 to 40 percent less time in research compared with prepandemic levels
4 Even before the pandemic, far more women in STEMM fields left their professions (43 percent) compared with men (23 percent) after having their first child (Cech and Blair-Loy, 2019), and women generally shouldered more childcare and household responsibilities than men did (Jolly et al., 2014). As a result, scholars are calling on postsecondary institutions to provide childcare supports, increase funding opportunities, and carefully manage tenure and promotion criteria for women faculty (e.g., prioritize women-authored papers, monitor teaching and service responsibilities) (Cardel et al., 2020a, 2020b). See Chapter 4 for a detailed discussion on work-life boundaries and household labor before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Myers et al., 2020). These reductions in research time were not tied strongly to career stage or facility closures but instead to gender and having young dependents (Myers et al., 2020). By occupying more experimental scientist positions, and accounting for childcare duties, women scientists reported even less productivity than men (Korbel and Stegle, 2020; Myers et al., 2020).
Early studies on academic publishing may also reflect differences in childcare responsibilities, with women’s share of first and overall authorship in COVID-19 pandemic-related papers having decreased by 23 percent and 16 percent, respectively (Andersen et al., 2020), “whereas no significant differences in productivity were reported by men” (Krukowski et al., 2020). An analysis of all Elsevier journals also showed signs of gendered effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in health- and medicine-focused journals (Squazzoni et al., 2020). In particular, the number of manuscripts submitted during the COVID-19 pandemic was significantly higher for men than for women compared with submissions in 2018 and 2019. In addition, researchers investigating gender disparities in published research during the COVID-19 pandemic found that, compared with models predicting authorship for women based on data from 2019, the proportion of women authors publishing on all topics as the first author decreased by 4.9 percent (Muric et al., 2020). The proportion of women writing on COVID-19 pandemic-related topics as the first authors dropped by 44.5 percent compared with baseline predictions of anticipated authorship among women, and when observing the authors regardless of the order, the proportion of women writing about the COVID-19 pandemic dropped by 15.4 percent compared with the baseline (Muric et al., 2020).
Other studies indicated that authorship and productivity might be dependent on discipline and field. While productivity and research time was shown to be heavily affected by gender and dependents (Myers et al., 2020), the American Geophysical Union (AGU) showed that the proportion of annual AGU journal submissions from women remained the same from 2018 to 2020, while the absolute number of year-to-date submissions increased from 2,632 submissions to 2,790 submissions from 2018 to 2020 (Wooden and Hanson, 2020). The study on the AGU journal submissions hypothesized that the increase in virtual collaboration encouraged larger teams and thereby resulted in increased team gender diversity.
Of particular concern is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers and professional advancement of women in academic medicine, who have been forced to address a highly stressful and potentially dangerous workplace on top of added responsibilities at home (Madsen et al., 2020). When clinical workloads increase, faculty in academic medicine reduce their participation in scholarly research activities, such as publishing papers, writing grants, and completing research studies (Mullangi et al., 2020). In addition, women in academic medicine are more likely to have teaching-related roles instead of funded research positions (AAMC, 2016; Pololi, 2010), which translates into higher clinical workloads than
many men bear. This disparity is likely a key aspect leading to the differential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in academic medicine.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Academic Productivity and Careers of STEMM Scholars of Color
While the specific effects of the pandemic on the careers of Scholars of Color had yet to be documented by the end of 2020, early signs indicate that preexisting inequalities are being exacerbated by negative effects on the financial situations of Scholars of Color and work-life balance (see Chapter 4 for further discussion of work-life balance). At least one author has noted that persistent disparities in funding for Black scientists by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), low numbers of Black women in science, and institutional racism were preexisting stressors that the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd only exacerbated (Carr, 2020). Addressing these disparities calls for institutional responses such as targeted recruitment and retention of Black women in STEMM fields, thereby creating an environment that encourages and nurtures diversity in collaboration and talent, a sense of belonging for Black women in STEMM, and positive morale for the institution’s current and future researchers (Carr, 2020). Other authors have suggested that institutions of higher education need to more proactively support and invest in student-faculty mentoring relationships, access to professional development, and engagement in robust research opportunities for Women of Color (Ong et al., 2011).
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Teaching and Mentoring
During 2020, women faculty have reported having less time for advising, mentoring, and research because of their increased caregiving responsibilities (Anwer, 2020; Malisch et al., 2020). Specifically, women reported having had the same amount of course workload with the additional burden of transitioning their courses into a remote setting, while simultaneously experiencing the increased burden of dependent care. In another study, researchers interviewed 25 U.S. women faculty members and 55 Italian women faculty members, all of whom had children (Minello, 2020). These women reported reductions in their research productivity that was caused, in part, by the need to devote more attention to teaching online courses, which was difficult with small children in the home. Both real-time and asynchronous online teaching were interrupted by children’s demands, cries, or other background noise. As a result, women faculty have less time for two other major aspects of their professional lives, mentoring and research (Kramer, 2020a; Minello, 2020; Zimmer, 2020).
According to an interim report on the COVID-19 pandemic and engineering education presented by American Society for Engineering Education, only 53 percent of faculty surveyed agreed they were given adequate resources from their
institution to transition to online teaching. Most institutions did not reduce teaching load or advising and mentoring loads in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Gruber et al., 2020). However, learning to teach remotely required more time from faculty (Alexander, 2020; ASEE, 2020).5 It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of university professors transitioning to teaching hybrid online/in-person or entirely remote classes are or how these effects may be disaggregated using an intersectional framework.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Institutional Context on Academic Productivity
A considerable body of empirical evidence exists demonstrating that resources, including federal research grants, are disproportionately allocated to high-prestige research universities (Taylor and Cantwell, 2018, 2019). In fact, approximately 50 percent of all STEMM research funding goes to about 100 doctoral-granting institutions, leaving the other 3,900 U.S. institutions—including community colleges, regional comprehensive universities, and MSIs—competing with one another for the remaining funds. Furthermore, researchers have documented considerable disparities in state and federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), with many state governments prioritizing predominantly white institutions (Boland and Gasman, 2014; Minor, 2008), leaving MSIs operating with less institutional support for STEMM research activities.
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on individual STEMM scholars likely depends not only on their race, gender, or disciplinary affiliation but also on the type of postsecondary institution where they work. Consequently, it can be hypothesized that a STEMM researcher at an HBCU, where scholars typically receive less research funding and have higher teaching loads than at predominantly white research universities, may have fewer opportunities to publish in the midst of a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, future research will be required to isolate the effects of institutional affiliation on academic productivity during the pandemic, if such differences do exist.
Postsecondary institutions find themselves in uncharted territory financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have responded in several ways, including reducing overtime work hours for nonfaculty members, eliminating merit increases, reducing salaries of leadership members, obtaining additional
5 Although some academic institutions did not give faculty members any choice in teaching mode, many provided options for faculty who are in higher-risk brackets for COVID-19 to teach remotely or in person as well as resources for faculty who need to teach from home.
governmental funding through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), and altering tenure and promotion policies. In addition to college and university changes in policies, many funders are allowing extensions on projects and other adjustments as necessary. A number of authors offered suggestions to institutions for how to address growing inequalities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Cui et al., 2020; Guatimosim, 2020; Kibbe, 2020; Malisch et al., 2020; Oleschuk, 2020). One opinion piece, for example, offered 10 rules that women principal investigators could follow during the COVID-19 pandemic (Kreeger et al., 2020). These rules include a suggestion to find peer groups of women to provide support, saying no to nonessential responsibilities, dropping certain projects and tasks, and pushing back on demands to be more productive. Another opinion piece proposed solutions that include reevaluations of tenure-track and academic evaluation policies (Malisch et al., 2020). In reviewing the institutional responses to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it is important to consider not just the differential effects on women and People of Color, but also in the capacity of different institutions to respond and support women and Faculty of Color.
If principal investigators were unable to complete their research within the original time frame, many funders were more flexible and allowed no-cost extensions, revisions to the original budget, or even costed supplemental extensions in some cases (NIH, 2020b; UCL, 2020). For example, the NIH allowed clinicians to extend their research work if they postponed a career development award to aid frontline workers. In addition, NIH did not withdraw funding if there was a delay in starting a research project (NIH, 2020b). Although many funders modified their policies to allow greater flexibility to researchers in 2020, laboratory closures and other delays will extend the time of the research projects, and thus findings and publications, which may affect academic productivity. Moreover, even though funder policies allow for flexibility in project extensions, there was often no additional funding to support for staff and graduate students over the longer project period. No-cost extensions, in particular, often do not account for the salaries incurred by staff and trainees while they are unable to conduct research.
Promotion and Tenure Policies and Decisions
At least some institutions strove to account for the wide range of direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic productivity and careers. For example, a variety of colleges and universities (Chronicle Staff, 2020), such as Stanford University, University of Texas, and University of Washington, extended the tenure clock (Stanford University, 2020; UT System, 2020; UW,
2020).6 At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, policies exist to extend tenure-track periods arising from extenuating circumstances, such as family health issues (Pribbenow et al., 2010). The University of Texas at Austin’s updated policy states, “All tenure-track faculty are eligible to extend their probationary period for one year due to the negative impact of COVID-19.”
However, extending the tenure clock tends to put off financial incentives and career advancement and freedom (Pettit, 2020a). As a result, while extensions during the COVID-19 pandemic may be important for some faculty members, they can also be unhelpful for career trajectories. Instead of extending the tenure clock, another approach could be to reward junior faculty for engaging in other avenues of research to which they could lend their expertise, such as studies related to the COVID-19 pandemic (Connolly, 2020). In addition, scholars of higher education have recommended that academic leaders be mindful of how the immediate transition to virtual teaching and learning may have taken a negative toll on faculty teaching evaluations and the potential subsequent effects on faculty promotions (Gonzales and Griffin, 2020). It has also been suggested that faculty document “how and what they learned while teaching through COVID-19” and detail the emotional effect they have experienced since caring for students to a different degree compared with before COVID-19 (Pettit, 2020a). While 1-year extensions and grant extension flexibility are helpful, overall, the differential effects for women may not be sufficient to address the added caregiver status and home responsibilities that affect work-life integration.
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic productivity and career trajectories cannot be adequately evaluated without acknowledging the intersecting identities of, and structural forces affecting, different groups of STEMM researchers. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the academic STEMM job market, notions of academic productivity, and institutional responses each play out in different ways depending on the unique circumstances of individual institutions and individual STEMM researchers and faculty members. This is not solely an argument that “context matters” in dictating how national phenomena unfold in local settings, but a recognition that the individual lives of STEMM scholars and how they see themselves and their opportunities are deeply embedded in and shaped by these overlapping spheres of influence.
6 An informally gathered list of changes to tenure clock policies is available at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1U5REApf-t-76UXh8TKAGoLlwy8WIMfSSyqCJbb5u9lA/edit#gid=0&fvid=238051147.