COVID-19 is exacerbating the gender gap in science

"The problem is the hit that you take today is going to have consequences for a long time to come." This, and much more insight from a live discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on women in science in India
By | Published on Oct 6, 2020

On September 12, we organised a live discussion to find out if and how the ongoing pandemic has been impacting women scientists in India. On the panel were women in science bringing forth different perspectives.

The discussion began with an analysis of an open letter signed by 35 women scientists involved in COVID research in North America and Europe earlier this year. In this letter, the signatories talk about several barriers women, specifically women of colour, face in the global scientific community. It reads: “Even lifelong battles for a place in science have left us unprepared for the gendered and racial inequalities we have experienced in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The worst impacts of the coronavirus will undoubtedly be the loss of lives, the collapse of economies, the disruption of humanitarian aid and the decay of democracies. But we fear that the hard-won progress for women in science will be collateral damage of this crisis.”

Women leading the COVID response

Krutika Kuppalli, one of our panelists and also a signatory of this open letter. “In the lead up to writing the letter, a number of us were professing the challenges women were facing during this pandemic and in particular how there are a lot of articles [See A and B and C and D] being written about how men were the ones leading the efforts against the pandemic. Krutika and her peers realised women’s efforts were going unrecognised. “We thought that THAT was the story to tell. Because as we all know, women have not just been stepping up in leadership against this pandemic, but showing up in every shape and form. Women are also the primary caregivers so that puts extra burden on them. We wanted both the scientific and public community to know the role women have taken up.”

A review of COVID response task forces of 24 countries found only 25 percent women in them and called “for more inclusive and transparent decision-making”. Another study, where Krutika is one of the authors, found that internationally, women make up only a third of clinical trial leadership.”

Gagandeep Kang, a senior medical scientist in India and a former Chair of an ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) panel on COVID drugs and vaccines concurred: “This isn’t exclusive to COVID. Women are going to be sidelined in decision making, that’s what we have gotten used to, and it is only likely to amplify,” she said.

“Until you start measuring how much a role gender is playing at every level, sidelining of women will continue to happen,” Gagandeep said, following up with the suggestion that quotas might be the way to ensure there are women on decision making committees and leadership positions.

“When I look around for other women in my position, I can’t really see them.” However, the panel also acknowledged that the brunt of the strain is falling on early career researchers.

Impact on early career researchers

Rubina Mulchandani, another panelist, illustrated this with her own experience. Since the lockdown began on March 24, she has not been able to conduct research work as a PhD scholar in clinical research at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Public Health Foundation of India, located in the Delhi NCR region. “Early career fellows like me often do a lot of fieldwork. Transport has become a significant problem for me. And I live in Delhi NCR – which is not a very safe place for women to travel even under normal circumstances. When the lockdown began the first thing to shut down was the metro. So how am I supposed to go on with my research?”

“My field work was cancelled at the outset of the pandemic. There is only so much work you can do sitting at home. We are all facing that problem, but for women due to the fact that we face additional constraints with travel and [our role as] primary caregivers, the impact of COVID is getting compounded, which could exacerbate the existing gender gap in academia.” Rubina said.

Gagandeep, who leads several field teams, backed Rubina up with a shocking anecdote. She recalled receiving a phone call back in May informing her of police beating up field workers that were collecting samples for her group’s typhoid vaccine project. Besides police brutality, she said, “in my field teams, we have seen people having to deal with domestic violence, and the desperation of not being able to get out of containment zones to get their salaries. This includes people from various backgrounds and genders — from the ayahs managing the clinics to senior scientists.”

COVID-isation of the research landscape

Like many others, Rubina’s stipend support has stalled for months; she suspects this is because all funds have been directed towards COVID work. all funds have been directed towards COVID work. This is a phenomenon dubbed ‘COVID-isation’ of research, and is being flagged as a grave concern. It not only takes away funding from those not doing COVID work, but also invites non-experts to COVID decision making. As the letter Krutika co-signed notes: “Management consultants – largely male – with negligible relevant experience are making key decisions about the health of millions. Tech sector data scientists with no prior experience in any aspect of public health, biology or disease control are being “pulled-in” to task forces to discuss the finer points of contact tracing with policymakers. Senior male academics, famous for their innovations in other spheres, are giving public commentary with ill-informed modelling exercises, conjectures, or policy prescriptions with no basis in rigorous science.” Moreover, while many senior scientists may have the freedom to ‘COVID-ise’ their research area, such shifts are not an option for most early career researchers.

Gagandeep helped put this in context of an already “scary” scenario in India. “In our country, research funding is already being cut. So if you are a scientist and a researcher you know that there is going to be a 30 percent cut in what has already been approved, how do you manage? What you are dealing with is a new situation, where you have more questions not less, and yet resources are being cut. So how do you decide what to prioritise?

Senior male academics, famous for their innovations in other spheres, are giving public commentary with ill-informed modelling exercises, conjectures, or policy prescriptions with no basis in rigorous science.

She recognises the conundrum her early career colleagues are now in due to COVID-isation of research budgets: “If you are not working in COVID disease, drugs, diagnostics or vaccines, because that is where the funding is at, this is where prominence is being given, you may be under threat. Many  people are forced to wonder if they should be thinking of shifting to some aspect of COVID because that is going to give you continued prominence because if you don’t you might wind up in a situation where the work that you’re doing is discounted at least for the moment.”

“The science part of it is impacting everybody but there are social realities that get compounded to impact the women in science way more than it does the men. The problem is the hit that you take today is going to have consequences for a long time to come.” An existing gender gap of only around 12 to 15% of Indian scientists being women and high rates of women attrition rates at early career levels, this is something Indian science cannot afford.

Gender-wise distribution of COVID researchers from India

The webinar also attempted to understand the gender-wise distribution of those who are publishing on COVID from India. We had reached out to our friends and data specialists at Monk Prayogshala Hansika Kapur and Arathy Puthillam to tally the numbers.

“How can we support or refute the finding that Indian women scientists working on COVID are being underrepresented, or what is the proportion between men and women in COVID-related output?” Hansika explained the motives of their quick study.

Hansika and Arathy scraped data from three preprint repositories: PsyArXiv, arXiv and Bio/MedRxiv. The data was then coded by their colleagues to various variables – gender being one of them. Google search of the authors were used to create secondary data on apparent gender presentation.

“The gender gap rate was calculated as the total number of women authors/total number of men authors, per archive. You can see that psychology has the greatest number of women, but you can also see how badly women are represented in biology/medicine and physics,” Arathy explained their results.

Data from Arathy and Hansika show strained gender dynamics in Indian science during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blue: Male, Yellow: Female. Left: Sex Distribution across Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance, Statistics, Electrical Engineering, Systems Science, and Economics; Center: Sex Distribution across Biological and Medical Sciences; Right: Sex distribution in Psychology

Support that institutions can provide

Due to her inability to turn up to the lab, she was de-registered from her JRF position, the news of which reached her when she tried to login to the lab’s website – she couldn’t.

Deepika Choubey, another panelist, was employed as a JRF in a private university until recently. Once the lockdown ended, she was requested to join the lab, many miles away from her home. Due to her inability to turn up to the lab, she was de-registered from her JRF position, the news of which reached her when she tried to login to the lab’s website – she couldn’t. “It is actually very discouraging for someone in my position. And this is not just me; a few months ago, overnight, another fellow, was asked to leave, who also happens to be a woman.” She urged institutions to start being “at least a little” responsible for their research students, citing the fact that many institutions had asked the hostels to be emptied, forcing students to leave campus while the lockdown was ongoing.

The panel emphasised that in India, the first step would be for institutions and funding agencies to acknowledge the issues faced by women scientists and then, take steps with gender sensitivity that we do not currently see.

Is the government aware and listening? A press release shared by the Department of Science and Technology on August 7 informed of an “interactive session” hosted by the KIRAN division of the DST ( one that deals with women in science schemes), for 70 Indian women in science. It is not clear what steps would be taken to mitigate disproportionate impacts to the work of Indian women in science by the department based on this interaction or any other. However, the release did say: “Women scientists working as Principal Investigators of projects found the session very useful and appreciated DST’s efforts to reach out to them and clear their doubts.” Whether DST will be offering any assistance, flexibility, extensions and special considerations to the women it supports, as we have seen happen elsewhere, is still a mystery. Attempts to make these enquiries by via email were unanswered.

Note: At the end of the webinar, we also reached out to our panelists with questions from the audience that we could not take up due to a shortage of time. Our panelists have kindly answered, and we are appending the same below:

Soumalya Chakraborty: Has the COVID-19 pandemic strained the gender dynamics only in academia?

Rubina Mulchandani: I don’t think so. I think women across the world have had a gendered experience in some way or the other, whether they are from academia, or some other field, or even home makers. I think it has got to do with the power dynamics in a majority of situations, wherein we still keep women at a lower rung of the ladder as compared to men. In homes, this leads to domestic violence, abuse and other forms of suppression, which has seen an increase during the lockdown, since women are confined to homes and consistently in the vicinity of the men (fathers/husbands). Similarly, we have all been witness to the gender gap in terms of employment opportunities and salaries that continues to persist. Owing to the pandemic, people have lost their jobs, suffered salary cuts and more and with women holding positions that are lower to those held by men in most organizations, they are disproportionately affected. So, it is not just academia but since ours is a field that comes with its own set of challenges already, including funding constraints, uncertainties in work/projects, problems with hierarchy systems and more, we bear the brunt a little more than those outside of academia.

Hansika Kapur: Gender dynamics across domains have been strained due to COVID-19, not just in academic environments. This strain is also going to be experienced differently by different individuals due to other environmental factors, but the effects are definitely not selective.

Srabasti Sarbadhikary: Are the funding obstacles to research work are specific to women in comparison to men? Is there any sort of patriarchal mechanism that’s coming into the way of women in doing research works and programs or is it a very generic thing that is happening this wake of the pandemic?

Rubina Mulchandani: I am not sure what Ms. Srabadhikary indicates by a ‘patriarchal mechanism’ coming in the way women do research. If it means patriarchy acts as a hurdle in our struggle for funding, I wouldn’t say it is being done specifically to target women. India has always had a very limited budget for science, R&D and education. Now with all the funding being directed to the pandemic response, the funders and grant agencies are in a soup. So I wouldn’t say funding obstacles are specific to women. I know a lot of other researchers (males and females), especially in my age group, facing similar issues.

It is not a gendered problem per se, however, like I said during the webinar, such concerns will only contribute to exacerbating the existing gender disparities in academia. Women have a tougher journey than men anyway, which involves a variety of reasons and factors with sexist undertones. If the pandemic further widens this gap, it could be a significant blow to the career trajectories of many women who will be discouraged to pursue science.

Like I said that day, it could feel like we have lost the battle on day 1 itself. Women are usually given faculty positions compared to men who hold more senior positions. This is making it difficult for women researchers to focus on their research work, since they have domestic responsibilities as well as teaching to attend to. This is a major reason for women all over the world publishing less than men post-COVID. Similarly, early career women like me, who have just started, have limited opportunities to explore and shifting to a more lucrative research field is a risk senior researchers can take (proportion of men is higher in that group). It wouldn’t be feasible enough for me to consider a shift to have better chances at securing a grant. That limits my opportunities even further in times of COVID.

This is how even when the process of awarding grants is not gendered in itself, it is part of a mechanism that will eventually adversely impact careers of more women than men in science.

Hansika Kapur: Academia, as are other social structures, are often dominated by men and patriarchal notions of power. Therefore, the distribution of such power is uneven – whether there is a pandemic or not. The biggest funding obstacle for women is often not adequate training or expertise, but the applicant’s gender.

Note: This piece is a part of Season 5 of sponsored by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.We thank STEMPeers and for their support in conducting this webinar. Also, a version of this report was published earlier by Huffington Post.


About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded in 2016.

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