How is COVID-19 Affecting Women’s Research Productivity?

By Kelsey Kim


According to a recent Higher Ed article by Colleen Flaherty, COVID-19 social distancing measures have had an added consequence in academia: a decrease in productivity for women professors and researchers. Several academic journals have reported a significant decrease in solo-authored submissions by women for March and April 2020, while men’s submissions have increased by as much as 25 percent. As we grapple with the changes to our work environments this pandemic has caused, with all but essential workers being confined to their homes these past few months, how is it that women’s solo research has drastically declined in comparison to men’s?

While studies have shown that men do more housework and child rearing than ever before, women still do most of the household labor, as well as the mental labor of delegating chores, booking doctor’s appointments, making grocery lists—the overall household management. And while the pandemic conditions add a new layer of work to women’s preexisting household duties (e.g. checking in on loved ones, homeschooling children), they “ha[ve] simply exacerbated these inequities by stripping away what supports women had in place to walk this tightrope.” As women are putting more work into keeping their households and families afloat, they are dedicating less and less time to their own research.

This is not to say that women—or anyone, for that matter—should prioritize their research above their health and wellbeing or that of those around them. But the lack of prioritization of their academic work is not surprising considering that women faculty members also take on far more service work, like serving on committees, mentoring students, etc., than their male counterparts.

While Flaherty’s look into women researchers’ productivity is compelling, I find myself wondering how this article could better reflect other household units beyond the middle-class nuclear family. Do the experiences and expectations during COVID differ in single-person households or same-sex partnerships, where gendered division of labor may not be as immediately visible? How does race play a role in productivity, given that Black and Indigenous women of color (BIWOC) are already underrepresented and under-supported in academia? And while I understand the author’s emphasis on childcare duties during this pandemic, I’m particularly interested in how care work for those most vulnerable to COVID, our parents and grandparents age 60 and up, adds another facet to women’s decline in number of publication submissions.

This article brought the much-needed perspective of women professors to light, but as a graduate student, I wonder how our productivity is further impeded by our already precarious situations. Pre-COVID-19, many graduate students already lacked adequate housing, funding, and/or childcare. Now our lives are more uncertain than ever. How will this pandemic affect our time-to-degree, if fieldwork plans or lab time is stalled for the foreseeable future? How will we fund our studies if our now-remote summer classes are cancelled due to low enrollment? This is not to say that graduate student struggles are separate from those of women professors; if anything, the similarities of our situations make it even more evident that we need to reevaluate the way academia is structured so we are not forced into these predicaments. Again, research is not more important than our health and safety, but when we rely on conferences and publications for our careers, this isn’t simply an issue of who is being productive during COVID, but rather, who has the privilege to be?