News from the women’s committee — A growing divide

19 Jan 2021

Covid-19 has taught us that, while we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat. The pandemic has exposed and intensified inequalities in many areas of our life, including academic life. Chryssi Giannitsarou and Sarah Smith report.

Since March, many aspects of academic life have been transformed. Hybrid- and online teaching have replaced traditional methods and we have zoomed our way through meetings, seminars and workshops. More so than many occupations, academic economists are relatively well-suited to working from home — some reported little change in their working life, while others took advantage of reduced travel to free up quality time for research. The pandemic created a huge demand for rigorous and timely analysis and, in the last year, there has been a flurry of economic research activity the likes of which has never been seen before — a surge in the number of preprints and working papers in economics, a new journal (Covid Economics) devoted to pandemic-related research and a dedicated website (Economics Observatory) bringing economic analysis of all things Covid-related to policy and public audiences.

But while some people have forged ahead with new research, many others have had little time to devote research in the face of overwhelming, competing demands on their time. And there is growing evidence that the differences in our ‘Covid experience’ divides along gender and seniority lines.

Back in April 2020, Amano-Patino, Faraglia, Giannitsarou and Hasna (2020) set out to collect data on research activity and output in economics by tracking a variety of information from two prominent repositories of early research output, namely the series of NBER Working Papers and CEPR Discussion Papers, aiming to quantify the impact of the pandemic on  research productivity in economics.

By the end of April, combining data from NBER, CEPR, Covid Economics and VoxEU, we reported that there was a large surge in new research papers in economics in the first four months of 2020, with about 32 per cent increase relative to the corresponding four-month average for 2015-2019, mostly driven by new research related to the pandemic. We also noted that the relative number of women authors in non-pandemic related research has remained stable with respect to recent years at about 1 in 5 authors. However, only 1 in 8 researchers working on Covid-19 related topics were women.

Since then, we collected data relating to working papers from these NBER and CEPR which included information on the authors’ gender and seniority from January 2004, until the end of October 2020. Tracking the research activity in economics in 2020 we continue to see that the relative number of women authors that contribute to research unrelated to the pandemic has remained stable at an approximate average of 21.5 per cent, following remarkably well the general trend of contribution of women authors to economic research since 2004.

But the relative contribution of women authors to research related to Covid-19 and the pandemic shows a very different pattern: as we showed early on, it starts at a low share of women of  c.11.5 per cent of all authors for the month of April 2020, when many countries were in strict lockdowns. It then steadily increases to a high average of c.40 per cent in the late weeks of summer before reverting to an average of 20.5 per cent in October and November 2020, in line with the long run trend. This may suggest that women authors were unable to respond fast to the new research challenges, due to the pressures of the division of labour at home during the early spring lockdowns. Nevertheless, they eventually caught up in the summer when more research time became available to them, e.g. due to less work-related teaching and administrative duties.

We also explored the relevance of seniority to the productivity of research during the pandemic. In our analysis from May 2020, we reported that senior researchers of both genders continued to be active and productive, as measured by research output, during the first part of the pandemic and produced the bulk of covid-related research in the first months of 2020. We also noted that among researchers of various seniority levels, junior and midcareer women were doing very little research related to the pandemic.

Fast forward to end of October 2020, we now focus on the subset of authors who are academics. We see that the women who are least productive in doing Covid-related research continue to be the junior and midcareer. Tables 1 and 2 show levels and shares of authors by gender, seniority and research topic. We see that the relative share of women PhD, postdocs, junior and midcareer authors to total PhD, postdoc, junior and midcareer authors participating in covid-related research is smaller than the corresponding shares of authors working on other topics. For senior academics, the shares of women to total authors in covid-related research is slightly higher (see Table 2).

Importantly the gap of research activity between covid and other research topics is larger for junior and midcareer academic women economists. Midcareer women have been the least involved in the new research field of economics of pandemics: a striking statistic is that out of the 991 authors that have been part of the research groups that wrote the 386 covid-related papers from March to October 2020, only 19 are midcareer women academics (see Table 1).

On a positive note, 2020 has seen a general increase in academic output in economics, as shown in Figure 1. However, the share of women to total authors has decreased in 2020 from 23.6 per cent in 2019 to 22.6 per cent in 2020 (with data until the end of October 2020), and importantly, women authors participation in covid-related research is overall smaller than in other topics, at a share of 21.1 per cent to all authors.

It is hard to believe that this gender divide is due to a relative lack of interest in Covid-19 among this subset of women. Covid research spans many fields in economics, including applied micro topics which typically attract relatively more women (Chari and Pinkam-Smith, 2018). Instead, the patterns bear out the hypothesis that women have been harder hit by the pandemic — in particular that they have borne a higher share of the increased burden of childcare following the closure of schools and nurseries and that this has reduced their productivity. The unequal effects of this additional burden have been well-documented for the general population (e.g. Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey and Tertilt, 2020, Sevilla and Smith, 2020, and Adams-Prassl, Boneva, Golin and Rauh, 2020a). Some fathers (when furloughed or laid off) took on a greater share of child-related work. However, in most households, roughly two-thirds of the burden of additional childcare was allocated to women. On top of childcare, women in academia — who often find themselves having more administrative roles (Guarino and Borden, 2017) — may have been more likely to find themselves at the frontline of dealing with the extra organisational work that Covid has created. Women have also reported having to supply more ‘emotional labour’ in- and outside the workplace, and evidence also suggests that lockdown measures have had a greater detrimental effect on women’s mental health (Adams-Prassl, Boneva, Golin and Rauh, 2020b; Etheridge and Spantig, 2020).

What needs to be done?

The pandemic disruptions to research, even if they are temporary, are likely to have permanent ‘scarring’ effects on people’s long-term careers unless there are ways to compensate academics who have been affected. Several institutions are looking at responses and policies. Often such responses are targeted at carers rather than women.

One set of responses can be characterised as trying to compensate people by increasing the resources they have to do research. UCL has introduced a special fund, offering financial assistance with childcare costs as well as with research. Another route is to reduce administrative and teaching loads for those who had additional childcare, giving them more research time. It is unlikely that these initiatives go far enough. They are also likely not to be a substitute for other measures directed towards the promotions process — where the Covid disruption is likely to have the biggest material effect.

In institutions with a tenure track, a common approach to dealing with childcare responsibilities is to ‘stop-the-clock’ and extend the time before the deadline. However, evidence from the US suggests that this policy — when applied to periods of maternity or paternity leave — benefitted men more than women by giving them more time to produce research, raising the bar and increasing the gender gap (Antecol, Bedard and Stearns, 2018). Even without this unintended consequence, stop-the-clock policies also institutionalise the temporary childcare burden into a permanent loss of (lifetime) earnings.  

An alternative approach is to take periods of disruption into account in assessing promotions, applying an adjustment to the appropriate threshold to allow for lost research time. Many institutions already make this kind of allowance in their official promotions processes, but they are often vague and open to very subjective assessments. Given the scale of disruption, it may be necessary to go further and be explicit about the process for taking account of the impact of COVID. And of course, different types of responses need to be put in place to more generally protect and improve the mental health of younger women academics who need reassurance about their career, tenure and promotion prospects. The danger of not doing so is that women in economics are likely to fall even further behind.

 

References

Adams-Prassl A, Boneva T, Golin M. and Rauh C (2020a), ‘Inequality in the Impact of the Coronavirus Shock: Evidence from Real Time Surveys", forthcoming in Journal of Public Economics

Adams-Prassl A, Boneva T, Golin M. and Rauh C.(2020b) ‘The Impact of the Coronavirus Lockdown on Mental Health: Evidence from the US’

Alon T, Doepke M, Olmstead-Rumsey J and Tertilt M (2020) ‘The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on gender equality’, VoxEU.org, 19 April

Amano-Patiño N, Faraglia E, Giannitsarou C. and Hasna Z. (2020) ‘The Unequal Effects of Covid-19 on Economists’ Research Productivity’, Cambridge-INET Working Paper WP2022

Antecol H, Bedard K and Stearns J (2018) ‘Equal but inequitable: Who benefits from gender-neutral tenure clock-stopping policies’, American Economic Review 108 (9)

Chari A and Pinkham-Smith P (2018) ‘Gender representation in economics across topics and time: Evidence from the NBER Summer Institute’, NBER working paper no. 23953. 

Etheridge, B. and Spantig, L. (2020) ‘The gender gap in mental well-being during the Covid-19 outbreak: evidence from the UK’, ISER working paper https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/research/publications/

working-papers/iser/2020-08

Guarino, C.M., and Borden, V.M.H. (2017) ‘Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?’ Research in Higher Education 58, 672-694

Sevilla A and S Smith (2020) ‘Baby steps: The gender division of childcare during the COVID19 pandemic’, Covid Economics 23.