Science student looking through microscope in a laboratory

How COVID-19 widened the gender research gap as women were left juggling caring and career duties

The first in a series of inequality-focused blogs by academics from the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) looks at the gendered impacts of the pandemic on health and medical researchers in the UK, Australia and Vietnam

Introduction

Among the many extraordinary responses to COVID-19 has been that of the global research community. Thousands of new collaborations, projects and publications have been rapidly developed and implemented – supported by a wide range of funding schemes, many of which have been modified or expanded in response to the pandemic.

But while these initiatives have led to numerous breakthroughs in COVID-19 prevention, treatment and control, the gendered impacts on the health and medical research workforce cannot be ignored.

Early in the pandemic, the widespread transition to home working plus innovations such as online meetings were hailed as breakthroughs for research culture, addressing many of the barriers to progress that female scientists have traditionally experienced in their careers. However, because women still hold the majority of primary caring roles, the shift to working from home – coupled with school closures – has left many women juggling caring and career responsibilities.

Studies conducted since early in the pandemic demonstrate that women have been underrepresented in journal submissions and publications over this period. While the precise impact on women’s long-term careers is unknown, journal publications remain key academic outputs and prerequisites for future funding.

Gender inequalities in global research funding

Publicly available data from countries within our study network – Australia, the United Kingdom and Vietnam – indicate there have been longstanding gender inequalities in research funding in all three countries. For example:

  • In Australia, there are known gender disparities in grant submissions and success rates for the country’s major medical research funder, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – which has implemented strategies in an attempt to address this issue. In 2020, projects with women as Chief Investigator (CI) accounted for only 34% of submitted NHMRC grants and 35% of awarded grants.
  • In the UK, while the Medical Research Council’s 2019-20 awards showed similar success rates between male and female academics overall, only 37% of Principal Investigators (PIs) were women, and men were awarded 1.5 times more funding in total.
  • Data from Vietnam’s National Foundation for Science and Technology Development (NAFOSTED) shows that in 2019 and 2020, female PIs comprised 24% of successfully funded proposals (and 26% of applicants). In biomedical sciences, 46% of successfully funded PIs were women.

The pandemic response has necessitated redistribution and reprioritisation of research funding, with potential gendered impacts on researchers that – in the short term, at least – some funders have attempted to mitigate.

For example, in the UK women have, on average, asked UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) for an extra five days’ PhD extension compared with their male counterparts. Reasons for extensions cited by women include their COVID-19 caring responsibilities, and health and wellbeing issues. In contrast, men seeking extensions tended to cite a lack of access to facilities. While these data have limitations, they imply that, in the UK at least, female PhD students have typically spent greater time in caring roles, while their male counterparts have been engaged in non-laboratory based, but nevertheless productive, academic work.

In Australia, a decision to prioritise other funding rounds and reduce the burden on peer reviewers and staff prompted the NHMRC to cancel its 2020 Synergy Grant. An unconscious consequence of this was the cancellation of a scheme in which women enjoy higher success rates: 20.7% compared with 11.4% for male CIs.

In Vietnam, meanwhile, NAFOSTED launched only one funding round in 2020, supporting approximately half as many projects as the previous year. While overall, the proportion of funded projects with female PIs remained the same at 25%, in biomedical sciences the proportion dropped from 56% in 2019 to 30% in 2020.

The future of research funding is likely to be limited

Global research funding is likely to be limited for the foreseeable future. For example, in the UK, a reduction in Overseas Development Aid means academic institutions will receive £120 million less research funding than had been expected in 2021-22, while Cancer Research UK’s December 2020 cuts amount to 12 fewer fellowships, 24 fewer five-year research programmes and 68 fewer projects.

Universities UK, the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has expressed concern that the UK Government’s post-Brexit commitment to continue funding the Horizon Europe project has not been accounted for in Treasury forecasts. This commitment amounts to £1 billion – equivalent to the salaries of 18,000 full-time university researchers – which would be taken from the science budget that normally funds UKRI. Women in research are 1.5 times more likely to be on casual and fixed-term contracts or less senior roles than men, and are therefore more vulnerable to such reductions in funding.

Conclusion

Inequitable distribution of research funding impacts the feasibility and sustainability of women in health and medical research careers. Work needs to be done to assess and address factors contributing to this, to ensure that the gendered gaps in research don’t continue to widen as the pandemic progresses.

Authors (all contributed equally to this blog)

Dr Do Tien Dung, NAFOSTED, Vietnam; Evelyne Kestelyn, Katrina Lawson and Ngo Thi Hoa, all Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam; Pham Ngoc Thach, University of Medicine, Vietnam; Kelly Thompson, The George Institute, Australia; Louise Thwaites, Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam; Truong Thi Thanh Huyen, NAFOSTED, Vietnam; Amy Vassallo, The George Institute for Global Health and Franklin Women, Australia.

With acknowledgement for technical assistance to: Nguyen Xuan Truong, Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam; Nguyen Minh Quan, NAFOSTED, Vietnam.