The number of female researchers named on medical research papers fell during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the early phases, say researchers who warn the impact on women’s careers may last for years.
While gender inequalities have always existed in medical research, the detailed analysis of authorship of papers submitted to 11 journals in the BMJ Publishing Group showed these inequalities increased further as the world went into lockdown.
The detailed look at more than 63,000 manuscripts showed that while the number of papers sent to journals increased dramatically between January 2020 and May 2021, the representation of women in prominent authorship positions fell compared with the two years before the pandemic.
That gender gap was widest between 1 January and 31 May 2020 compared with before the pandemic, and this was most pronounced for first and corresponding authors, the analysis found.
In more recent times the gender disparities have narrowed and were once again very similar to that seen before the pandemic began.
The researchers also found that the median percentage of female authors was lower for COVID-19 manuscripts (28.6% in Jan-May 2020) compared with pre-pandemic manuscripts (36.4%).
Writing in The BMJ, the Swiss researchers said their findings showed once again that during the pandemic – especially in the early phases – women, particularly younger women paid a heavier price than men from lockdown measures which left them juggling work while managing childcare, home-schooling and domestic responsibilities.
They called on academic institutions and funding bodies to rapidly put measures in place to account for the gender inequalities in the impact of the pandemic to mitigate the knock-on effect on career development, awarding of grant applications and job opportunities for women.
“Patterns in authorship need to be routinely scrutinised to draw attention to the continued imbalance in female representation until parity can be reached.
“The low rates of female first, last, and corresponding authorship on submissions may fall further as the pandemic continues to cause disruption to working patterns and may be compounded once the new research that was conceived and designed during the pandemic flows through to publication stage,” they said.
“Our findings should give early warning of inequity to those who rely on authorship of published articles as a metric of productivity to inform academic promotion and award research grants.”
In an accompanying editorial, two female researchers from Harvard Medical School noted that while the findings are disturbing they are “wholly unsurprising”.
The researchers “shine a light on prominent authorship of COVID-19 specific publications, showing that the critically important contributions of women physicians and scientists were marginalised in what might be considered the most consequential scientific topic of the century”.
“The aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on women will result not only in lost time for those women but in lost scientific discoveries. There is a pressing need to support them. The urgent responsibility for intervention sits firmly on the shoulders of leaders in healthcare, government, business, and the wider community,” they concluded.