Women’s Work


For a brief moment, stay-at-home orders in response to Covid-19 offered a chance to be more productive. Working from home meant no more commutes, no office politics, and no interrupting colleagues.

But the hope that being at home would decrease distractions and increase work productivity was short-lived. This has been especially true for women. Longstanding gender roles still burden women with an unequal share of household chores and parenting duties. One study found that women spend nearly twice the time doing household chores than men. Gender roles are similarly asymmetric in academia, where women generally perform more administrative and clinical work than men in these settings. The sum of these disparities contributes to lower rates of authorship among women.

Michelle Bell and team measured gender disparities in publishing productivity among public health researchers during the Covid-19 pandemic. They catalogued every manuscript submission to the American Journal of Public Health from January 1 to May 12 of 2020 and determined the gender of all first and corresponding authors.

Marking the start of the pandemic as March 13, 2020 (the day the US federal government declared a state of emergency), the research team found increased productivity among public health researchers. The above graph illustrates rates of authorship by gender for every week in the study period, blue denoting submissions by men and orange by women. The lighter shades denote gender-neutral names.

Compared to the pre-pandemic period, 25% more manuscripts were submitted per day. But men’s productivity increased 42% compared to 11% for women. In the pre-pandemic period, 54% of corresponding authors were women, during the pandemic that number dropped to 29%.

In March, few of us anticipated what 2020 had in store. The early appeal of #productivityculture masked disparities in household labor. By the end of the year, women in all industries crashed out of the workforce at alarming rates. These study findings remind us that protecting the gains in productivity women have seen in recent years happens at work and at home. As long as our current gender roles levy more domestic work on women, their productivity is at risk.

Databyte via Bell ML, Fong KC. Gender Differences in First and Corresponding Authorship in Public Health Research Submissions During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Journal of Public Health 2020;111(1):159-163.