COVID-19 lockdowns boosted astronomy publications but worsened the gender gap, finds study


women working from home
Mind the gap: A study found that women published 8.9 papers for every 10 published by men before the COVID-19 pandemic, but this has now dropped to 8.8 papers (courtesy: iStock_FOTOGRAFIA-INC)

Astronomers published more papers per year during the COVID-19 pandemic than they did beforehand – but men enjoyed a disproportionate share of the increase. The change, which has widened the gender gap in astronomy, has been revealed in a study carried out by two physicists (Nature Astronomy doi:10.1038/s41550-022-01830-9). They also found that lockdowns may have created barriers for new researchers entering the field.

The analysis was performed by Vanessa Böhm of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jia Liu from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe in Japan, who examined the public records of astronomy papers published between 1950 and 2022.

When Böhm and Liu focused on the period around the pandemic, analysing the data by gender, career stage and country, they found that astronomy publications increased by 13% since March 2020.

The researchers speculate that this increase in publications could be due to flexible-working and less time spent travelling, enabling scientists to do more focussed work.

Liu cautions, however, that a rise in publications does not necessarily mean a greater impact. “When I discussed our findings with colleagues, some brought up an interesting point – working from home is good for finishing up existing work, but bad for generating new ideas,” she told Physics World, “which I found quite convincing based on my personal experience.”

Unequal distribution

The study revealed that most countries experienced a drop in the number of first-time authors. And while existing researchers increased their yearly publications, the gain was not shared equally. Before the pandemic, women published 8.9 papers for every 10 published by men, but this dropped to 8.8 during COVID-19.

The percentage of women among first-time authors also decreased in 14 out of 25 countries. Indeed, there was no single country where women’s publications kept pace with men’s since 2020, even in places where they had previously been matching or outperforming them, such as Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This could be due to women shouldering more caring responsibilities during lockdowns, but Böhm warns that the effects might continue even  now that workplaces are re-opening. For example, hybrid workshops could exacerbate the gender gap if it is mostly young mothers choosing to present their work virtually instead of in person.

“The current academic career is designed for researchers who have experienced little discrimination, have minimal family duties, and have maximal flexibility in terms of work schedules and relocating,” Böhm explains. “In our society, these privileges are only enjoyed by a few, and they are usually male.”

To combat this problem, Böhm suggests that those making hiring decisions should identify and remove the barriers that prevent female candidates from applying, being selected or staying in departments. Liu adds that hiring multiple women to leadership positions could also be effective. “This would give women more voice, provide junior members with diverse role models, and form a support system to tackle any new challenges in a systematic way,” she says.

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