Friday 11th February 2022 marked the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science, launched in 2015 by the United Nations to recognise the critical role women and girls play in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to promote efforts to achieve gender equality in science.
In recent years the global scientific community have made great strides in improving access to science for women and girls. More women than ever are starting careers in science; in 2000, 33% of researchers starting their research publishing career were women, growing to around 40% in recent years. From British vaccinologist Dame Sarah Gilbert to American infectious disease epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, strong and inspiring women across the globe have often been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to play a critical role in unravelling the complexities of the virus to better understand how we respond to it.
Yet research published on female academic researchers in STEM suggest that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their careers and work-life balance.
As part of our commitment to the genomics community and promoting inclusion and diversity, we ran a membership survey to gain more insight into how COVID-19 has impacted the career progression and work-life balance of over 600 COG-UK members, with a view of identifying areas of focus on making real-world improvements.
Of our 92 respondents (52% female, 48% male), 61% of women said that COVID-19 had impacted their career positively over the last two years. Some expressed that an increased need for sequencing and bioinformatics for infection control led to greater investment in staff, and in many cases, funding. In addition, others noted that the pandemic opened doors, allowing research scientists to work on projects that they may not have previously considered, including collaborating with a range of different organisations, resulting in building valuable relationships and developing new skills.
In addition, 44% female respondents answered that they are somewhat satisfied / very satisfied with their current work-life balance compared to pre-pandemic. For some, the pandemic has made senior colleagues more flexible and sympathetic towards hybrid working, which has increased productivity.
For those not working directly on the COVID-19 response, the responses were less positive. With efforts focused mainly on the pandemic, there have been delays to research plans. Others have noted that there have been limited opportunities to work in areas other than respiratory viruses, as much funding has been directed to COVID-19 research. In addition, there have been disruptions to clinical trials, exacerbated by hesitancy from patients to be recruited.
The demand for genomics, and increased pressure on those working in the field, has also taken its toll. 29% of female respondents reported working overtime daily. Burnout amongst staff was regularly cited as a challenge in the research environment, particularly in relation to maintaining a work-life balance.
When asked what can be done to achieve a better work-life balance, many COG-UK members believe that employers have a responsibility to provide better support systems for staff and to lead by example. Maintaining realistic demands and deadlines, increased access to wellbeing services for staff, increased flexibility of working hours were also cited as solutions to consider, as well as senior staff encouraging colleagues to take annual leave and pursue personal interests outside of work.
To keep the genomics field attractive and accessible for diverse talent, more effort needs to be made in supporting women achieve their ideal work-life balance and career progression a reality. Although this might look different for everyone, enabling flexibility is one step in the right direction to help promote equity, diversity and inclusion across all levels in the field.