Could the Pandemic Prompt an ‘Epidemic of Loss’ of Women in the Sciences?

Prior to the pandemic, many female scientists felt unsupported in their careers. There are some who are now reaching their breaking point.

During the pandemic, Alisa Stephens found working from home to be an exhausting experience.

A biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and her work requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. It was impossible to find the time and mental space for that work with two young children at home.

The first month of the lockdown was hard for her, she recalled. Her infant daughter’s day care was closed, and her 5-year-old was at home instead of school. Since their nanny could not come to the house, doctor tended to the children all day and worked late into the evening. Her daughter was due to start kindergarten in the fall, but the schools did not reopen.

After bringing in a nanny, things eased, but doctor still had little time for the deep thinking she relied on every morning to do her job. Her expectations of herself have changed over time.

Despite not being at 100 percent, she said, “I can get things done at 80 percent to some extent.”. “It’s not great, it’s not my best, but for now, it’s enough.”.

In good company, Women have published fewer papers, led fewer clinical trials, and been recognized for their expertise less during the pandemic, according to several studies.

An already unsustainable situation becomes unbearable with the emotional upheaval and stress that comes with the pandemic, protests over structural racism, concerns about children’s mental health and education, and a lack of time for thinking and working.

“All of these factors combine to create this perfect storm. According to Michelle Cardel, an obesity researcher at the University of Florida, people are at their breaking point. It is my big fear that we are going to have a secondary epidemic of loss, particularly among young women in STEM fields.”

Even before the pandemic, female scientists were struggling. Daniela Witten, a biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle, said it was not unusual to hear that women were not as smart as men. She said that some things are changing, but they are doing so slowly and with great effort.

Mothers face a particularly steep career ladder. Even while on maternity leave, they must maintain lab work, teaching requirements, publications, and mentoring of graduate students. Most of them do not have access to affordable child care once they return to work.

Discrimination against women in academia is often difficult to overcome. Human resource structures are not always present in their institutions as they are in businesses.

As scientists of color, they face other biases at work – in everyday interactions, professional evaluations, and promotions – and now have to cope with the pandemic’s disproportionate effects.

One of his close friends, also a Black scientist, had five family members who contracted Covid-19.

The year has been a “pause” for everyone, Doctor said, and universities should find a way to help scientists when the pandemic ends – perhaps by extending their tenure eligibility by an extra year.

Some said extra tenure time may help, but it won’t be enough.

“It’s like when you drown and the university tells you, ‘Don’t worry if it takes you an extra year to get back to shore,'” Doctor  said. “Hey, that’s not helpful. It’s time for me to get a flotation device.”

The outdated notions about how to help women in science further compound the frustration. Social media has enabled women to share their concerns and find allies to organize and call out injustice when they see it, said Jessica Hamerman, an immunologist at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle. People are much less likely to sit quietly and listen to biased statements when they are affected by them.”

In November, for example, a controversial study on female scientists was published in the influential journal Nature Communications, suggesting that having female mentors would hinder the career of young scientists and recommending that young women instead seek out men to assist them.

There was an intense and unforgiving response.

Hundreds of scientists, male and female, criticized the paper’s flawed methods and conclusions, saying it reinforced outdated stereotypes and neglected structural biases in academia.

“ The paper’s advice was basically what your grandmother might have told you 50 years ago: Get yourself a man who will take care of you, and everything will be fine,” another doctor said.

The paper was retracted on Dec. 21 after nearly 7,600 scientists signed a petition calling for it to be retracted.

Several female scientists were already concerned about the pandemic’s impact on their careers, and were angry at a system that offered them little assistance.

Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York, said, “It has been an incredibly difficult time to be a woman in science.” “We’re already on our knees, and then the paper says, ‘Let’s move the graduate students to a senior man’.”

Several people on Twitter suggested the Nature Communications paper was retracted because a “feminist mob” demanded it, but he described the paper as “a dumpster fire of data.”

According to several statisticians, the study was based on flawed assumptions and statistical analysis. There was no comment from the authors of the paper.)

In her opinion, the paper was “dangerous,” so she pushed back. It was likely that department chairs and deans of medical schools used the research to steer graduate students toward male mentors and reverse any progress toward making science more equitable, said Vosshall: “The older I get, the more insight I have into how this profession really works.”.”

At Rockefeller University, one of the country’s oldest research institutions, she has infused some of her wisdom into change.

Several years ago, Rockefeller University invited Rachel Maddow to present a prestigious prize. As she entered the auditorium, Ms. Maddow pointed out a wall adorned with pictures of Lasker Award and Nobel Prize winners affiliated with the university. Four other women at the university had also won prestigious awards, but their photographs were not displayed.

It’s the dude wall, what’s up with that? Maddow wondered. The wall suddenly seemed different to doctor, who had walked past it a thousand times. Overtly or not, it sent the wrong message to all the high school, undergraduate, and graduate students who routinely walked past it.

“Once you see a dude wall, you see them everywhere,” she said. Every auditorium, hallway, departmental office, and conference room has them.”

Rockefeller University eventually agreed to replace the display with one that reflects the institution’s history. A more inclusive set of images will replace the ones taken down on Nov. 11, according to doctor  on Twitter.

Yale University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have also reconsidered their dude walls, doctor said. Traditions should not be perpetuated in some cases.”

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