Women have always trailed men in research output: how COVID made the situation worse


The under-representation of women in research is well documentedEmerging evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this inequality and disrupted the research enterprise globally.

But none of these studies, mainly from the global north, provide detailed explanations for the scale of this decline.

Our research offers the first comprehensive study to shed light on the complex reasons for the decline in research during the pandemic-enforced lockdown.

We surveyed 2,029 women academics drawn from 26 public universities in South Africa. Other studies have shown that there are heightened expectations that women take on the role of primary care giver in families and sacrifice parts of their careers due to this role. Similarly, women in the academy are expected to fulfil this role in caring for students, taking on greater teaching and learning responsibilities compared to men.

Overall our findings showed that having younger or multiple dependants at various educational stages and the demands of home schooling had a negative impact on the outputs of women academics. Competing roles such as teaching online and caring for students, together with the sharp increase in teaching time, placed a massive burden on female academics. Their research outputs suffered.

Women also acknowledged the lack of emotional support they got as working academics.

What we found

The single most important factor affecting the academic work of female academics appears to be having younger or multiple dependants in the home. Overall, the pandemic has most affected academic work among women with children. Of the respondents in our study, 54% indicated they had children living at home with them.

From our study, it’s evident that the age and educational stage of the children was a significant contributor to the decline in productivity among female academics. The demands of caring for toddlers and the schools’ expectations of homeschooling took their toll. Academic mothers were caught up in the demands of competing roles. These included teaching online, nurturing vulnerable students, comforting anxious children, taking care of toddlers, and finding time to do research and writing.

A key finding in our survey was the sharp increase in the demands on teaching time during lockdown. This took up time that female academics would have spent on research. Academics perform many different roles, including teaching, research, grant-proposal writing, administrative duties, and other tasks depending on their rank and discipline. Our survey showed that the distribution of teaching and research was not at all even.

Our study suggested that the pandemic affected researchers differently according to their disciplines. Those in the “bench sciences”, such as chemistry, biological sciences and biochemistry, were explicit in stating that the closure of laboratories or facilities affected their research productivity. Disciplines that are less lab and equipment-intensive were also affected. But these cases were often related to individual circumstances such as the ability to do fieldwork in particular social science fields.

Most women (75.1%) indicated that doing their academic work (teaching and research) was “somewhat” to “extremely” difficult during the lockdown. About 16% reported that it was easier. In further analysis of participants who indicated that work was easier, it became evident that these perceptions were correlated to the following factors: having children, and their ages; career stages; commuting conditions; and work arrangements prior to lockdown.

Overall, a total of 40.5% of the participants indicated they needed much more – or significantly more – emotional support as working academics to cope with the demands of the job. Several respondents expressed feelings of unending exhaustion. This reduced their ability to focus and to be productive. The feeling of despair and a sense of the unfairness of workload distribution was a key theme that emerged from our data.

The lockdown has had a profound effect on women’s academic productivity – 31.6% reported having made “no progress”. Over a fifth indicated they’d made “some progress” towards completing a significant academic product. This will likely affect the prospects of academics for promotion and advancement.

Career prospects

A large number of women in our study (48.1%) indicated that the lockdown would negatively affect their academic career prospects. This points to the need for institutions to track the effects of the pandemic, and provide support.

Leaders in academic institutions need to be aware that female academic staff view the lockdown as yet another barrier to equity. They also need to consider the effects of the pandemic on career challenges in recruitment and promotion decisions.

A major theme that emerged was how women academics’ role as nurturers played a critical part in the intersecting functions of caring for their students and their families during the pandemic. Our study showed how the emotional, psychological and educational needs of students drew academic women into extensive nurturing roles, beyond caring for their families. This had a negative impact on academic work.

It also showed the workings of the symbiotic relationship of giving care (by women academics) and requiring care (by students) in a pandemic. Furthermore, the study highlighted the precarity of academic women’s work under pandemic conditions.

Going forward

Although the respondents in this study were based in South Africa, it’s evident from this – and prior research – that the pandemic has had an effect on the academic enterprise globally.

The pandemic poses a lasting threat to gender equality in academia. We call on institutional leaders, science councils, academic societies and funding bodies to implement policies to mitigate the career risks that female academics encountered during the enforced lockdown.

It’s not only the introduction of new policies but the attitudes towards those policies that needs attention. Achieving gender equality in the academic enterprise requires institutional commitment, as well as knowledge and competence to achieve organisational change.

Author Bios: Cyrill Walters is a Research fellow, Armand Bam is Head of Social Impact and Senior Lecturer, Business School both at Stellenbosch University and Patrizio Piraino who is an Economist at the University of Notre Dame