Like many women during the pandemic, Alisa Stephens found working from home to be a series of wearying challenges.
Dr. Stephens is a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and the technical and detail-oriented nature of her work requires long uninterrupted stretches of thought. Finding the time and mental space for that work with two young children at home proved to be an impossibility.
“That first month was really hard,” she recalled of the lockdown. Her infant daughter’s day care was closed, and her 5-year-old was at home instead of at school. With their nanny unable to come to the house, Dr. Stephens tended to her children all day and worked late into the evening. In the fall, when her daughter was set to begin kindergarten, the schools did not reopen.
Things eased once the family could safely bring in a nanny, but there was still little time for the deep thought Dr. Stephens had relied on each morning for her work. Over time, she has adjusted her expectations of herself.
studies have found that women have published fewer papers, led fewer clinical trials and received less recognition for their expertise during the pandemic.
Add to that the emotional upheaval and stress of the pandemic, the protests over structural racism, worry about children’s mental health and education, and the lack of time to think or work, and an already unsustainable situation becomes unbearable.
“The confluence of all of these factors creates this perfect storm. People are at their breaking point,” said Michelle Cardel, an obesity researcher at the University of Florida. “My big fear is that we are going to have a secondary epidemic of loss, particularly of early career women in STEM.”
Female scientists were struggling even before the pandemic. It was not unusual for them to hear that women were not as smart as men, or that a woman who was successful must have received a handout along the way, said Daniela Witten, a biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle. Some things are changing, she said, but only with great effort, and at a glacial pace.
steep for mothers. Even during maternity leave, they are expected to keep up with lab work, teaching requirements, publications and mentoring of graduate students. When they return to work, most do not have affordable child care.
Women in academia often have little recourse when confronted with discrimination. Their institutions sometimes lack the human resources structures common in the business world.