April 5, 2021

Impacts of the pandemic on women in academic SEM (NASEM Report)

Posted by Laura Guertin

cover of NASEM report on the impact of COVID-19 on academic women in SEMOn March 9, 2021, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report summarizing survey data and noting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in academic science, engineering, and medicine (SEM) fields (note that the committee’s work was through the end of 2020). The work of the committee members focused on the following:

  • Whether ongoing interventions help or harm women in academic research;
  • If these interventions impact women and men differently;
  • What unique challenges are women in academic research facing in light of COVID-19;
  • How these elements may impact the research careers of women in SEM.

I appreciate the many ways these findings are being shared, from the news release to the consensus study report highlights to the free downloadable PDF of the report itself. A video recording was also made during the presentation of the public release and is available on Vimeo.

The report offers important reminders of the current status and conditions of women in SEM, especially Women of Color, from previous research, building upon the 2020 report Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine:

During stressful times, those who are systemically disadvantaged are more likely to experience additional strain and instability than those who have an established reputation, a stable salary commitment, and power. Women of Color are affected more significantly than others, given the layering of gender-bias and racism contributing to their career trajectories. In STEMM, desirable attributes are generally granted to those who adhere to masculine and majority norms. Women in academic STEMM are more likely than men to be early in their career, have a lower salary regardless of professional ranking in STEMM, be a single parent or a primary caregiver, and report experiencing greater work-related stress and discrimination in the workplace or their community. In addition, the caregiving responsibilities that often fall on the shoulders of women cuts across career time line and rank.  —  Consensus Study Report Highlights

As the committee was asking the research questions and gathering data for this new report, I appreciated the emphasis by webinar leaders that “this report investigated, understood, and presented the topics explored through an equity lens.”

Intersectionality was part of the research foundation for this report

What has the COVID-19 pandemic done to change the situation from the 2020 report to this new 2021 report? These are a few highlights of this report’s findings (summarized from the news report):

  • Work-life boundaries largely affect women during COVID-19, with women experiencing increased workload, decreased productivity, changes in interactions, and a lack of social communities for academic support. The personal and mental health concerns are increasing among academic women in SEM with difficulties in overall caregiving (children, elder parents, etc.).
  • Financial decisions by some institutions to layoff and/or furlough contingent and non-tenured faculty impacted women and People of Color, with this short-term effect potentially having long-term impacts and consequences.
  • Although publications authored by women in earth and space sciences remained consistent during 2020, several other preliminary measures of productivity — such as self-reported research and hours worked, authorship status, and attendance at conferences — suggest that COVID 19 disruptions have disproportionately affected women compared with men.
  • While colleges and universities have offered extensions for those on the tenure track, and federal and private funders have offered extensions on funding and grants, these changes do not necessarily align with the needs expressed by women, such as the need for flexibility to contend with limited availability of caregiving and requests for a reduced workload, nor do they generally benefit women faculty who are not on the tenure track. Further, provision of institutional support may be insufficient if it does not account for the challenges faced by those with multiple marginalized identities.

I grabbed a screenshot of one of the final slides from the presentation – it is too important not to share and for us not to keep in the front of our minds and at the heart of our actions moving forward.

Final slide from presentation, stating that more work needs to be done beyond 2020

Again, a link to review the public session from the March 9 release event is available: Women & COVID-19 Public Session on Paper from The National Academies on Vimeo. Our discipline has clearly not identified or even seen all of the continuing and new/emerging challenges for academic women in SEM. Let’s make sure we move forward with these conversations and take actions that support all that are underrepresented in STEM long after 2021, as the impacts will continue well beyond this calendar year.



Note that NASEM also released a report on March 23, 2021, titled Undergraduate and Graduate STEM Students’ Experiences during COVID-19: Proceedings of a Virtual Workshop Series. You can learn more about this project here and view the report here. The series included Online learning and STEM progression (September 2020), Research and mentoring (September 2020), Socialization and student engagement (October 2020), and Leadership and decision making (October 2020).