The National Academies report shows an urgent need for leadership and action to help academic women in STEMM post-COVID. The report poses 31 questions for future research, aiming to raise awareness and propel changes, including institutional child care, tenure accommodations, and sensitivity to female academics hit hardest by the pandemic.

examining the impacts of covid 19 on the engineering pipeline ceonsensus study report cover

A new report detailing the unique ways that women in academic careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic is only a starting point, its authors say.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

The report, issued March 9 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021), covers women’s challenges in academia such as lack of child care support; leadership and decision-making concerns; pressure on tenure clocks; mental-health strains; how to ease the burden of 24/7 work and household responsibilities; the need for collaboration, mentorship, and sponsorship post-COVID; and the role of networks and professional organizations in helping advance women’s careers. The 224-page consensus report is titled “Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”

The chair of the report committee said the document, which outlines 31 issues that academia needs to address without delay, provides the fuel needed to see action.

“We’re in a moment where we have momentum,” said Eve J. Higginbotham, M.D., chair of the report committee and vice dean for the Penn Medicine Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Higginbotham, also a senior fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and professor of ophthalmology at the university, pointed out that “only time will tell whether it will be sustained.”

She and the other report authors say they are hopeful that a confluence of circumstances will pressure academic leaders to get serious about the COVID-19 pandemic’s arduous challenges to women’s equity issues — and to feel financial and other consequences if they don’t.

That confluence — this moment — includes a like-minded Biden administration and congressional majorities, and a cultural awakening that has resulted in immediate repercussions for leaders tone-deaf to #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and other social-justice outcries for policy changes that reverse structural injustices. Further, news, television, and social media headlines detail a “she-session,” with the latest data showing U.S. Black and Latina women’s unemployment at 9.1% and 8.6%, respectively, compared with 5.2% for white women — larger gaps than before the pandemic.

What would a real change in academia look like? One possibility: a federal agency instituting a requirement that a college or university provide on-campus child care to obtain a grant.

“That’s how you change,” Dr. Higginbotham said in a phone interview. “You have to pick the right leaders, and it has to be enforced from the outside [of the higher-education institution].”

Another possibility might be an organization such as SEA Change rewarding best practices in women’s academic equity issues. SEA Change is the STEMM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change initiative from the American Association for the Advancement of Science aimed at helping research and higher-education institutions address racial and gender inequality.

“We will have to test whether an incentive process would be effective, whether it actually works,” Dr. Higginbotham said.

Membership societies can play a positive role, too, by continuing to give women opportunities to present their work, take on leadership opportunities, and serve on professional committees, she said.

Dr. Higginbotham is hopeful that change will happen because more urgency awaits.

Beyond the immediate issues, Dr. Higginbotham wrote in the report’s prelude: “Added to the backdrop of this theater of disruption (the U.S. presidential race, COVID-19 deaths, and a shift by institutions and organizations to address structural racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by a white police officer while being arrested), there have been record-breaking fires on the West Coast and hurricanes and tornadoes elsewhere.”

“This is not going to be the last pandemic, given the environmental and other challenges we face,” Dr. Higginbotham said.

Among the questions that higher education must address, the report said, are:

    • How might insights gained about work/life boundaries during the COVID-19 pandemic inform how institutions develop and implement supportive resources, such as reductions in workload, on-site child care, and flexible working options?
    • How effective were colleges and universities that prioritized equity-minded leadership, shared leadership, and crisis leadership styles at mitigating emerging and potentially negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in their communities?
    • How can examples of intentional inclusion of women in decision-making processes during the COVID-19 pandemic be leveraged to develop the engagement of women as leaders at all levels of academic institutions?
    • How can institutions maximize the benefits of digitization and the increased use of technology observed during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue supporting women, especially marginalized women, by increasing accessibility, collaborations, mentorship, and learning?
    • What specific aspects of different leadership models translated to more effective strategies to advance women in STEMM, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?
    • How might insights gained about mental health during COVID-19 be used to inform preparedness for future disruptions?
    • What policies, practices, or programs can be developed to help women in STEMM maintain a sense of support, structure, and stability during and after periods of disruption?

“Increasing awareness is a basic starting point for all of this,” Dr. Higginbotham said. “This report provides the lens of the pandemic. One can hypothesize that, in another three to four years, the 31 questions that we teed up will form the basis of a future report on how [higher education policies have] evolved and the impact.”


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.