Like many women during the pandemic, Alisa Stephens found working from home a series of tired challenges.
Dr. Stephens is a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and the technical and detail-oriented nature of her work requires long, uninterrupted deliberation. Finding the time and mental space to do this work at home with two young children proved impossible.
“That first month was really tough,” she recalled of the lockdown. Her young daughter’s daycare was closed and her 5-year-old was at home instead of school. Since her nanny could not come into the house, Dr. Stephens looked after her kids all day and worked late into the evening. Schools did not reopen in the fall, when her daughter was about to start kindergarten.
Things relaxed when the family was sure to bring in a nanny, but there was little time for the deep thought that Dr. Stephens had left every morning for work. Over time, she has adjusted her expectations of herself.
“Maybe I’m 80 percent versus 100 percent, but I can get things done at 80 percent to some degree,” she said. “It’s not great, it’s not my best, but it’s enough for now.”
Dr. Stephens is in good company. Several studies have found women published fewer articles, conducted fewer clinical trials, and received less recognition for their expertise during the pandemic.
Add to this the emotional upheaval and stress of the pandemic, protests against structural racism, concerns about children’s mental health and education, and lack of time to think or work, and an already unsustainable situation becomes unbearable.
“The confluence of all these factors creates this perfect storm. People are at their breaking point, ”said Michelle Cardel, an obesity researcher at the University of Florida. “My great fear is that we will have a secondary epidemic of losses, especially from women in early STEM careers.”
Women scientists had problems even before the pandemic. It wasn’t uncommon for her to hear that women weren’t as smart as men, or that a woman who was successful must have received a handout along the way, said Daniela Witten, biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle. Some things are changing, she said, but only with great effort and at an Ice Age pace.
The career ladder is particularly steep for mothers. Even during maternity leave, they are expected to keep up with laboratory work, teaching requirements, publications, and mentoring PhD students. When they return to work, most of them do not have affordable childcare.
Women in science often have little recourse when faced with discrimination. Your institutions sometimes lack the staffing structures that are common in the business world.
The path is even more difficult for color scientists like Dr. Stephens, who encountered other prejudices in the workplace – from everyday reactions, professional reviews or promotions – and now dealing with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black and Latin American communities.
Dr. Stephens said a close friend, also a black scientist, has five family members who have contracted Covid-19.
April 12, 2021, 9:28 p.m. ET
The year was a “break” for everyone, added Dr. Stephens added, and universities should find a way to help scientists when the pandemic ends – perhaps by adding an extra year to the time they have to earn a tenure.
Others said while additional tenure may help, it will now be far from enough.
“It’s like you’re drowning and the university is telling you, ‘Don’t worry if you need an extra year to get back on land,” said Dr. Witten. “It’s like,’ Hey, that’s not helpful. I need a flotation device. ‘”
The frustration is compounded by outdated ideas of how to help women in science. But social media has allowed women to share some of those concerns and find allies to organize and exclaim injustices when they see this, said Jessica Hamerman, an immunologist at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle. “It’s just much less likely that people will sit quietly and hear biased statements that concern them.”
In November, for example, the influential journal Nature Communications published a controversial study on women scientists, suggesting that female mentors would hinder the careers of young scientists and recommending that young women seek men to help them instead.
The reaction was intense and unforgiving.
Hundreds of scientists, men and women, abandoned the paper’s flawed methods and conclusions, saying they had reinforced outdated stereotypes and failed to account for structural biases in science.
“The advice from the newspaper was basically similar to the advice your grandmother gave you 50 years ago: get a man to look after you and you’ll be fine,” said Dr. Cardel.
Nearly 7,600 scientists signed a petition asking the journal to withdraw the paper – which it did on December 21st.
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The study came at a time when many women scientists were already concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their careers and were already nervous and angry about a system that offered them little support.
“It was an incredibly difficult time being a woman in science,” said Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. “We’re already down, we’re already on our knees – and then the newspaper comes and kicks us to say, ‘We have the solution, let’s take the PhD students to an older man.'”
Some people on Twitter suggested that the Nature Communications paper had been withdrawn because a “feminist mob” requested it, but in fact the paper was “a dumpster fire of data,” said Dr. Vosshall.
According to several statisticians, the study was based on incorrect assumptions and statistical analyzes. (The authors of the paper declined to comment.)
Dr. Vosshall said she felt compelled to push back because the paper was “dangerous”. Department heads and deans of medical faculties have used the research to direct doctoral students to male mentors and to drive back all advances in equality of science. She said, “The older I get, the more windows I have for this job that really works.”
She used some of her wisdom to bring about change at Rockefeller University, one of the oldest research institutions in the country.
A few years ago Rockefeller University invited news anchor Rachel Maddow to present a prestigious award. On the way into the auditorium, Ms. Maddow pointed to a wall adorned with pictures of Lasker Prize and Nobel Prize winners – all men – associated with the university. At least four women at the university had also won prestigious awards, but their photos were not on display.
“What’s up with the guy wall?” Mrs. Maddow asked. And Dr. Vosshall, who had walked past the wall a thousand times, suddenly saw it differently. She realized that, openly or not, it was sending the wrong message to all the high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students who routinely walked by.
“As soon as you notice a guy wall, you see them everywhere,” she said. “They are in every auditorium, in every corridor, in every departmental office, in every conference room.”
Rockefeller University eventually agreed to replace the display with a display more representative of the institution’s history. The pictures were taken on November 11th, announced Dr. Vosshall on Twitter and will be replaced with a more comprehensive set.
The departments at Yale University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have also rethought their buddy walls, said Dr. Vosshall. “There are some traditions that shouldn’t be perpetuated.”