COVID-19 will set female leaders in STEM back for years 

The scene is becoming far too familiar for so many of us.  Hours and days in meetings, struggling to stay relevant in this new virtual workplace. Earphones anchored in, skillfully planning the “unmute” to avoid transmitting the sounds of screaming children. Simultaneously, trying to make meals and do dishes while having an iPad shoved in your face to help with “new school” math homework. Toddlers tugging at shirt sleeves, begging for hugs, love, and attention. Meanwhile, self-nourishment and self-hygiene take a backseat, further perpetuating despair and the wish to return to the well-groomed person you once were. By the end of the day, when it’s time to catch up on work, it seems impossible, completely brain dead from decision fatigue and being pulled in multiple directions. Now more than ever, time seems to be constantly in a negative supply, offering no reprieve to the black hole that is “working from home.”

It is becoming clear that the pandemic and it’s after-effects have stretched women to the limits of our multi-tasking abilities. For women in STEM fields who are already trying to find their footing in male-dominated fields – it is arguable that the pandemic has put them back not just months, but even years in their attempts to rise the ranks.  As it is, women in these fields are battling discrimination with every step on their way to the top. Up to 50% of women in STEM jobs say that they have experienced some form of gender-related discrimination in the workplace. Now thanks to an uncontrollable pandemic, they are finding themselves contending with colleagues and co-workers who may have fewer responsibilities outside of work. These competitors, irrespective of gender, can dedicate themselves to the job and be wholly present, and then have the opportunity to display themselves as a “more” valuable player in this time of crisis. Meanwhile, women overburdened with domestic responsibilities are looking the other way, just trying to make sure their house doesn’t burn to the ground. Simply put, the pandemic has stripped female leaders in STEM environments the benefit of visibility and accessibility that seem imperative for furthering advancement.

School is not over for all the children, so some parents are still homeschooling today. Even for those fortunate enough to have a nanny or babysitter, these caregivers are not trained home school teachers, and frankly may not want or be capable of assuming that role. As a result, even parents who have help at home are finding themselves assisting in homework in between (or during) management of their own workload. There isn’t much of a choice in this since, as a parent, the security and future of your children and their education naturally takes precedent. Yet competing with maternal instinct is the stark reality that the economic crisis and layoffs resultant from the pandemic have made proving one’s worth at work more imperative than ever. All of this together leaves them overwhelmed, feeling desperate and basking in imposter syndromes, seeking validation that they are actually performing adequately in the midst of all this multi-tasking.

For women leaders in medicine, the burden is furthered by exhausting days spent clinically, putting on and taking off extensive PPE, worrying about the transmission of a viral demon to family members at home. In the field of medicine, women are woefully behind. The reality is that the majority of health care workers and consumers are women, yet women are in the minority of leadership teams in health care, particularly at the academic leadership, C-suite, and CEO levels.

Workplaces will need to recognize and be part of the solution — and soon. As women in STEM are already struggling to catch up to their male colleagues, further marginalization would be devastating. The lack of emergency child care options left many desperate at home,  doing the best they can, giving up parts of themselves just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, competitors are seen as able and willing to “pick up the slack,” will be able to utilize their roles during the pandemic and emerge as invaluable, thereby ensuring their promotion.

Mothers in STEM will be left to fight each other for what is left and have to work even harder to prove themselves in an already desperate situation. That is, until they finally burn out and give up on trying.

Meeta Shah and Dayle Davenport are emergency physicians.

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