Exploring inequities that affect academic output and career trajectories in the aftermath of COVID-19

As part of the OECD Global Science Forum project on reducing the precarity of research careers, an academic employer told us “Whenever I recruit a candidate, I ignore the gender, I recruit the best”. This sentiment encapsulates the belief that a pure meritocracy exists in academia. The reality, however, is that determinations of who’s “best” are usually based on academic output – a metric that dismisses the barriers faced by underrepresented groups.

Academia underwent a sudden shift with the outbreak of COVID-19, as researchers transitioned to online teaching and remote work, and evidence soon showed that the pandemic did not affect all academics equally. Those with fixed-terms contracts found themselves facing “next-level precarity’’ with hiring freezes, which implied a heightened risk to their jobs and, in some cases, their health insurance. Female authorship declined in STEM fields, medical sciences, and economics, andwomen with children reported a large decrease in time spent on research activities.

Although these trends are alarming, they are not surprising. Such disparities point to a larger, more complex story about pre-existing inequities in academia. Indeed, COVID-19 highlights the differentials that potentially disadvantage the career trajectories of certain academics:  women (especially those with children), ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQ+ identifying people, those with visible and invisible disabilities, and scientists with limited financial resources who depend on temporary income or visas for their work, to name a few.

To illustrate this disadvantage, we examine a fundamental academic metric: research publications. In evaluations for academic promotions, candidates with high-calibre research publications typically have an advantage. However, from the development of research programmes and grant applications to publications, certain groups receive less support and mentoring, and face additional barriers to producing quality publications. This accumulation of small disparities may in turn set a foundation for different academic trajectories, leading to limited opportunities for academic career advancement. Below are some key areas in which this divergence unfolds.

1. Bias in grant application evaluations and research funding

To determine which projects are funded, grant proposals go through an expert review process. Although junior researchers benefit from faculty mentorship on grant writing, those from underrepresented groups typically receive less mentoring than their peers. In addition, studies confirm the existence of bias, suggesting that factors unrelated to application quality may influence the funding decision. Although the gap differs across fields and depends on the funding agencies, analyses of grant applications submitted over several years to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, National Institutes of Health (NIH), European Research Council and  Swiss National Science Foundation reveal that female applicants receive lower scores and have lower success rates than male applicants. Asian and to a greater extent Black applicants – and especially Asian and Black women – are significantly less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with their white colleagues.

2. Time spent on research vs. time devoted to service

Certain academics are more likely to be expected to undertake service activities (e.g., serving in committees, admission, etc.). These activities, also known as “institutional housekeeping”, increase academics’ workload at the expense of their research time and have little value for academic promotion, as they are not captured by metric systems. Women academics typically spend more time on service activities, and faculty of colour (especially women) are expected to serve on committees that promote diversity and to mentor students of colour more than their colleagues are. How time is valued is particularly salient for those with disabilities, as they may require and benefit from flexible timing to complete scholarly work. This raises the need to re-envision time and subsequently productivity.

3. Opportunities to share research and exchange with colleagues

Opportunities to share research and exchange with colleagues are essential for career progression. Yet, in many research fields, panels and conferences are dominated by cisgender men speakers, even on topics such as women’s health issues. Women academics are less likely to be accepted as conference presenters and are underrepresented as invited speakers. Stereotyping also undermines Black academics whose legitimacy as scholars is questioned when presenting at conferences. When conferences are held in locations where laws discriminate against people of specific genders or sexual orientations, the safety of LGBTQ+ researchers is compromised. Those with disabilities, chronic illness or neurodiversity may be unable to access conferences, and academics who do not have grants that cover their operating costs may not be able to afford conferences. At the same time, white male academics are more likely to profit from larger professional networks, which create more opportunities for co-authorship, funding, and information sharing compared to their female or non-white colleagues.

4. The mobility divide

International mobility is key to academic excellence, though it is not available to all academics. Factors such as gender, social class, family structure, and visa status can influence mobility, as can the interaction of these factors (e.g. gender and having children). For academics with disabilities that require accommodation, any job opportunity would require their employer to provide adequate organisational support, which represents an additional barrier.

5. Evaluation bias and publication acceptance rates

A blind scientific peer-review process is the hallmark of editorial evaluation of manuscript quality, yet inherent to this process are multiple threats to objectivity  that reduce acceptance rates for some. Men and authors affiliated with Europe and North America are overrepresented on editorial boards, and journals invite women less frequently to referee papers and submit publications. Female-authored manuscripts are held to higher standards, are under review for longer, and are cited less often. The lack of disaggregated data on journal submission, acceptance and rejection rates limit our knowledge of potential evaluation biases that other groups face.

Inclusive and equitable academic communities drive innovation and scientific excellence

In light of these disparities, it is clear that all research-oriented academics do not have equal access to publishing. Given that academia privileges productive practices, this inequity confirms the continuing dominance of established hierarchies, resulting in a homogeneous group of academics with permanent posts. Others, meanwhile, are left to struggle with precarity, and may eventually give up and leave.  

Diversifying the academy broadens scientific viewpoints, mobilises underutilised talent, and yields novel explorations of constructs that may have been otherwise ignored. This diversity is what drives innovation and enhances scientific progress. Amid the current crisis, we are at risk of populating the academy with even more advantaged researchers, rather than those whose perspectives would enrich it. Emerging research therefore relative to COVID-19 serves as a cautionary tale: if we do not attend to the systemic forces that define our work spaces, we lose out on opportunities to ensure equitable contributions from diverse perspectives. And without diverse voices, we will lose out on better science and the academy will fail at its core mission.

Written by Neda Bebiroglu, PhD. is a scientific advisor at the Observatory of Research and Scientific Careers, F.R.S.-FNRS in Belgium; Kate E. Golden, MA is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University in the School of Social Work, and Ellen E. Pinderhughes, PhD. is Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, Tufts University, Medford MA., USA.

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