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Women under-represented in Covid-19 research papers

Friday June 12th 2020

Only one third of Covid-19 published research authors are women – and few of these are senior authors, according to new analysis published today.

Analysis in the latest edition of BMJ Global Health suggests that lockdown measures could have resulted in further widened existing inequalities in research because demands from home-schooling, parenting and other caring duties have resulted in restricted capacity for women to undertake research.

The researchers say because women are already under-represented in other areas of scientific research they trawled the PubMed research database for relevant Covid-19 studies published since January 2020.

They found 1,445 papers on Covid-19, of which 1,370 were suitable for inclusion these had 6,722 authors. After excluding papers in which the gender of the authors was unclear, 1,235 were included for first authorship, and 1,216 for last authorship analysis.

They found that women made up 34% of all the authors on the included Covid-19 research papers, irrespective of seniority. When first or last authorship was examined, proportions dropped to 29% and 26% respectively.

The percentage of female first authors was higher in high profile journals, with an impact factor above seven, compared with those journals with lower profile or an impact level below two, but there was no difference in the percentage of female last authors.

However, the authors found regional differences, with the lowest percentage of women authors being from Africa and the highest from Oceania.

They write: “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. It is possible that the current restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed further to this decline.”

The authors suggest possible reasons why there is a gender imbalance in Covid-19 research. These include: the research agenda is being shaped by those in leadership positions, who are usually men; Covid-19 is a high-profile topic for which men might want or need all the recognition; caring, parenting, and home-schooling responsibilities during the pandemic could have left women with too little time to commit to research; and many early Covid-19 publications were commissioned articles, which are more likely to be written by men.

They say there is a “pressing need” to narrow the 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.

“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.”

Where are the women? Gender inequalities in COVID-19 research authorship. BMJ Global health 12 June 2020; doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002922

Tags: Flu & Viruses | Women's Health & Gynaecology | World Health

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