University
Evolutionary biologist Hannah Dugdale with her children. Photo by Reyer Boxem

Women in academia lose out

The Covid penalty

Evolutionary biologist Hannah Dugdale with her children. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Female academics’ research productivity was more affected by the Covid pandemic than that of men, UG lecturer Hannah Dugdale and master student Kiran Lee found out. This gender gap is in danger of growing, they warn.
25 October om 10:14 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 31 October 2023
om 11:57 uur.
October 25 at 10:14 AM.
Last modified on October 31, 2023
at 11:57 AM.
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Door Marit Bonne

25 October om 10:14 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 31 October 2023
om 11:57 uur.
Avatar photo

By Marit Bonne

October 25 at 10:14 AM.
Last modified on October 31, 2023
at 11:57 AM.

April 2020. Hannah Dugdale was preparing to teach her very first class: a lesson in fieldwork that due to the Covid pandemic was completely online. Looking at her screen displaying the Blackboard Collaborate page, she could see her toddler dismantling the instrument she had just put together. 

Dugdale, who’d just started as associate lecturer of evolutionary biology, had a hard time getting her work done. Due to a combination of online teaching, missing work equipment – this was held up at British customs – and a lack of childcare, she didn’t have as much time to spend on her research.

Antica Culina and Adele Mennerat, evolutionary biologists at other European institutes, were in the same boat. After talking to their colleague Dieter Lukas and reading anecdotes on Twitter, they felt that male academics weren’t losing as much research time as their female counterparts.

The gender gap widened relatively early on after the first lockdowns

The four of them, supported by UG master student of evolutionary biology Kiran Lee, decided on a small excursion outside their own field of expertise to take a closer look at this difference.

It turned out that the pandemic has led to a 7 percent increase in the difference in research productivity between male and female academics. The group published its findings in eLife last June.

Meta-study

Seven percent might not sound like a lot, but the authors say it shouldn’t be underestimated. In the long term, this gender gap may only grow wider, says Dugdale, since the process to get from a research question to a publishable article can take several years. 

Their meta-study didn’t specifically focus on the UG; they compared existing studies that compared the research productivity of male and female researchers. Lee and Dugdale were fortunate enough to have help from experts who know how to get results from existing data. 

‘We were surprised to see the gender gap widening relatively early on after the first lockdowns’, Dugdale says. In order to get a proper overview, they’ll have to look at the research productivity numbers again in a few years. 

Stressful time

Research productivity is often expressed in the number of articles academics publish. This metric can mean the difference between getting hired and getting a promotion, says Dugdale. ‘It’s important that people who decide on these promotions take the candidates’ personal circumstances into account.’ 

Naomi de Ruiter, assistant professor of psychology, agrees. For her, the pandemic was a stressful time. ‘It would have really helped if, during the pandemic, the university redefined what a successful career looked like. They should have taken people’s personal circumstances into account’, she says. ‘It would really take the pressure off.’

They should take personal circumstances into account when it comes to promotions

Why the pandemic led to an increase in inequality between male and female academics, Dugdale can’t say. ‘Our study didn’t look at the cause; just if there was an increase in the gender gap.’

The researchers do have several potential explanations, though. A lot of work in academia is gendered: women tend to do a lot of the work that doesn’t lead to promotions.
The division of care work during the pandemic may have also played a role. At the start of the crisis, men would actually do more work, but couples with children at home quickly reverted back to old patterns, with women taking on more household tasks and care work, a study from the University of Utrecht showed.

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Difficult to combine

De Ruiter recognises the situation. ‘Even though my partner took on a lot of work, I still had to sacrifice time that I would’ve normally spent on research’, she says. ‘You can’t get out of teaching duties, which means you automatically spend less time on grant proposals and writing articles.’

Just like Dugdale, De Ruiter also had her children at home during the pandemic. ‘It was really difficult to combine work and small children’, she admits. She would often have plans to spend an entire day on her research, when her children were also running around the house.  ‘There were times where I was like, how on earth am I going to make this work?’

The study also showed that some fields were more affected by the pandemic than others. In fields in which there was very little inequality before the pandemic, such as the medical and social sciences, the gender gap actually increased the most.

The researchers speculate that this might be due to these disciplines being particularly relevant during the crisis. This would have led to more work stress than in other fields. 

Support

For assistant professor of epidemiology and psychology Esther Metting, the pandemic was one of the busiest times in her career. She was involved in creating the CoronaMelder and CoronaCheck apps, but also sat on advisory boards operating on regional, national, and European levels. This left her very little time to publish articles. ‘I have a lot of unused data left’, she says. ‘But I can’t say if the situation would have been different if I were a man.’

No matter how much support you get, what you really need is time

Metting says the support from the university during the lockdown was nice. The Faculty of Economy and Business, where she would occasionally teach, would send her a personalised message or some chocolate. ‘Not very often, but just to say that they knew I existed and were thinking of me.’

De Ruiter was also happy with the support. ‘Our manager organised online sessions for academics with small children. It allowed us to talk about our concerns and share tips’, she says. ‘It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling.’

‘But’, she continues, ‘no matter how much support you get, what you really need is time. And no one can give that to you.’ 

Natural selection

For Lee, this study differed from what he’s used to in his field. ‘If it weren’t for the pandemic, I never would have done this research’, he says. For his second master project, he was expecting to study natural selection, either in the lab or in the field.

But natural selection is everywhere, including the world of academia, Lee thinks. ‘At a university, academics’ characteristics can either work in their favour or against them. One of those characteristics is gender.’

Their study managed to shine a bit of light on the issue, but they would have liked to do more. ‘Ideally, we wanted to look beyond just the gender binary’, says Dugdale. ‘Are there other elements at play that we didn’t look at?’

That job will now fall to someone else. ‘Our methods and results are open access now, which means other academics can use them in the future’, says Lee. ‘Any kind of gender inequality is problematic. We have a very long way to go still.’

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