Is COVID-19 turning back the clock on gender equality in academia?

Almost overnight, COVID-19 turned me into an elementary school teacher, a housekeeper, a hair dresser, and a professional worrier — all things I am terrible at, with the exception of the latter. My full-time job as an academic economist has become an afterthought: I now jot down research ideas between snack time and tantrums, read and write papers while I guiltily plug my kid into yet another device, and conduct Zoom meetings that are sometimes crashed by unexpected visitors.

As a full-time working mom, I am not alone. Across the board, the disproportionate burden of the disruption created by COVID-19 is being borne by women, especially by those with young children and no other childcare options (see for example, here and here). The full effects of the pandemic on gender gaps in the labor market — my area of research focus — will take time to emerge. However, a quick look at the differential impacts on the productivity of male and female academics can give us a preview of the extent of the problem.

There are three reasons why academics are a particularly interesting and informative group to consider. First, professors and researchers are unlikely to have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, so it is possible to estimate productivity effects that are not confounded by changes in employment. Many can conduct research and teach classes from home, at least in theory. Second, one way to measure academic productivity is by the number of submissions to journals and working paper/pre-print series. Academic researchers are expected to conduct and publish research, in addition to teaching and service responsibilities. Finally, gender inequality among academics is important because the demographic composition of faculty shapes what is taught in the classroom, what research questions are asked, and how policy discussions are framed.

The world of social media is already abuzz with anecdotal evidence in support of the hypothesis that female academics have been more negatively impacted by the disruptions of COVID-19, while male academic productivity is on the rise (just search Twitter for #coronapublicationgap).

Against all odds, I partnered with two other female researchers, Tatyana Deryugina and Jenna Stearns, to quantify this widening gender gap in academic productivity.

In the short term, we are using existing data to compare publication patterns of men and women before and after COVID-19 via Academic Sequitur, a website founded by Tatyana Deryugina, that tracks new publications in more than 4,000 top-ranked journals and pre-publication series across many STEM fields, including economics — a discipline with some of the largest gender gaps in outcomes including entry into the profession, promotion rates, and salaries, even prior to COVID-19. Because of publication lags in academia, gender effects on final publications will not show up for some time. To assess the situation quickly, we started by analyzing key pre-print/working paper series in economics for the years 2018–2020: ArXiv Economics (1,537 papers), CEPR Discussion Papers (2,095 papers), CESifo Working Papers (1,196 papers), HCEO Working Papers (209 papers), IZA Discussion Papers (1,699 papers), and NBER Working Papers (3,029 papers). We also included the AEA Randomized Control Trial (RCT) Registry (1,959 projects registered) as an additional indicator of productivity. We used authors’ first names to proxy for their gender.

Here is what we found. The overall number of new working paper submissions looks pretty unremarkable overall (see graph below). The spike in the spring and summer of 2018 is driven by ArXiv Economics and, to a lesser extent, CESifo working papers, and the March 2020 spike is driven by IZA Discussion Papers, which hit a new record. So productivity overall appears to be holding stable.

Number of economics working papers over time
Number of economics working papers over time

However, after accounting for seasonality and general year-to-year changes, submissions by female authors fell by over 3 percentage points (pp) in March of 2020, and further fell by 5 pp in April. This might seem small, but considering that women represent only about 25 percent of authors in our sample, these numbers actually imply approximately a 12+ percent drop in March and a 20+ percent drop in April, relative to the mean. Because these working papers are likely to have been in the works for some time, the adverse productivity effects may be even larger in May.

The decline in female authorship over these past two months is particularly apparent in submissions to the NBER Working Paper Series (a 9 pp drop in March and a 38 pp drop in April), although we also see large drops in female authorship among CEPR Discussion Papers and HCEO Working Papers. Papers posted to these highly regarded series are often submitted to and published in top journals.

These results likely mask substantial heterogeneity. Importantly, not all women are equally constrained by the COVID-19 countermeasures. Some have access to additional childcare or have no dependents. These considerations mean that the overall detrimental effect on women we report is likely an underestimate for mothers. At the same time, some men are primary or co-equal caregivers to their children and face similar productivity challenges during the pandemic. But on average, male faculty are 4 times more likely to have a stay-at-home partner than female faculty (20 vs. 5 percent), and female faculty with children spend considerably more time engaging in caregiving activities compared to their male counterparts (35.5 vs. 20.3 hours per week). Furthermore, differences in impact could stem from one’s country of residence. Although researchers across the globe are subject to stay-at-home orders, cultural gender norms and differences in childcare and leave policies may affect the gender gap in productivity. To address these questions, we are currently designing a survey to produce more nuanced data on academics’ circumstances.

Our first pass at quantifying the effects of COVID-19 on gender gaps in academia leads to important policy implications. For example, many academic institutions are currently offering widespread tenure clock extensions due to COVID-19 available to both male and female faculty regardless of their circumstances. Jenna Stearns and her co-authors have shown that similarly broad parental leave policies can lead to unintended consequences, including an increase in the gender gap. Our preliminary estimates suggest that COVID-19 related policies need to be carefully designed to avoid exacerbating gender inequality.

You might ask, if female academics are becoming less productive, how did the three of us even manage to write this blog post? The secret is that Tatyana Deryugina has an au pair and her mother-in-law living with her, and Jenna Stearns does not have children. As for me, I have only one child who asked me yesterday “Mommy, is this a dream?” and proceeded to answer his own question: “I know it’s not a dream because I have TV.”

Associate Professor of Economics and Director of the Knapp Social Science Center at Wellesley College

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