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Infectious Diseases

Updated 18 June 2020

Covid-19 science: Who’s behind the research? A shockingly low number of women, a study finds

Women are consistently under-represented in the field of scientific research, and the pandemic might be the reason behind the number lagging even further.

  • Research in science remains male-dominated.
  • A new study found that women account for only one-third of Covid-19 research.
  • This may affect our understanding of the disease.

Scientific research is no piece of cake, but when it comes to the involvement of women, the path has even more roadblocks. And according to a new paper published in the BMJ Global Health, a medical journal, women account for just one-third of all authors who published papers related to Covid-19 since the start of the outbreak in January 2020.

The paper also indicates that even fewer senior authors are women, and that lockdown measures may have led to a widening of existing inequalities by limiting women's research time as they take care of parenting, caring duties and homeschooling, among other things.

The problem with this

While gender inequality has major implications for the empowerment of women – with unequal pay being just one of them – the gender bias in the field of Covid-19 research appears to be affecting the availability and interrogation of sex-aggregated data, and consequently, our understanding of the disease, the authors of the paper wrote.

Low numbers across the world

Despite a growing number of women enrolling in universities worldwide, a minority of women graduates go on to partake in research. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) indicates that many women opt out at the highest levels required for a research career. According to the agency, a low 30% of the world's researchers are women.

To investigate the trend in Covid-19 research, the team of seven researchers searched PubMed, a research database, for relevant studies that had been published since January this year. They found that 1 235 senior/lead authors who had published work on Covid-19. Of these, women made up only about a third – 34% to be exact. 

This figure was noted irrespective of the authors' seniority. However, further analysis revealed the figures were abysmally lower when considering first or last authorship: 29% and 26%, respectively. 

Why this may be the case

"It is possible that the current restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed further to this decline," they added.

The authors suggest that some of the factors that may be leading to an increase in the gender imbalance are: 

  • The research agenda may be shaped by those in leadership positions, who more often than not, are men.
  • Covid-19 is a high-profile topic for which men might want/need all the recognition.
  • Caring, parenting, and homeschooling responsibilities during the pandemic – roles that are still predominantly fulfilled by women – may have left them with too little time to commit to research during the pandemic.

Lowest percentages in Africa; highest Oceania

It goes without saying that the gender gap in research is a global issue, but a closer look at Covid-19 research by the study's authors shows just how acute the problem is in particular regions.

Africa, they found, had the lowest number of women researchers, while Oceania had the highest.

"This shows that raising awareness on gender inequalities in research in general, and in authorship of papers in particular, has not led to substantial improvements," they wrote.

Disparity reflects broader gender bias in science

The authors explained that emphasis must be placed on narrowing these gender inequalities as it might affect the global understanding of Covid-19, as well as the ability to respond to it quickly and effectively.

"There is a pressing need to reduce these gender inequalities because women's participation in research is associated with a higher likelihood of reporting gender and sex-disaggregated data which in turn, improve our understanding of the clinical and epidemiological dimensions of Covid-19.

"This is especially true as evidence continues to accrue regarding sex and gender differences in mortality rates and in the long-term economic and societal impacts of Covid-19, making a balanced gender perspective ever more important," they added.

One of the solutions to overcome the persistent low representation of women authorship in scientific research, they suggest, is to promote voluntary disclosure of gender as part of the submission process. Another step, they say, would be to consider gender quotas: "These have shown to help rectify women' under-representation in prominent positions, for instance, in political, economic and academic systems."

If an effort is made to challenge the disproportionate number of women researchers contributing to the work on Covid-19, succeeding in the global fight against the pandemic may be achieved more quickly, they said.