Why are women underrepresented in COVID-19 research authorship?

An analysis of papers relating to COVID-19 has found that female researchers make up a third of authors. Here, the potential reasons behind this figure are explored and a possible solution to encourage equality.

Women researchers

According to a new analysis, women make up only a third of all authors who have published research on the COVID-19 coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020. Further findings show that even fewer of these women are the senior authors on these papers. Why is this the case and what can be done to promote female authors?

Published in BMJ Global Health, the study suggests that lockdown measures may have further widened existing inequalities by restricting women’s capacity to commit to research, because of competing demands from home-schooling, parenting and other caring duties.

Women in pharma

The researchers, from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Oxford, UK, argue that as women are already underrepresented in other areas of scientific research, it means that issues of relevance to women are often similarly underrepresented.

Researcher in labTo find out if a similar pattern is being played out in COVID-19 research, they utilised the research database PubMed for relevant studies that had been published since January 2020. They found 1,445 papers on COVID-19, of which 1,370 with a total of 6,722 authors were suitable for inclusion.

After excluding those papers in which the gender of the authors was unclear (group authorship or initials only), 1,235 papers were included for first authorship and 1,216 for last authorship analysis. These indicate senior/lead author status.

In all, the researchers found that women made up a third of all the authors (34 percent) on the included COVID-19 research papers, irrespective of seniority. However, when first or last authorship was analysed, these proportions were even lower: 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

…lockdown measures may have further widened existing inequalities by restricting women’s capacity to commit to research”

“Our findings on the major gender gap in research authorship on COVID-19 and in the most senior positions in particular, mirrors the underrepresentation of women in other areas of science research; a trend that has persisted for years,” said Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes of The George Institute, who led the analysis.

The percentage of female first authors was higher in high profile journals (impact factor above 7) compared with those journals with lower profile (impact factor below 2). Despite this, there was no difference in the percentage of female last authors, nor was there any difference in the percentage of women authors by article type.

The researchers also report they found there were regional and geographical differences in the number of women authors around the world; the lowest percentage of women authors were from Africa and the highest were from Oceania.

Reason for the imbalance

“This shows that raising awareness on gender inequalities in research in general and in authorship of papers in particular, has not led to substantial improvements,” the authors suggest. “It is possible that the current restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed further to this decline.”

According to the authors, various factors may be fuelling the gender imbalance in COVID-19 research. These include:

  1. The research agenda may be shaped by those in leadership positions, who more often than not are men
  2. COVID-19 is a high-profile topic for which men might want/need recognition
  3. Caring, parenting and home-schooling responsibilities during the pandemic – roles that are still predominantly taken on by women – may have left them with too little time to commit to research
  4. COVID-19 research papers are just as likely to be subject to gender bias in peer review as those in other areas of science
  5. Many early COVID-19 publications were commissioned articles, which, in general, are more likely to be written by men.

The need for more female-led research

Scientist accessing Protein PortalThe researchers say that this underrepresentation of women is likely to be synonymous with an underrepresentation of research pertaining to gendered issues around the novel coronavirus and to the availability and interrogation of sex-disaggregated data. As such, the team say insights into COVID-19 may only tell an incomplete picture of the sex and gender impacts of the pandemic.

They summarise that there is a “pressing need” to narrow these gender inequalities because of how it might affect global understanding of COVID-19 and the ability to respond to it quickly and effectively.

“This is especially true as evidence continues to accrue regarding sex and gender differences in mortality rates and in the long term economic and societal impacts of COVID-19, making a balanced gender perspective ever more important,” they write.

Encouraging equality

“Gender equality and inclusiveness in COVID-19 research are key to succeed in the global fight against the pandemic. The disproportionate contribution of women to COVID-19 research reflects a broader gender bias in science that should be addressed for the benefit of men and women alike,” the researchers say.

…there is a “pressing need” to narrow these gender inequalities”

According to the authors, one possible solution to overcome the persistently low representation of women in authorship of scientific papers, including those on COVID-19, would be to allow voluntary disclosure of gender as part of the submission of papers to scientific journals. This would enable editorial teams to monitor gender inequalities in authorship and would encourage research teams to foster equality in authorship for the benefit of women and men alike.