Could the pandemic prompt a huge loss of women in the sciences?

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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.

Women in academia often have little recourse when confronted with discrimination. Their institutions sometimes lack the human resources structures common in the business world.

Compounding the frustration are outdated notions about how to help women in science. But social media has allowed women to share some of those concerns and find allies to organize and call out injustice when they see it, said Jessica Hamerman, an immunologist at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle.

In November, for example, a study on female scientists was published in the influential journal Nature Communications suggesting that having female mentors would hinder the career of young scientists and recommending that young women seek out male help.

The response was intense and unforgiving: Nearly 7,600 scientists signed a petition calling on the journal to retract the paper — which it did on Dec. 21.

The study arrived at a time when many female scientists were already worried about the pandemic’s effect on their careers, and already on edge and angry with a system that offered them little support.

Alisa Stephens found working from home to be a series of wearying challenges. Dr. Stephens is a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and carving out the time and mental space for that work with two young children at home was impossible.

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. “Maybe I’m at 80 percent as opposed to 100 percent,” she said, “but I can get things done at 80 percent to some extent.”



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