Pandemics, Productivity, and Gender

After ten months of pandemic-related lockdowns, rescheduling, and cancellations, it’s almost becoming clichéd to say that “work as we know it may have changed forever”. But it’s true. The key word, though, is “may”. We don’t know if the way many of us are working now is going to be the way we’ll always work. We don’t know if employers and organizations are permanently changing the way that they’re going to organize or run their operations.

But one thing we do know is that the pandemic has had an unequal effect on workers’ productivity. Both women and men are working at home more, but when women around the world do more household work than men, working at home and caring for the home places even more responsibilities on women. Add to that the reality that many students, from kindergarten through university, are taking some or all of their classes online – in other words, at home – which means that women may also now have to help their children with schoolwork. Not surprisingly, this combination of factors may mean that women’s productivity at their jobs is being affected much more than that of their male counterparts.

A new study by six European researchers looked at whether there were gender-related differences in productivity in a specific type of work: namely, academic research. The study’s authors used article submissions to academic journals as their measure of workplace productivity. They collected data from three periods (February through May in 2018, 2019, and 2020) on articles that researchers submitted to 2,347 different academic journals produced by one publisher. The reason for collecting data from three separate years was that conducting research and writing articles takes time, so using data from a single year wouldn’t produce as accurate a picture of changes in researchers’ productivity across time.

The researchers also collected data on responses to journals’ requests for peer review. When an article is submitted to an academic journal, the journal editors send the article to other researchers that are familiar with the topic that the article addresses. The researchers provide reviews of the article, which the editors then take into account in deciding whether to publish the article. Writing a peer review isn’t research activity, but it’s something that most researchers do as “service to the field” – helping to ensure that published research is well-planned and well-explained, and makes a contribution to knowledge. Doing a peer review requires a time commitment by the reviewer, so productivity in that area could also be affected by changing work conditions.

Briefly, this is what the study found:

  • The number of articles submitted in 2020 was 58% higher than in 2019.
  • Across all three years, women were credited as authors on 31% of the submitted articles; men were credited as authors on 69% of the articles (this includes both single-author and multiple-author articles).
  • During 2020, female researchers in health & medicine, physical sciences & engineering, and social sciences & economics submitted significantly fewer articles than male researchers. The only academic discipline without a significant gender difference was life sciences.
  • During 2020, female researchers also submitted fewer articles about research related to COVID-19.
  • There was a decline between 2019 and 2020 in the number of accepted invitations to write a peer review, but women did not decline more invitations than men, except for requests from health & medicine journals.

These results are quite fascinating on a number of dimensions. Keeping in mind that lockdowns might mean that researchers don’t have access to their laboratories, or to other equipment or resources they might need to continue their research, the increase in the number of submitted articles in 2020 is somewhat unexpected. My guess is that researchers might have used their time during lockdowns to write articles they had been meaning to put together, using data that they already had on hand but which they previously hadn’t had time to analyze or write up.

Differences in the numbers of male and female authors have been found in other studies, so that result is not too surprising. It also appears that women’s current productivity is being affected more strongly than men’s, since women are writing and submitting fewer articles about a topic (COVID-19) that could only have been researched within the last 18 months, at most.

What is surprising, though, is that there is no significant gender difference in the declined invitations for peer review. If women are doing more work of all kinds at home then men are, it would seem that women would be less likely to agree to do voluntary activities like peer reviewing. However, since more peer review requests are being declined overall, it may be that both men and women are being more selective in the work they choose to do.

The authors note that there may also be variations in productivity by region, depending on what type of pandemic-related restrictions are in place. But they couldn’t obtain enough reliable and comparable data on regional conditions to test whether different types of lockdowns had different effects on productivity.

Nevertheless, the authors of the study make another very important point about their findings.  Even if productivity declines are temporary, they may have long-term implications for researchers’ careers. “Given the importance of publications and citations for academic career and prestige in the current hyper-competitive academic environment, these gender disparities could have important short- and long-term effects, which need to be considered by academic institutions and funders” (p. 8).

The authors suggest, for example, that future assessments of researchers’ output should be multi-dimensional, not just focused on observable and easily-countable measures that could be affected by factors outside the researcher’s control. They also propose that researchers be allowed to provide “COVID-19 impact statements” with job or funding applications, to explain how their productivity was affected by pandemic-related conditions.

Recently, a lawyer who writes a newspaper column on workplace law suggested – without any factual evidence – that employees working at home are more likely to commit “time theft”. Offensive as that suggestion is, it does point to the same reality that this study addresses. Workplaces and employers have assumptions about how productive employees should be, and those assumptions may be excessive or unrealistic when many employees are working in different and challenging conditions. And the multiple responsibilities that women manage, at home and at work, may be having a stronger negative impact on their productivity. Work as we know it may be changing forever, but employers’ expectations and assumptions have to change as well.

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