COVID-19 pandemic widened the gender gap in astronomy publishing

three women wearing masks working at chalkboard
New research indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened astronomy's gender gap. (Image credit: Niel Freese, UC Berkeley)

The gender imbalance that has existed for years in astronomy research and publishing worsened when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down labs and sent scientists home.

Prior to the pandemic, female astronomers were on average publishing 9 papers for every 10 papers published by their male counterparts, a rate that had remained unchanged for decades. Following March 2020's closure of many universities and research facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the publication of astronomy papers has increased by 13%, according to a new analysis. The number of papers authored by male astronomers increased more, however, thus widening the gender gap in astronomy publishing. 

Those were the findings of cosmologists Vanessa Böhm of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jia Liu of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) in Japan who examined the effects of the pandemic on the astronomy community worldwide, with a special focus on early-career and female scientists.

Related: 20 trailblazing women in astronomy and astrophysics

The two scientists analyzed international astronomy publication rates prior to the pandemic until February 2022, two years into the COVID-19 crisis. Out of the 25 countries studied, 14 showed women publishing a smaller fraction of astronomy papers and fewer female researchers entering the field. (Because the research analyzed publications instead of surveying scientists directly, the findings reflect perceived gender and gender as a binary, rather than self-identified gender as a spectrum.)

The researchers partially attributed the 13% increase in astronomy papers overall to the shutdown allowing researchers to turn their attention to previously deferred projects and to devote more time to writing papers. 

But this increase in publication rates was smaller among female authors than male — even in countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Switzerland, where female astronomers had been more prolific than men prior to COVID-19. 

"I think the interesting part was that we saw that this increase in productivity was not equally shared by women," Böhm said in a statement.

The widened gap between men's and women's productivity found by Liu and Böhm echoes the findings of other studies that show women regressed in terms of workplace equity, during the pandemic.

In their country-based analysis, the researchers noted a strong increase in publications by new researchers in Asia, primarily Japan, Taiwan and China. In other countries, fewer new astronomy researchers were first published during the pandemic. (The duo found that around a quarter of new authors in astronomy are women, a percentage that has been consistent for the previous decade, they said.) 

Considering only papers by seasoned astronomers, the duo discovered that the number of publications per researcher had increased in comparison to the trend observed prior to the pandemic.

"A decrease in the number of first-time authors indicates barriers for young researchers to enter the field or complete their first projects," Böhm said.

Why were female astronomers disproportionally hit by the pandemic? 

The new research doesn't investigate what has caused the gender disparity to widen, but other research has suggested that women have been disproportionately responsible for child and elder care during the pandemic. For academics, this discrepancy has meant less time for female scientists to write up research results compared to men. 

Liu herself was one of the female researchers affected by the sudden loss of child care when the pandemic began. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics, she found herself with a toddler at home while searching for an academic job. Ultimately, she and her husband had to move away from Berkeley in order to find affordable child care. Liu joined Kavli IPMU in Tokyo as a project associate professor in 2021.

"As a new mother and an early career scientist, my life has been heavily affected by the pandemic — lost child care, dropped productivity, disconnection from my colleagues and a tough job market," Liu said in the statement. "While rebuilding my research and life routines, I couldn't stop wondering, 'How are others in my field affected by the pandemic? Am I alone?'"

Liu's co-author Böhm said that an additional factor behind the gender disparity could be that young female astrophysics researchers battling "imposter syndrome" — the misperception that they may not be up to par with colleagues — received less mentoring during the pandemic.

"There are a lot of confidence barriers for young women in the field that are holding them back," she said in the statement.

The pair decided to embark on a research project to examine publishing rates in astronomy by gender and country over time, something that had not been comprehensively attempted previously. 

Böhm and Liu looked at publishing data from February 1950 up until February this year downloading 1.2 million records from astronomy journals. Because self-identified gender is not included in these records, the duo assigned a gender probability to each author based on their name and country, with the latter based on the affiliation listed on the paper.

"When we counted the average number of papers each researcher produced, we saw boosted individual productivity across most countries," Liu said. "Meanwhile, a decreasing number of incoming new researchers is seen in most of the countries we studied."

Liu added that the analysis indicates larger barriers for new researchers to enter the field, and for junior researchers attempting to publish their very first paper during the pandemic. 

The scientists also checked the other end of the career spectrum. Looking at researchers who had not published research in astronomy over the past two years, Liu and Böhm also found that there was an 87% probability they will not publish in the field again, with dropout rates also disproportionately impacting women. 

Böhm herself will become one of those dropouts, since she has decided that she will apply her data analysis skills outside of academia when her postdoctoral fellowship ends. She now intends to help a start-up that uses predictions from machine learning to help the shipping industry reduce oceanic fuel waste.

"This paper was part of an interest shift that I've had — to go to use the skills that I've learned in the last couple of years on more earthbound topics," she said. "I'm a little bit more driven these days by what's actually going to make a change here on Earth."

The team's research is published Monday (Nov. 28) in the journal Nature Astronomy

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.